The Sahara desert, the largest on the planet, advances unstoppably; each year, it claims an average of 1.5 million hectares, equal to the area of the province of Toledo. Climate change has contributed to the Sahara’s growth by 10% in the last hundred years. Halting its progress has become a top priority. Hope carries a name: the Great Green Wall.
Two pioneers initiated the initial efforts to restore forests and soils in the Sahara desert environment.
Kenyan Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2004, initiated a women-led effort known as the ‘Green Belt Movement,’ which has successfully planted over 40 million trees in several African countries.
Tunisian businesswoman Sarah Toumi, in turn, championed another movement, ‘Acacias for All,’ and succeeded in planting more than 650,000 trees in her country.
These two projects align with the Great Green Wall’s mission, which aims to halt the Sahara’s southward encroachment by establishing a 7,700-kilometer-long and 15-kilometer-wide vegetation belt stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, covering the most arid regions of the Sahel.
To date, restoration efforts have revitalized nearly 18 million hectares of degraded land, doubling the expanse of Castilla y León.
The objective is to rejuvenate approximately 100 million hectares of land in the upcoming years, which equals twice the area of Spain. This plan will represent the most extensive reforestation initiative ever undertaken and the largest agroforestry project in history.
So far, almost 18 million hectares of degraded land have been restored, twice the area of Castilla y León, and a mosaic of green and productive landscapes has been created in the eleven countries of the Sahel: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.
Ten million jobs
The African Union launched the monumental Great Green Wall project in 2007. It started as an ambitious tree-planting initiative but has since evolved into a comprehensive rural development program. This endeavor aims to assist both people and nature in coping with the increasingly severe consequences of the climate emergency and the deterioration of critical ecosystems.
The new goal is to restore the aforementioned 100 million hectares by 2030, sequester 250 million tons of carbon, and generate 10 million jobs. Additionally, it seeks to establish food and water security, create habitats for wild plants and animals, and offer an incentive for residents to stay in a region plagued by drought and poverty.
Mirey Atallah, who leads the Nature Branch for Climate at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), underscores, “This initiative is transforming the lives of many people in Africa, even in conflict-prone countries. It also highlights the substantial benefits of landscape restoration in areas under significant threat from climate change.”
Vulnerable communities spanning from Senegal to Ethiopia will reap the rewards of the Great Green Wall, which is designed to promote sustainable development and mitigate climate change. The project’s objectives encompass the revival of traditional farming practices and the reintroduction of species that have vanished from the Sahel due to desertification.
The project, encompassing the restoration of forests and soils, empowered the women of Kollo, Burkina Faso, to secure land for cultivating moringa, a tree renowned for its highly nutritious leaves, seeds, and flowers with numerous therapeutic properties. These enterprising women established a cooperative and constructed a small store where they craft and sell products like soaps, cookies, and cakes.
Traditional agricultural techniques
Kollo farmers have reutilized a traditional technique to rehabilitate degraded land and counter desertification by excavating crescent-shaped holes or ditches, often referred to as ‘zai wells’ and ‘half-moons.’ These structures collect scarce rainwater, directing it toward cultivating plants.
Another proven method known as ‘assisted natural regeneration’ entails fencing land sections to safeguard trees and other vegetation from grazing animals and loggers, enabling them to regenerate. Once established, shaded areas also offer favorable conditions for agriculture and beekeeping.
Human are receiving training in agroforestry practices and various income-enhancing methods. The Great Green Wall has exemplified that it is plausible to address the triple global crisis involving climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
The Great Green Wall’s budget totals 3.7 billion euros, committed during the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. Funding primarily originates from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and private entities such as the International Conservation Caucus Foundation.
Agricultural economist Alisher Mirzabaev, from the Development Research Center (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, led a study two years ago analyzing the most suitable measures for land restoration in the Sahel. This research, published in the journal ‘Nature,’ concluded that every dollar invested in land restoration in the Sahel yields an average return of 1.2 dollars, with this figure ranging from 1.1 to 4.4 dollars across all scenarios.
The pitfall of violent conflicts
Land restoration initiatives require a maximum of ten years to achieve a “break-even point from a social perspective,” delivering ecosystem benefits at both market and non-commercial prices, as indicated by the study.
It is suggested that an investment of 44 billion dollars (just over 41 billion euros) is necessary to finance all proposed land restoration activities, allowing the restoration of 28 million hectares, equivalent to the surface area of peninsular Italy. The required investment varies from 18 billion to 70 billion dollars in all scenarios analyzed by Mirzabaev and his team.
Furthermore, the study underscores that violent conflicts in the Sahel pose the primary obstacle to the project, as they reduced accessibility to these degraded ecosystems from 27.9 million hectares to 14.1 million hectares in 2021. Additionally, the study highlights activities and locations where land restoration remains economically attractive and ecologically sustainable, even considering the lower survival rates of planted trees and grasses, the persistence of land degradation drivers, and the escalating number of violent conflicts that hinder land restoration in the Sahel.
Among the positive outcomes of the Great Green Wall, significant improvements in the local climate, reductions in wind erosion, and the services offered by pollinators are noteworthy. These, in turn, lead to increased crop yields.
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