UN Photo/Eva Fendiaspara
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Imagine a tapestry of green landscapes around the Sahara desert – a wall not of concrete or wire to keep anyone in or out, but of forests, pastures and crops to provide food, income and a real future for communities threatened by climate change.

An extraordinary initiative is taking shape across the Sahel and the Sahara – Africa's Great Green Wall.

Imagine a tapestry of green landscapes around the Sahara desert – a wall not of concrete or wire to keep anyone in or out, but of forests, pastures and crops to provide food, income and a real future for communities threatened by climate change.

An extraordinary initiative is taking shape across the Sahel and the Sahara – Africa’s Great Green Wall. It aims to tackle chronic land degradation, in vulnerable countries where problems caused by overharvesting of natural resources have been exacerbated by climate change, causing incalculable damage to people’s livelihoods, food and water security. In many of these arid areas, there seemed to be little hope, with not enough productive soil to grow crops for the inhabitants and no grazing for the livestock on which they depend. Poverty was rampant and the future looked bleak, with hunger and unemployment driving forced migration and sometimes conflict. But little by little, in areas where the Great Green Wall is being rolled out, a dramatic transformation is taking place.

Take the case of Kouloumboutey in Niger, a village which used to be surrounded by thick forest. Overfelling and overgrazing took its toll, leaving nothing more than a thin covering of barren dust, before climate change made things even worse. In 1984, a massive drought brought with it El Boukhari – the great famine – and the animals began to grow thin and die. The community’s fate changed when, in 2012, it teamed up with government environmental services to plant fodder trees and shrubs for livestock, as well as grass and trees to prevent soil erosion. The villagers constructed bench terraces to stop precious water from running off. Today, the community grows its own food and its animals have plenty to eat.

More than a wall, the greening that is taking place across this swathe of arid Africa is a mosaic of land management interventions, with the focus on climate change adaptation. From an initial idea of erecting a line of trees from east to west through the African desert, the vision for a Great Green Wall has evolved into a more integrated approach, adopting a blend of interventions adapted to local ecosystems and tailored to the needs of communities. Using native species of trees, shrubs and grasses that are adapted to local dry conditions is crucial to the mix of solutions. These species are the region’s precious natural capital and its most valuable weapon in the fight against climate change.

The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative brings together more than 20 African countries, development partners, research institutes and international, civil society organizations and local communities. At the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we are strongly committed to ensuring that it produces lasting impacts, as in Senegal, where the planting of 11 million trees has contributed to the restoration of 27,000 hectares of degraded land, and multi-purpose gardens are enabling women to increase their incomes and produce food for their families.

FAO is working to support local communities, which is essential if they are to embrace these changes as a way of life for the future. The approach is already producing encouraging results, with 120 villages on the cross-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger restoring more than 2,000 hectares of badly degraded land, using 55 native species of plants, including fodder grasses for livestock. Among them are species that are well adapted to dryland conditions and local needs. Work is now in hand to extend the initiative to new areas in these and other countries, ensuring that the process is sustainable by training villagers on how to collect, store and plant seeds and seedlings and maintain the restored areas. Meanwhile, the setting up of community-based enterprises is helping rural dwellers to harvest and process local products for revenue, retaining more of the added value. A case in point is gum arabic from the acacia tree, which grows in many areas of this Sahel African belt and for which there is a massive international market.

The challenge now is to work together to scale up and expand the Great Green Wall. We are already active on the ground in six African countries and are extending the approach to other continents. The genius of this model is that it can be applied to any location with dry conditions and fragile ecosystems, so we are currently introducing it in Fiji and Haiti and hope to spread the concept to other parts of the Caribbean and Pacific. This week (2-7 May) sees the first international conference on the Great Green Wall, to be held in Dakar, Senegal. It will provide a welcome opportunity to communicate some of the inspiring results achieved so far, and share experiences further afield, so that the wall’s impressive impact can give hope to other communities suffering from the scourge of desertification and climate change.

For more information, please watch the video, ‘Expanding Africa’s Great Green Wall: Action Against Desertification.’


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