Plantação na África. Crédito: Divulgação/Great Green Wall

Will Africa build a green wall in the middle of the continent?

The “Great Green Wall’’ should measure 8,000 km across the entire width of Africa, crossing 11 countries. Currently, this project is focused on agricultural production and has already benefited 3 million people

In 2007, the UN’s initiative, funded by the World Bank, proposed a major transformation for Africa.  The initial idea of building “Africa’s Great Green Wall”, a living barrier of man-planted trees, is taking root from the East to the West coast in the Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

The living structure would be considered the world’s largest one, 3 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia. According to the original Project, the wall would measure 8,000 km in length, be 15 km wide and span around 11 countries. Everything would be led by the African Union Commission, made up of countries of the continent, with total resources of US$8 billion.

The plan has already begun. However, it is still far from completion.

As reported by the official website, a decade in and roughly 15% underway, the initiative is already bringing life back to Africa’s degraded landscapes. The Sahel is on the frontline of climate change and millions of locals are already facing its devastating impact. A document developed by the UN’s FAO assures that persistent droughts, lack of food, conflicts over dwindling natural resources, and mass migration to Europe are just a few of the many consequences.

The leadership of Senegal

In line with a report produced by BBC, Senegal, on the West coast, has made the best progress when it comes to meeting the targets of “The Great Green Wall’’ by planting 11 million of trees, and villages feel the benefit on a daily basis. In a BBC interview, one of the leaders, Absaman Moudouba, said that people used to migrate in search of better living conditions. Now, however, they just produce food and get jobs locally. About 200 women from the community work on a small plantation.

It is expected to restore 100 million hectares of currently degraded land by 2030 and, as a consequence, to rescue 250 million tons of carbon emissions, and provide at least 350,000 jobs in rural areas.

After controversy, the Wall takes another form

Current and good results from the “Great Green Wall’’ were only possible after a change over its scope. The simple idea of building a wall of trees was criticized by reforestation scientists and struggled to convince investors about its success.

“This was a stupid way of restoring land in the Sahel,” says Dennis Garrity, a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre, to Smithsonian magazine. “If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” also said Chris Reij, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, who has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died,” he added.

Slowly, the originally artificial idea of a Great Green Wall in the desert has changed into a program centered on productivity techniques aimed at occupying areas formerly unsuitable for plantation. The FAO now refer to it as “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.”

“We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakarr, lead environmental specialist for Global Environment Facility, to Smithsonian. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of practices for the use of land that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing,” he concluded.

Recent data about this project show that the adoption of agricultural techniques and practices has already improved production and food security for about 3 million people.

An immigrant-restraining wall?

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, economic and technical resources applied on the “Great Green Wall” may discourage migration from Africa to Europe. Every year, some 12 million people from west and central Africa leave their home countries, and more than 75% of this migration happens within sub-Saharan Africa.

By 2020, some 60 million people from sub-Saharan Africa are expected to migrate because of desertification. With the Green Wall, they hope the population from the most affected regions will not need to leave their homes.  Batta Mbengu, a Senegalese resident of the Koyli Alfa village, told The Guardian that her brother risked his life migrating to Europe. “I hope he gets to Europe; the people here want to go too,” she says. Today, she is one of the benefited individuals of the “Great Green Wall”; she is part of the 300 women who work in the region.

“When we realized our sons were risking their lives in boats we asked for this kind of program. We want the garden to yield a lot so our sons won’t go abroad,” she completed.