Africa builds ‘Great Green Wall’ against extremism and misery

The Sahel region is a natural buffer between Africa's rain forests and the Sahara, but is being consumed by the desert. [Adam Jones/Flickr]

With food insecurity, terrorism and migration to Europe reaching unprecedented levels, Africa is hoping that a “wall of trees” can help protect its people and stop these threats becoming global crises. EURACTIV Germany reports.

11 countries have set out to build the Great Green Wall, a 7,000 km belt of trees stretching from Senegal in West Africa to the coastal areas of Djibouti in East Africa.

This, the project’s organisers hope, will trap the sands of the Sahara desert, halt the desert’s further expansion, restore 50 million hectares of land and absorb some 250 million tonnes of carbon. Around 15% of the wall of trees has already been planted, according to the Sahara and Sahel Great Green Wall Initiative.

'Great Wall of Africa' planned to hold back the Sahara

A massive-scale project proposed by the African Union, partly funded by the EU, will see a wall of trees erected at the edge of the Sahara, in an attempt to prevent the desert encroaching further. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

It is a project that has won the support of various players including the African Union, which adopted it in 2007, and international organisations and countries including the European Union and World Bank.

The wall is focused on the Sahel region an environmental stretch spanning from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic coastlines of Mauritania. It stands between the Sahara desert to the north and the rainforests of the south.

The Sahel Saharan region has borne the brunt of population explosion and changes in weather, leading to a scramble for limited resources. Soil erosion, the worst form of land degradation, has become commonplace in the region owing to overgrazing and over farming. The situation, experts have warned, could deteriorate if action is not taken to stop it.

Lake Chad, a lifeline for more than 30 million people in four countries in the Sahel, has shrunk steadily since the 1960s, with water levels having fallen by 95%. The Sahel region’s population is projected to triple by 2050 to reach 300 million, which will put further strain on the productivity of the dwindling land.

With no land to farm or resources to claim, the people in the region feel disenfranchised, particularly the men. Experts say this is a catalyst that has fanned the recent growth of phenomenons like terrorism and increased migration flows to Europe.

“Look at the countries in the Sahel belt from Nigeria to Mali and you see the pattern that has formed. It is all about control of limited resources,” said Professor Juma Abdi from the Center for Foreign Relations in Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania.

“Young people who feel they have nothing are looking for anything that can empower them and this explains the growing influence of violent extremism and terrorism in the region. It also explains the unprecedented number of refugees looking for a better life in Europe,” Abdi said.

Dr James Wahonye from the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies in Kenya agrees. He added that if such insurgencies were not checked they could easily spill over to the rest of the world.

“The problems in the Sahel should not be treated in isolation. We are in a global village and any threat, especially one of this magnitude, should get the whole world’s attention because it is just a matter of time before it mutates to the rest of the world. We have seen this before,” Wahonye said.

Africa’s population set to double by 2050, says new report

Africa’s population will double by 2050, according to a new report from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington – posing serious questions about the sustainabililty of the world’s poorest continent.

But the wall seems to be having a positive impact, one tree at a time. In Senegal for example, over four million hectares of previously degraded land have been restored with the planting of over 27,000 hectares of indigenous trees.

Most of the trees are the acacia species that can survive harsh climatic conditions. They also bring economic value since they produce gum arabic, a product that is used in food additives and jams. The trees also produce fruits, for which a new market has emerged.

The new sources of income generated by the project have had a particularly positive effect on young people, according to the Sahara and Sahel Great Green Wall Initiative, keeping them from falling prey to extremist groups.

Such success stories are being replicated in the 11 countries involved in the project which covers Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal.

Each country has also come up with its own national plan on how to implement the project to ensure the involvement of local communities.

Aware of how transformative this project could be, the international community has invested attention and resources into it. At last December’s UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, signatories pledged $4 billion in support of the project.

“This truly is one of the wonders of the world and the world has seen the economic, social and security sense it makes. Empowering people with local solutions is sometimes way cheaper than handling the crises that the world is currently facing. The Great Green Wall is teaching the world this vital lesson,” said Professor Abdi.

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