As the Sahara Desert steadily creeps into arable land, African policymakers and activists are pursuing a bold solution that could benefit the local economy and ecology. The idea involves the forestation of the Sahel, a transitional biome between the Sahara and the savanna, to create a Great Green Wall that would stretch over 11 countries, from Senegal and Mauritania to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Although its primary function is to protect against desertification, the Green Wall would have other important benefits. “The Great Green Wall is about development; it’s about sustainable, climate-smart development, at all levels,” says Elvis Paul Tangam, the African Union Commissioner for the Sahara and Sahel Great Green Wall Initiative.
Approximately 40 percent of African land is at risk of desertification. The UN estimates that up to two-thirds of arable land could be ruined by 2025 if trends continue. Such drastic loss of arable land in a continent poised to double in population by 2050 would be disastrous. The African continent continues to struggle with the impact of climate change while East Africa suffers the worst drought in decades. The Great Green Wall strengthens ties between nations, which facilitates united action against climate change.
Although the Great Green Wall is still in its early stages, there are signs of momentum across its prospective range. About 15 percent of the Wall has been planted, with particular success in Senegal. “Senegal has reclaimed more than four million hectares of land along the Great Green Wall,” Tangam says. “They have planted more than 27,000 hectares of indigenous trees that don’t need watering. Many animals that had disappeared from those regions are reappearing — animals like antelopes, hares and birds that for the past 50 years nobody saw.”
The Wall defends arable land and livelihoods while attacking the scourge of poverty and extremism. “Many young people who probably would have been joining the Boko Haram are now part of the firefighting brigades or part of the Great Green Wall brigade,” Tangam says. “They are in their communities because they have a source of income and they are putting value to their lives.” The project has attracted funding from the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international powers yet it is the work being done by Africans for Africans that will have a lasting impact. “Each of those countries developed national action plans,” says Tangam. “That is the biggest achievement, because now they own it. It’s about ownership, and that has been the failure of development aid, because people were never identified with it. But this time they identify. This is our thing.”