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© Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR
The ‘Great Green Wall’ does ring a bell with some people. In 2007, the African Union decided that a strip in the Sahel region at least 7,000km long – from the west coast of Africa in Senegal to the east coast in Djibouti and Ethiopia – and 15km wide would be reforested. Precipitation in the defined area is barely between 100 and 400mm per year. The mega-project is being implemented in 11 countries, including 4 Belgian partner countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal.
The strip was to grow into a green wall to stop the swelling Sahara desert. After all, the region was being repeatedly plagued by severe drought and the poverty-stricken population had been forced to adopt unsustainable agricultural practices. For example, felling trees to cook and build houses, excessive use of pesticides, etc. Result: massive ‘land degradation’. Soils lose their fertility and microbial life, dry out, become impenetrable, etc. Land degradation eventually leads to desertification, where hardly anything can grow anymore.
To restore 100 million hectares of land – 1.5 times the surface area of France – in a poor region full of conflicts, migration, epidemics and political instability and where climate change is striking hard, is that realistic? Nevertheless, the very first progress report recently noted that good results had been achieved. Nearly 20 million hectares were restored, 20% of which within the originally defined area. 120,000 jobs were created for agriculture-related activities and 220,000 people received training on the sustainable production of products from agriculture, livestock farming and nature.
Green, productive landscapes
In the meantime, however, the initiative had already abandoned the original idea of just planting trees on those 100 million hectares. Rather, they now want to develop the area into a mosaic of systems of ‘resilient and sustainable land use’ that can better cope with climate extremes.
Things like the use of trees in agriculture (agroforestry, fruit orchards), protected nature reserves, methods for soil conservation (stabilising sand dunes, creating terraces on slopes, trees and shrubs as windbreaks, etc.), as well as of course the planting of trees and shrubs. In short, today it is all about land reclamation, rainwater collection, and the creation of green, productive landscapes.
The Great Green Wall will not be a nature reserve, but a green zone with habitation and sustainable production. © UNCCD
It is therefore by no means a strip of green nature that people are not allowed to touch. On the contrary, the Great Green Wall explicitly wants to introduce sustainable agricultural practices in the area, such as agroecology, agroforestry and integrated water management.
This is why the initiative has generated 90 million dollars in revenue so far – because people can harvest fruit and many non-wood forest products such as honey, gum arabic, baobab leaves and cattle fodder. Growing saplings also provided jobs.
Reportedly, the baobab could bring in $1 billion a year to Africa. And then there are a lot of other promising plants like balanites (desert date palm), moringa and fonio. The potential is really huge.
Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done. All in all, 82 million hectares of land still need to be restored within the planned strip. That amounts to 8.2 million hectares per year if the Wall is to be completed by 2030! According to the report, this could cost a tidy $4.3 billion, although it would also create 10 million jobs.
The African Union is not alone in this. The international community also fully supports the initiative. For example, it is supported by the UN Convention on Combatting Desertification (UNCCD), the World Bank, the European Union, various UN organisations (FAO, UNEP, UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), international nature conservation organisations (Birdlife International, IUCN), the CILSS, the African Development Bank, NGOs including a number of Belgian NGOs, bilateral donors including France, and so on.
Nevertheless, it will be a tremendous job to raise the necessary money. This is why the report proposes drawing upon the private sector and philanthropic organisations. The resulting gigantic storage of carbon and other services from the restored nature must be monetised. For example, there is great potential for cement plants, the aviation sector and other companies that wish to offset their CO2 emissions.
Furthermore, the participating countries need to better co-ordinate the various projects and closely monitor them. The lessons learned from the many small and big successes should be shared much faster. Other projects could also be involved, such as those for installing improved ovens, biogas or solar panels, so that people have less need to cut down trees for firewood.
Miracle in the making
Despite the steep ambition to realise the Great Green Wall as early as 2030, the ministers of the 11 countries involved and the UN representatives were very enthusiastic during the presentation of the report. ‘The Great Green Wall is a miracle in the making,’ stressed Amina Mohammed, Vice-Secretary General of the UN. ‘It shows that if we work with nature rather than against it, we can build a more sustainable and fairer future.’
In a statement, the 11 ministers stated that the Great Green Wall is and will remain a priority. After all, the initiative is having an enormous impact that goes far beyond mere nature restoration. It is thus a lever for economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is essential for complying with the Paris Climate Agreement in the 11 countries concerned.
If successful, it would benefit 15 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To name but a few: less rural poverty (SDG1), improved food security (SDG2), millions of green jobs (SDG8), sustainable production (SDG12), CO2 storage and adaptation to climate change (SDG13) and land restoration and protection of biodiversity (SDG15).
Economic development and social welfare are indispensable for lasting peace and stability, because if you can't make ends meet, it's easier to be tempted to join a militia. This is why the Green Wall could also become a symbol of peace in countries that are burdened by conflict and where the population has to constantly flee. It could also become a symbol of harmony between the various faiths throughout Africa. In short, the Great Green Wall could become a wall that unites rather than separates.
According to Corentin Genin, who is monitoring the Great Green Wall at the SPF Foreign Affairs, we really don't have a choice: the Green Wall has to succeed! ‘The mega-project may seem expensive, but if we do nothing, things could turn out to be a lot worse. In particular, owing to the extremely miserable living conditions in the Sahel, which would lead to even more conflict and mass migration to Europe.’
What is Belgium doing?
Our country is mainly contributing through a number of NGOs. For example, APEFE is mentioned as a key partner in the progress report cited above. APEFE has been active in Burkina Faso since 2014. It is helping to improve the capacities of national, regional and municipal authorities and communities there to realise the Green Wall. For example, local staff are being trained to grow and plant native forest plants. ADEPS – the General Administration for Sport in the French Community and the counterpart of Sport Flanders – is supporting APEFE in offsetting its CO2 emissions.
BOS+ has already restored more than 400 hectares of forest in Ethiopia. It is also helping local communities to manage the reforested areas sustainably.
In addition, several other NGOs including, SOS Faim and Broederlijk Delen, are active in Mali, Niger and/or Burkina Faso in the fight against desertification.
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