Is the 'Great Green Wall' merely a mirage in Africa’s desert?
A 4,800-mile tree belt was intended to alleviate drought and poverty while also combating terrorism, however, with the 2030 deadline approaching, only 4% of the intended area has been planted.
The "Great Green Wall" plan is reportedly aimed at increasing the quantity of arable land in the Sahel region of Africa, which borders the Sahara Desert. Eleven countries are supposedly investing in projects ranging from agroforestry to long-term development.
However, the situation on the ground tells a different story.
The big picture
The tiny Senegalese village of Koyli Alpha is at the forefront of Africa's fight to revitalize the Sahel, a belt of parched territory beneath the Sahara that is one of the world's poorest and most inhospitable regions.
The “Great Green Wall” — perhaps the most audacious environmental project yet conceived — was meant to look two-thirds of the way through its intended development.
The grand plan was to combat climate change with a 4,831-mile vegetation belt stretching from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Djibouti on the Red Sea.
The dream began in the 1970s, during a period of devastating drought in the Sahel. At the time, Thomas Sankara, the Marxist revolutionary who led Burkina Faso for most of the 1980s and was an early proponent of the concept, warned that making the sustainable change would take a "certain degree of craziness."
Since then, the necessity for a bold solution has only become stronger. Overgrazing and climate change have destroyed 80% of the Sahel in recent decades, converting large swaths of land to dust. Tens of thousands of people have made risky journeys to Europe and the Gulf to escape poverty and famine.
The "Great Green Wall" was launched in 2007 by leaders from 11 African countries. The hope was that this green defensive line, consisting of 100 million hectares of trees, would slow the advance of the Saharan sands, reducing hunger and poverty, increasing biodiversity, and stimulating local rainfall, while also reducing militants' recruitment and slowing waves of migration across the Sahel. The deadline for accomplishing this has been set for 2030.
Scientists estimate that if completed, the greenery may trap 250 million tonnes of CO2 each year, enough to balance all of London's car emissions for a decade. The United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Union have all reportedly contributed to the project's finance. The United Nations has designated it as a potential world wonder.
15 years on, where does the Wall stand?
But, more than 15 years after the project's inception, escalating conflict in the Sahel and persistent funding challenges have thrown doubt on whether the ideal will ever be realized.
The ambition has got to be reduced. The "Great Green Wall," which was originally envisioned as a continuous tree wall snaking through Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, has now been reimagined as a "mosaic" of distinct ecological and agricultural projects carried out in collaboration with local communities.
Senegal has taken the lead, but it is unclear how many of the 12 million trees planted in the country since 2008 have survived. Nevertheless, the conflict in Mali has only just begun.
According to the most recent estimates from Ethiopia, one of the other major players, more than 5.5 billion seedlings have been planted on 151,000 hectares of new forest. Meanwhile, Chad has planted over a million trees. Tree Aid, an international development organization, claims that nearly three million individuals in five nations along the "Great Green Wall" have been trained in agroforestry, which might help them earn a living.
In 2021, the UN reported that 350,000 new employment had been created and 18 million hectares of land had been rehabilitated. Serious monitoring and evaluation, however, are impossible due to each country's own opaque Great Green Wall agency. Researchers do not yet know how the money invested is used.
According to projections, only 4% of the intended area has been covered two-thirds of the way through.
While the initiative tries to get traction, millions of people in a region dubbed "Planet Mars" continue to live on the edge. The Sahel region has been disproportionately affected by climate change, with temperatures rising by 1 degree Celsius since the 1970s. And if the pastoralists who reside throughout the region have nothing to feed their herds, the bits of the Great Green Wall that have developed will be eaten by their livestock.