Africa’s Sahel-Sahara region encompasses 11 countries across the north of Africa. It’s a region that experiences some of the worst immediate impacts of climate change, despite having the least to do with the cause. Ongoing drought and ‘desertification’ have battered the area as temperatures rise, impacting the local population where up to 82% relies on rain-fed agriculture.
To tackle the problem, a solution was proposed: the Great Green Wall Initiative. The idea is simple — to plant a gigantic ‘green front’ stretching from Dakar in the west to Djibouti in the east. The green front would act as a tree buffer to contain the expanding desert. However, like most ambitious biodiversity projects, it’s not been a straightforward road to success.
Northern Africa is one of the warmest places on Earth. In fact, temperatures here are rising one and a half times faster than the average for the rest of the world. It’s home to the world’s largest hot desert, the Sahara, which covers almost 8% of the Earth’s land area — that’s approximately the size of China!
Long periods of severe drought have battered the Sahel region over the last century. It has resulted in devastating food and water shortages. Many crops in the area were lost, as well as between 50-70% of cattle. Desertification — a process of land degradation where fertile areas gradually transform into dry, desert-like landscapes — ravaged the Sahel, and dust from the Sahara blew across the continent making the region even more arid.
The area has since been unable to recover, mostly due to decades of human activity exacerbating the desertification process. Overgrazing, improper irrigation and the removal of tree and shrub cover for firewood and agriculture have added to the degradation. Furthermore, conflict in the early 2000s over declining natural resources fueled mass migration and unemployment, resulting in a spiraling cycle of poverty.
Under the leadership of the African Union, a revolutionary idea was proposed to unite the countries in the region to work together to increase arable land and tackle these problems, bringing biodiversity back to this once-lush region — a wall of native plants and trees that stretched from east to west.
“Working to combat land degradation is the best way to address both very local issues and improve the global environment,” GEF senior environmental specialist Jean-Marc Sinnassamy told National Geographic. Sinnassamy manages one of the many projects under the initiative.
Most of the programs developed under the Great Green Wall initiative are community based and led, but partner with organizations in the UN. Many of them are dedicated to planting a diversity of tree and plant species to rejuvenate the soil and welcome back lost species. Others focus on teaching sustainable farming practices and livestock cultivation. Some do both!
“We are working with people to improve soil quality, which improves crop yield and in turn agricultural production and the overall quality of life in the community,” continued Sinnassamy. “These very local benefits are also a way to generate global benefits for water, land, and nature.”
The main goal of the initiative is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million green jobs by 2030 to support communities across the region.
Despite its name, the Great Green Wall project is much more comprehensive than a "wall" of trees across the continent. It hopes to restore savannas, grass and farmlands across the breadth of Africa. As it’s a collaborative effort, various methods are being implemented to bring the green wall to life.
Forest gardens, also known as food forests, are grown to mimic natural forest processes. They implement a forest permaculture (opposite of a single-species monoculture) consisting of trees, shrubs, fruits, vegetables and crops to create a native and harmonious, multi-layered ecosystem that regenerates year after year. Forest gardens promote biodiversity, provide food, medicine, and other resources, and improve soil fertility. This makes forest gardens an valuable approach to agriculture.
Oasis farming is an agricultural practice in arid or desert regions where water is scarce. It involves growing crops and nurturing vegetation around natural water sources, such as natural springs or wells. Rehabilitating oasis farming methods allows for sustainable food production and the creation of small, fertile pockets of land in otherwise dry landscapes.
Agroforestry farming integrates the cultivation of native trees, shrubs, or woody perennials with crops and/or livestock. By planting more trees to support local farms, agroforestry enhances biodiversity, improves soil health and water management, and can provide sustainable long term agriculture practices that can benefit local communities.
Like most ambitious projects of this size, progress on the Great Green Wall has been slow. Challenges such as volatile political situations, war, lack of water, coordination challenges, COVID-19 and lack of community support have hindered progress. So far between 4% and 18% of degraded land has been restored depending on who you ask. But despite its slow progress, there is hope and a bright future.
In Senegal, community-based efforts to restore degraded lands have been very successful. Local communities played a pivotal role in the "Community Forests" program which led to the creation of lush green areas, improved soil fertility and better water resources, restoring the land and improving the livelihoods of the people.
Trees For Future is one such organization dedicated to training farmers in agroforestry and sustainable land use in North Africa. They are doing this by planting millions of native trees, shrubs, plants, and crops that serve the local population and improve biodiversity in the region. This is one way one organization is rewilding North Africa!
Niger's Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) approach has also resulted in the rejuvenation of vast areas of degraded land by planting native and shrubs, increasing biodiversity and restorating ecosystems. The program planted 20 million trees which produced 500,000 tonnes more grain, improved soil and firewood, and benefitted 25 million people.
Lastly, Ethiopia's national tree-planting campaign gained international attention when the country successfully planted millions of trees in a single day. The Green Legacy Initiative contributed massively to reforestation efforts, carbon sequestration and improved land management. Between 2019 and 2022, Ethiopia has planted 25 billion trees.