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The Irony of the Great Green Wall

Updated on July 19, 2017
A map of the originally proposed Great Green Wall
A map of the originally proposed Great Green Wall
A satellite view of the continent showing the Sahara and green vegetation.
A satellite view of the continent showing the Sahara and green vegetation.

The Sahara Desert enters itself into the annals of the history of Africa as an element of profound misery. If to the north the countries of North Africa lap at the waters of the Mediterranean, and to the south the great forests of Africa are watered by immense rains, in between these two worlds the vast dead lands of the Sahara lie lifeless and dry. The Sahara, a place where almost nothing dares to live under the pitiless sun, without water, without soil, without hope. Not merely content to strangle the life which is found within its wastes, the Sahara has advanced its talons towards the south, under the influence of climate change and because of poor land management practices. From this, as sand entombs villages and fields under its weight, a project for the protection of the vulnerable Sahel from its execution emerges: The Great Green Wall, a wall of trees some 8,000 kilometers long which stretches from Senegal to Djibouti, designed like the Chinese Great Wall to protect the fertile lands to the south from alien onslaught. And yet, it already in this form can count itself as a failure.

This is a heavy accusation to raise against this ambitious project. The Great Green Wall is in its original conception around 8,000 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, with more than a million trees, a vast green belt which guards against the desert. Original conceptions stretch back to the 1980s, when Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso had proposed reforestation projects. The idea was brought back to attention a decade ago by the president of Nigeria, Olesegun Obasanjo. The former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, was also one of its most significant supporters. Further inspirations exist: In Algeria the Green Dam has been constructed to guard against the desert's advances, while the Three North Shelterbelt exists in China. The goal of the Great Green Wall is to fight against the Sahara, improve pastureland, shelter for animals, cool the region by its shade, block sandstorms, and protect water sources. Consequent goals include those of preventing the rise of terrorism in the region by helping to restore prosperity, and also in restoring habitats for animals, such as birds, hares, and antilopes.

Although this project is a wonderful presentation for journalists, in reality, the original vision of the green wall is little more than another mirage of the Sahara. Several problems make an appearance. Firstly, the idea of a wall of trees in the Sahel is impossible: during the recent decades, enough trees have been planted there to leave it with a density of the Amazon. This is useless, as 80% died. If nobody is there to take care of the young saplings and trees, they will almost certainly die. Thus, even if the government of Macky Sall in Senegal has declared that Senegal has planted 12 million trees, little of importance is achieved. Even when fully grown, trees are at risk of being cut if their local communities do not support them. Perhaps the greatest problem standing in the way of the Great Green Wall is the very question of whether the Sahara is advancing and hence if the Sahel is in need of saving. According to reports from the Global Drylands Initiative and a number of researchers, the desert has retired some 200 kilometers during the last 20-30 years, after the devastating droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. In the place of climate change it is rather bad land management techniques which have led to continuing problems with the soil of the Sahel.

Yet, in its own way, the idea of the Great Green Wall is not dead. Rather, in place of a wall itself, it now refers to community efforts. where good agricultural practices aim to construct a much more living and practical wall. Instead of planting trees, farmers take care of trees which have naturally come onto their land, and intermix them with their fields. Ironically, farmers started on this work long before the announcement of the Great Green Wall, and in great part thanks to the action of women, and since the 1970s there has been a significant improvement of land under forests. In the valley of Zinder in Niger, there are 50 times more trees than in 1975. This change is thanks to new agricultural practices, with the combination of indigenous knowledge such as the Zai in Burkina Faso, where farmers construct large holes to aid the infiltration of water into the soil. In addition, farmers have abandoned colonial-era practices which introduced monoculture and stripped their land of trees. It is not only one valley which has been regrown, but rather entire countries have profited: in Niger 12 million acres have been restored, and in Mali, 1.2 million more.

Thus, we arrive at the greatest irony of the great green wall, which intended to grow trees after farmers already had done so, and which now seeks to meld itself to the expertise of the communities through which it runs after initially proposing itself as a project from above. It makes me think of a chapter from the famous French book, "L'Homme qui plantait des arbres" or "The man who Planted Trees" in English. To cite a chapter which struck me :

<< En 1935, une véritable délégation administrative vint examiner la « forêt naturelle ». Il y avait un grand personnage des Eaux et Forêts, un député, des techniciens. On prononça beaucoup de paroles inutiles. On décida de faire quelque chose et, heureusement, on ne fit rien, sinon la seule chose utile : mettre la forêt sous la sauvegarde de l’État et interdire qu’on vienne y charbonner. Car il était impossible de n’être pas subjugué par la beauté de ces jeunes arbres en pleine santé. Et elle exerça son pouvoir de séduction sur le député lui-même. >>

"In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation came to examine the "natural forest". There was an important personnage of Water and Forests, a deputy, and technicians. Many useless speeches were done, and it was decided to do something, and, thankfully, nothing was done except the only useful thing : to put the forest under the safeguard of the State and to forbid those who came to chop trees for charcoal. Because it was impossible to not be swayed by the beauty of these young trees in their summer of health. And it exercised its power of seduction over the deputy itself."

if a Great Green Wall comes to Africa, it will be in despite of itself, and entirely thanks to the African people.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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