About 60% of the African continent is considered drylands. For people residing in these areas, that often comes with the effects of desertification, land degradation, drought, and climate change. So when politicians in 2005 made the ambitious plan to build a wall of trees across the Sahel, it was embraced — if not fully understood. By 2007, the African Union endorsed the plan to build a “wall” of vegetation over 7000 kilometers along the Sahel, at about 15 kilometers wide.
“The idea of planting a lot of trees was a political solution,” said Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the Great Green Wall Initiative at the African Union Commission. “Heads of state said, ‘Let us plant trees to stop the advancement of the desert. Let us plant trees to stop these droughts and dust storms. Let us plant trees.’ So the whole idea of planting trees was a metaphor for a multitude of actions to ensure that these lands can be restored to keep people in their communities.”
What the Great Green Wall intended to be, and what it ultimately became, was a more practical pan-African initiative to reverse these devastating natural trends by addressing land degradation and poverty in tandem. As it turns out, improving communities’ living conditions and investing in their resilience to climate change are the keys to keeping those millions of trees thriving. Today, this mosaic, multidimensional approach tackles everything from natural resource management and livestock breeding to infrastructure and firefighting through a Harmonized Regional Strategy.
It’s now actively being implemented in over 21 countries across the African Sahel and Saharan regions. By 2030, the goal is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon, and create 350,000+ jobs in rural areas.
Trouble in the Sahel
The Sahel region is at the threshold of the Sahara Desert and is affected by the dry desert conditions to the north. As Elvis explained, a confluence of events made this area difficult to live and thrive in.
Climate change exacerbated weather patterns. “Everything was no longer coming as it used to,” Elvis said. “You have these rains that, instead of coming in March as people knew, came in December. Sudden and heavy rainfall caused a lot of floods in one season. We’re talking about areas that had about 400 milliliters of rain a year.”
Then there were the migrating crickets: “Crickets that move from place to place. Swarms of 200 kilometers, eating up all the drylands. Currently, Eastern African areas, between Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, are suffering high levels of attack.”
Most of the people in this region depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. “About 60% of the population here are herders. They are pastoralists and they depend on the rangelands to feed their cattle. The rest are farmers who depend on the short rainy season to cultivate their crops,” Elvis said.
“There’s a combination of both natural and manmade factors that make this area very inconvenient for human survival, for human existence.”
So, when it came to solving the problem, a quite literal wall of trees wouldn’t be the solution these regions needed. Elvis pointed out even more issues, ranging from human trafficking to dust storms. To him, planting a tree requires a holistic approach.
A solution made practical
“If you want to plant a tree, you must take care of the animals because they will eat up the young trees,” Elvis noted. “If you want to plant a tree, you must take care of the water because you need to water the tree. If you plant a tree, you must take care of the agricultural land because you must not plant in areas where people are working. So the planting of trees now became a multitude of different activities. It became what we call sustainable land management, water management, and restoration activities.”
“Because planting a tree is one thing. For that tree to grow is another thing.”
The Great Green Wall takes all of these areas into consideration — and more. The project is involved in climate-smart agriculture, market gardening, capacity building, firefighting (these areas are prone to wildfires)… all those activities that would allow those people to stay and thrive within their communities. It began in 11 countries along the southern threshold of the Sahara Desert.
Elvis was quick to point out that, although we tend to focus on the problems, there are also so many areas of potential in the Sahel. “They are very rich areas. Rich in terms of energy potential. These are areas with lots of sunshine for renewables. These are areas with a lot of animals for grazing. They are also very good for sociocultural tourism. These are areas with huge expanses of land that, if well managed, are good for agriculture.”
And another resource they have in abundance: youth. “These are the areas with the youngest populations in Africa. Among the 300 to 400 million people there, about 70% of people below 23 years old,” Elvis said. “So they are not poor areas. They just need a different kind of investment.”
Different countries, different needs
The project is clear about its efforts on combatting desertification using local expertise. “It is not like these people were sitting down and waiting for help to come, you know?” Elvis said. “These are people who have been living in these areas for millennia. Most of the current problems are caused by climate change and demographic factors, increases in both animal and human populations.”
That’s where the Harmonized Regional Strategy, “the blueprint of the program,” comes into play. It was developed as a participatory approach: “We talk with the communities. We talk with the governments and with civil society organizations and international partners that are working in these areas. We look at their gaps and at how we can fill their gaps.”
The “how” changes from country to country through National Action Plans, or project documents that call upon the country’s challenges and needs. “From there,” Elvis said, “we start developing activities and projects to involve the farmers and those living in these areas in the projects. But the documents are developed by them. What most of what we do is just to facilitate and to capture [data].”
As mentioned earlier, this extends beyond agroforestry and water management. “We’re now developing conflict resolution for what we call climate conflict, which is simply a conflict that has been caused by scarcity in natural resources and heightened competition,” he added.
The drylands of Africa are not limited to the Sahara. While 21 countries are currently involved in the Great Green Wall Initiative, efforts are expanding north (Egypt, Algeria, Morocco) and South, around the Kalahari and Namib Deserts. And there are newly developing drylands that might call for future intervention.
The GGWI is part of Agenda 2063, a 50-year transformation plan of the Africa Union. Elvis likens it to SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), but for five decades rather than 15 years. The latest report on progress and planning is expected in early September.
“Today, we can say we have implemented between 15 to 18% of the original plan. We have improved the lives and livelihoods of 30 million people. We have created millions of jobs for the youth, and supported more and more women in agriculture.”
Needless today, this mosaic strategy works. “A landscape approach so far has proven to be very, very effective — not without its challenges though,” Elvis said. “The biggest challenge we have, most of the time, is with the policymakers and the politicians. Sometimes policymakers don’t see eye-to-eye with those in research and development. What the Great Green Wall has done is to bring all of these actors together. It started with the policymakers. And then those in development and in research got involved. And now we have the international development partners and financial partners coming in.”
The biggest lesson Elvis can impart is to bring all the actors together. “Don’t try to do things in silos,” he said. “What we did was bring everybody on board. We took the time to explain and make people understand, settle their differences and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’
“We’re bringing all the countries that are affected by these challenges together to agree on a common working document.”
“It is a serious work in progress,” he added. “Big programs bring big challenges. But so far, through decades of implementation, we know that it can work. We’ve identified some of the challenges and we are filling the gaps.”
Learn more about the Great Green Wall Initiative, and find out how you can watch the 2019 documentary about it, here.