This is one of the major projects highlighted at UN COP 15 on desertification currently taking place in Abidjan: the Great Green Wall which plans to restore vegetation on a 15 km wide strip. which crosses Africa from west to east, from Dakar to Djibouti through 11 countries and 7,800 km. It is not just about planting trees, but also about developing these areas in a sustainable way and creating jobs, especially in agriculture.
This titanic project was officially launched in 2007 by African countries for Africa, but it is struggling to gain momentum. For 15 years, the development of large green wall covered only 4 million hectares of the 100 million hectares originally planned, while 135 million people in the Sahel are affected by desertification and loss of soil fertility. For Gilles Boëtsch, emeritus head of research at CNRS and head of a scientific observatory overseeing the Great Green Wall, “the relative failure of the project can be explained by several factors”.
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First, the effects of global warming in an area that is already very dry. “Precipitation is falling”, the researcher states. In addition, “anthropogenic pressure is extremely strong with farms and herds, the only way for people to survive economically. And the animals eat the young shoots.” And then “obviously these are extremely violent war zones, it is difficult to plant trees when people shoot at each other”!
“A laboratory” to fight poverty Even for a long time, the project lacked funding, human resources and follow-up. Not all states are sufficiently involved. But it is still presented as THE great African solution to desertification.
The initiative is actually global. In addition to protecting the environment and storing CO2 – greenhouse gas, which is first responsible for climate change – it also aims to fight poverty and feed the population. The idea is to set up agricultural techniques adapted to dry zones with local plant species that support this special climate and that enable economic benefits: gum arabic, spirulina, artemisinin … These species will be combined with gardening.
Renewed political interest At the moment, only a few small developments have been made, lost in the huge area to be covered. Nevertheless, Abakar Mahamat Zougoulou, Technical and Scientific Director of the Pan-African Great Green Wall Agency, is confident of the success of the project. “It’s not just a comprehensive tree planting. The Great Green Wall is about creating areas of economic prosperity. It is an open-air laboratory where technicians are proven, he says.
He cites examples of forest pastures, orange groves in the Agadez region of Niger or apple orchards in Chad. Innovations which, according to him, “provide solutions to Africa in matters of food security and also to the problems of insecurity currently observed in the Sahel”.
Developing the local economy and thus limiting immigration and conflict … Enough to convince the international community, which last year promised almost € 20 billion in total funding.
Coordinate a number of actors However, this renewed political will and funding promises will not suffice. No new funds have been released yet. Donors advocate bilateral exchanges and expect clear and structured projects to be presented to them, and this is not currently the case. The Great Green Wall is a titanic operation that crosses the continent. It is difficult to coordinate measures between the many actors involved and to associate the local population.
This is also the big challenge for the Great Green Wall to become a success one day, according to IRD researcher Dominique Masse. “The political will exists,” he states. Now we really have to work with local actors: the population, farmers, young people, women’s associations, etc. So that the solutions are built with them. It is a big ambitious program. This also requires international consultation with several actors who may have an interest in these areas. So it’s a significant complexity and that explains the difficulty of getting it in place.
Researchers, NGOs, entrepreneurs and politicians must therefore still succeed in mobilizing in good harmony with local communities. That said, despite its shortcomings and mixed results, the Great Green Wall is still a source of inspiration for other similar land restoration projects in southern Africa or the Maghreb that are under development.
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