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Africa has a new chance to build “the largest living structure” on Earth

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Eight thousand kilometers of greenery from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to the Red Sea coast of Djibouti – the planting of a barrier stopping the Sahara, made politicians and entrepreneurs raise eyebrows.

This is no longer the case. After fifteen years of fruitless attempts to raise the necessary funding, the project to restore ecosystems, slow desertification and provide food and livelihood for millions of those struggling with poverty and insecurity has suddenly become of interest to the world.

Optimism may be premature, but in 2021, signals have come from governments, businesses and some local communities that have been awaited for years: international sponsors have promised more than half of the tens of billions needed; so far only two have been collected. “The largest living structure on Earth,” as the UN calls it, no longer seems completely impossible.

The experience of at least one country shows that if the “wall” is built hard, restoring nature will give millions of Africans something that conflicts, politics and climate have taken away from them for years: security and hope. And they will come from the first such large-scale initiative, conceived entirely by Africans for Africans.

How complicated is it to actually build an 8,000-kilometer wall of trees? Why is it no longer a wall of trees, but a mosaic of plants? How, along with the soil, will it help the climate, security and the economy? And can it happen at all, even though – contrary to some expectations – it turned out to be economically viable?

When nature dies before your eyes

The Sahel (from the Arabian coast) is a vast region in Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea with an area of ​​3.05 million square kilometers – slightly smaller than India. To the north is the Sahara, to the south – the Sudanese savannah. In the vast plains, the desert occurs, in part because of the sandy seasonal winds. That is why eleven of the 14 countries in the dry region (Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) have committed themselves to the Great Green Wall.

The route on the wall. If the project is implemented, it will be the largest living structure on earth, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. Even if it does not finally deserve this definition (once given by the UN) due to the change in the original plan for a cordon of trees, the “wall” can transform much of the continent, for the first time with the help of an international initiative Africans.

Here, “climate refugees” and “climate jihad” are not abstract concepts of the future. Eighty percent of the land is affected by degradation. Warming, deforestation, population growth and poor management of fields and pastures and government helplessness doom tens of millions of people to insecurity. This is fertile ground for conflicts with criminals, separatists and jihadists taking thousands of lives, sometimes even on international news channels.

The “wall”, first proposed in 2005, was formally supported by the African Union in 2007 to improve this environment at least a little, with ambitious goals:

After another 4 years, a pan-African agency was set up to deal with investor misunderstandings (“how exactly will the project help Africa?”). More than a decade and a half have passed since the first proposal, and less than five out of 100 million hectares (1 million square kilometers) have been planted – in other words, less than 5% of the entire planned green belt. As a result of the delay, the Pan-African Great Wall Agency (APGMV) has curtailed its ambition: to have a quarter of the project (25 million) ready by 2030.

“Most of the countries have not implemented the project institutionally,” said Chikaodili Orakue of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Abuja, Nigeria. In her master’s thesis in the Netherlands, she mainly studies the situation in her homeland; explains that the authorities there have been “shaking their legs” for years. Unlike some countries, Nigeria has at least set up an agency (Nigerian Agency for the Great Green Wall) to coordinate efforts on the African project and report some results.

Even when the main goal was to stop the Saharan sand, the project was a lifeline for more than 135 million people in the Sahel dependent on this deforested land.

Senegal, which is among the most successful countries, for example, could lose half of it in the next decade. In a France 24 film about the project, interlocutors from Nigeria and Senegal recall a time when the land was greener. In Burkina Faso, once forested wildlife areas are now deserted. Locals are quickly forced to change their livelihood and lifestyle. Another common example is the ecological catastrophe of the de facto drying up of Lake Chad, shrinking before the eyes of local farmers, fishermen and farmers:

A matter of security

The project faces a number of difficulties and conflicts come first. Five of the countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) are part of the so-called G5 Sahel group, which is fighting armed groups with France. Part of the land for the Great Green Wall is also inaccessible to government agencies.

In Nigeria, the Great Green Wall runs mainly through the northwestern and northeastern provinces, where the authorities are in conflict with Boko Haram. “Security is a major problem in Nigeria and many other countries,” Orakue said. The problem is not only in the climate: while the land is degrading, agricultural land is increasing, but at the expense of pastures – a problem for millions of migrating farmers (and in the whole Sahel there are 50 million people).

Moving to agricultural areas used to be seasonal. Today, according to a local interlocutor interviewed by Chikaodili for her master’s thesis, it is “permanent”. In a related conflict in one region of Nigeria alone, 6,000 people have been killed and 62,000 displaced in recent years. The Great Green Wall initiative will not be limited to planting trees here: help will be needed to access water, irrigation and forage – the measures taken so far are not enough to keep farmers in the land they normally inhabit.

“Here in Nigeria, land is sacred to some people. You can’t just take land. Many groups value land more than anything. We don’t have enough land, and some of the pastures have become agricultural land.” Chicaodili Orakue, Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that access to about one-seventh of the total area earmarked for the initiative is being lost in conflict-affected areas.

“Many people left their homes because of insecurity. In Borno, many villages were abandoned, the people I met were in IDP camps. Some explained to me that they had not returned to the community for seven years. Some of their children may not go. There is no one in the villages but the army because of Boko Haram. will allow it to be applied because some parts are not accessible. ” Chikaodili Orakue, Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution

In Nigeria, the authorities have a problem. How to engage locals in conflict resolution?

Many governments have so far invested in agricultural land to increase food supplies. This has led to conflicts between farmers and shepherds, caused not only by climate change, but also by a battle for scarce resources in which the authorities are interfering. This fuels tensions in areas of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mali and other countries.

Where is it wise not to sow trees, but crops or grass while ennobling the land, and what to choose so as not to exacerbate the tensions of local communities?

Every investment is worth it

Even where there was security, there was no money for years. However, the financial picture is gradually changing. More than 20 billion was pledged last year by international donors, countries and organizations: 1 billion by Jeff Bezos and another 14.3 billion at a biodiversity meeting in Paris in January. The African Development Bank is committed to finding 6.5 billion by 2025. That’s more than half of the 43 billion needed.

For comparison, between 2010 and 2018, investments are estimated at $ 1.8 billion. According to the UN Commission to Combat Desertification, only 870 million have been collected by 2020.

And any investment in the project will be worth it. A study published in November on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, to which Dnevnik gained access, shows that for every dollar invested, the return is an average of $ 1.2. This is just one of the scenarios: its value can vary between 1.1 and 4.4 dollars depending on factors such as market and non-market (eg direct environmental) benefits, way of investment planning in individual countries and others.

However, these investments cannot be reaped without the help of the private sector – otherwise it would be “challenging” and unsustainable, the report continues.

The analysis prepared for the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that the average financial damage per year from land destruction between 2001 and 2018 is $ 3 billion for the region, and the documented average annual benefits of attempts to restore it reach 4.2 billion. In just four years, the damage caused by degradation has outweighed the benefits gained in reversing the process. However, data vary by country. With a vast area of ​​2 million square kilometers (12% of Russia) and a population of 320 million, Nigeria and Ethiopia are hardest hit by rapid deforestation.

Livelihood and community

By the time the money was found, some countries had realized that planting trees was not the answer to the problems in the Sahel. The locals will have to get something in return.

In many countries, the “wall” already includes cereals, pastures, orchards and vegetable gardens. The reason: there is no other way to involve people in these areas, because climate change and land degradation are destroying their livelihoods. And without them, the project will fail.

Will stopping the desert be enough, Orakue wonders as he begins his master’s thesis. Discuss the issue with the locals. Some local community leaders have criticized the government for not helping the project. Others do not see field staff at all, but do not want the authorities to simply “come and plant trees” on their land; better improve access to water and fodder fields.

“You can’t just plant trees. What will you do with people’s livelihoods? I learned from interviews that in the affected regions they just plant trees. Ninety percent of the people in the area are farmers. If you plant any trees, you don’t help them. The desert is eroding the fertile areas from which they feed. Some grow crops, some animals. Pastures will have to be rebuilt to avoid clashes. ” Chicaodili Orakue, Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution

Locals expect the authorities to meet their exact needs. Crops such as millet grow well in the northwest, but not in the northeast. In his interviews, Orakue learned that locals from border areas go to neighboring Niger for drought-resistant seeds. He hears the words addressed to the employees of the Great Green Wall program: “We don’t know these people.” At the end of his master’s thesis he recommended to change this approach.

However, “for the people” measures can be an end in themselves. In one area of ​​the project in Nigeria, authorities are trying to improve the lives of local communities and especially women along with deforestation steps, providing them with 2,300 wood stoves, the heat of which will one day inevitably come from restored forests. The startling example is from Chikaodili Orakue, who describes it in her master’s thesis.

However, there are good examples in Nigeria, a signal that Orakue’s recommendation – more attention to local needs – is bearing fruit. In the quoted film of “France 24” Muktar Magaji, a local leader in the state of Kano, shows the dry land where his fields were, once fed more than 30 people. His village is already working with employees of the initiative:

 “We learned a lot from the Great Green Wall. First they taught us how to take care of traditional plants that grow spontaneously. Then they taught us how to plant fruit trees. How, when you plant and care for them, they will grow in the fall and return wealth to The soil here is rich, I am convinced. I have known its value since I was a child. If we stop caring for the land, foreigners will eventually come here and our children will not leave. ” Muktar Magaji, leader of the local community in the state of Kano, in front of “France 24”

Countries are very different

Another challenge: everyone has planted a little, but some are doing better, as media reports and a 2017 report by the Pan-African Agency show.

According to the cited report in Djibouti, the improvement of agricultural and pasture land, for example, has provided food security to only 100 families, 120 have been assisted in the transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle, and several dozen fishermen have been trained to catch shrimp. Eritrea has not reported whether it is meeting its ambitious goals. Niger is progressing slowly. Ethiopia has been criticized for lacking ideas for interaction with locals.

In Burkina Faso, 14 million trees have been planted, more than 45,000 jobs have been created in the same period (and by 2019 – another 2 million with the help of the organization Tree Aid). The route passes through provinces with 6 million inhabitants. We are working on projects for locals (women, according to the report) to make soap and desert date oil. And here the money is not enough, but there is hope. Shea butter, extracted from the walnuts of the tree and valuable in cooking, is gradually becoming a valuable plant. The locals help to build water infrastructure, the trees are valuable products for agriculture.

Achievements in 2020

The success story so far is called Senegal. The gardens woven into the local economy quickly complemented the idea of ​​the tree belt – from desert dates to acacia species, the juice of which produces arabica gum (resin widely used in the food industry, textiles, fine arts, photography and many others) or Moorish jujube (whose vitamin-rich vitanim people eat or use in beverages; camels, goats and others eat the leaves). It was in Senegal that tree partitions became complete mosaics of multifunctional, circular gardens with drip irrigation – mangoes, tangerines, jujube, guava – to provide food and livelihood for the locals.

Plants are planted so that their roots help retain water. The electricity for irrigation in some of them comes from solar energy. The big cities are twenty, the smaller ones are hundreds.

Today, international television crews are eager to visit gardens in Senegal’s towns and villages. Lemons, guavas and mangoes go both for personal use and in the markets of towns and villages and feed the economy. One of these gardens and its effect in the report says:

“The introduction of multifunctional gardens in Ferlo has made a significant contribution to improving the daily lives of the people who benefit from these spaces. Each garden is practically a node in the spatial, social, economic and political system of the village where it is planted.”

The process continues; vegetables, papaya, lemon, baobabs are planted in different concentric circles.

It is not important that it is big, but long, says one of the interlocutors of TV5Monde.

In the case of Senegal, the vision of one man also boosts: Heydar al-Ali, a former Senegalese minister who headed the local agency’s work on the project. According to him, the animals in a province are fed with seeds, which are then distributed on their pastures and help to plant mesquite – a plant of the legume family, valuable to locals. Boys are given slingshots to spread mahogany seeds with.

Will all these problems be solved? The answer is yet to come, but the international community has shown a willingness to help.

In addition, 16 years after Nigerian President Olosegun Obasanjo proposed the Great Green Wall, the ball is returning to his homeland, which will rotate the budget until the end of 2023. A year after criticizing the stagnation in the project, Chikaodili Orakue sees it for hope. “Yes, I am very optimistic. Many people are criticizing the process. I believe that when there are many votes, Nigeria will not just ignore them.”

Photo: The route of the wall © greatgreenwall.org

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