Major project will see a continent-spanning wall of vegetation planted.

Green wall

The Great Green Wall project aims to plant a swathe of drought-resistant income-producing vegetation from one side of Africa to the other. It will also “support local communities in the sustainable management and use of their forests, rangelands and other natural resources, and  improve the food security and livelihood of the people, while contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation,” says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In Mali there is hope that the project might even help defeat terrorism.

The second summit of the Great Green Wall, basically a plan to fight desertification by planting a wall of trees well over 4,000 miles long and nine miles deep, stretching from Senegal to Djibouti, has just finished in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.  Leaders from many of the African countries involved met to discuss how to coordinate and carry forward their plans.

Since 2011, when planting began after financial support had been secured from the African Union, European Union, World Bank, FAO and other international investors, nearly 12 million trees have been planted in Senegal alone. They are mostly acacias, which are hardy and can survive droughts. Their bark provides gum arabic, which is a source of income for local people as it is used as an additive in many things including pharmaceuticals and fizzy drinks.  The World Food Programme said in a report in April that the wall had started to bear fruit for families in Senegal.

President Al Bashir of Sudan was one of those attending the N’Djamena summit. Sudanese online journal, SudanSafari said that as a sign of its commitment, Sudan had settled its financial contributions. The country saw the wall not only as a way of combating desertification but also something that could be used to fight poverty, but for that to happen, technical and financial support as well as concerted political will from the concerned African leaders are needed, the paper said.

The Great Green Wall was originally intended to pass through 11 countries, but has now grown in scale and ambition and will involve many other nations including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, the Gambia and Tunisia.

Desertification in Africa’s Sahel region may be driving a range of problems including terrorism, says BBC News online asking whether the Great Green Wall could help. The war in northern Mali has drawn new international attention to this aspect. Poverty provides a breeding ground for extremism, says Kouloutan Coulibaly, Mali’s Director of Forestry. The BBC cites the French military’s description of this region south of the Sahara Desert as “planet Mars” characterised by extreme heat, drought and food shortages.

“Desertification is about poor land management which turns the land into desert,” says Michele Bozzano, a research support officer for Biodiversity International. The problems in the Sahel belt are mainly overgrazing and deforestation. To have a chance of working, plants and trees planted in the area of the Great Green Wall will have to be more valuable standing than if felled.  A report published in May by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), claims that 850 million people worldwide are affected by desertification.

Critics question whether this ambitious land restoration project can succeed in an area that is set to become even drier.  Detractors also claim there are ownership and management issues. FAO disputes accusations of top-down management and claims consultations with local communities are integral to the project.

Everyone involved in the Great Green Wall agrees that the end goal is to help rural communities. But opinions vary on how the project will best manage to do that. Some African leaders envision the Great Green Wall as a literal wall of trees to keep back the desert. But scientists and development agencies see it more as a metaphorical ‘wall,’ a mosaic of different projects to alleviate poverty and improve degraded lands.

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