Stopping the meltdown

There once was a man with a plan: plant trees in a 7600 km long and 25 km wide strip in the south of the Sahara, and it will force back the world’s largest desert. He wasn’t the only visionary: in many parts of the world, Great Green Walls are being planted to conquer desertification.

Great green walls

Sean Gallagher

China’s environmental problems are significant; not just for its citizens, but for the millions of people who live downstream of its eroding rivers or in the wind paths of its incredible sandstorms. 

Green walls are a solution. Landscapes can be transformed by planting trees in sandy, infertile soil. It is a long-term process but it will change the micro climate of the region. 

Who invented the Great Green Wall? If we had to find a name, it would be pretty unexpected: the White House in Washington, DC, occupied in the 1930s by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the time, the United States’ southern and central regions suffered the most terrible sand and dust storms, rendering agriculture literally impossible.

An advancing desert; that’s a bad thing – or so everybody says. What can be done to prevent this advance? The answer is often ‘plant more trees’. In reality, the real answer is more exciting, more complex and sometimes more disappointing, as we can see from the most ambitious plan on earth.  

“I’m fully in my element here. Before I came to work in this office, I was mainly in the field, working for the Water and Forestry Services. I still enjoy going to the villages where the projects are carried out.” Adama Doulkom is a forestry and agriculture expert living and working in his country, Burkina Faso. He is also the country’s representative for the ‘Great Green Wall Project’. 

The Nigerian president asked, “But why don’t we build a wall made of green trees and plants?”

The Great Green Wall is the most ambitious green plan ever. Let’s dazzle you with a few figures. The proposed wall is 7,800 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide. It runs from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East. It traverses the Sahel zone; eleven countries host it on its long journey. Some more statistics: estimated cost, slightly less than eight billion euros; number of people directly or indirectly affected, perhaps as many as 300 million, says the World Bank. On completion, whenever that may be, the wall could signal the end to the enormous dust and sandstorms that turn the skies of Ouagadougou, Khartoum and Dakar into an impenetrable visual soup.

Who’s behind this immense project? “President Obasanjo of Nigeria,” says Doulkom. “When African leaders met in 2005 to discuss the problem of the advancing Sahara Desert, the Nigerian president asked, ‘but why don’t we build a wall made of green trees and plants?’” Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade, always game for great ideas, was asked to work out an action plan; he completed this in 2010. The African Union then adopted the plan; a special unit at its head office in Addis Ababa was set up to oversee its execution. 

“You have to view it as a master plan to rehabilitate soil,” explains Doulkom. “Yes, it’s certainly about trees – but it’s much more than that. It is, more than anything, about agriculture and offering people a stable existence. And if possible, it must traverse borders.” Think in terms of not one long wall of trees, but of a ‘patchwork of interventions’, as a French website puts it elegantly. And while we are removing misunderstandings: there’s nothing wrong with the Sahara Desert. It’s a colossal living and breathing ecosystem, like many others in the world. The real problem is soil degradation; water becomes scarce and the soil literally flies away: the result is that plant and animal life just disappear. 

All Green Wall projects resemble each other: they form integrated plans for poor rural areas; a combination of forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry

So, what does it take to turn the tables? Henk Nugteren has been working in Burkina Faso and Benin as an expert on rural development for over twenty years. “What this means in practice is something we’ve already been doing for years: integrated rural development. The first thing you have to tackle is soil degradation.” 

In other words, we’re in this for the long haul and it involves an overwhelming array of activities. Let’s start with the trees: you need the right species in the right places. The Sahel is an incredibly diverse region and you can’t start planting any type of tree anywhere you want. For example, Baobab and Acacia species do well. The latter have been planted with success in Senegal. They yield gum Arabic, the basic material for glue, resulting in a productive and lucrative market in gum. 

All Green Wall projects resemble each other: they form integrated plans for poor rural areas; a combination of forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry. And don’t forget the people who live there as they possess knowledge of the traditional methods that were used to retain or enhance soil quality: zaï (holes in the ground that keep water and compost in their place), furrows in the form of crescents (again: to retain water), tiny hills on the land or rows of stones that seal off parts of a plot. All of these help to improve productivity. 

Let’s also have a look at seeds; nurseries have to be established where the seeds are tried and tested, as well as secure places to store the seeds. Later on, farmers will also need safe places to store their harvests. And we also need an improved infrastructure; what you produce must find its way to market. 

All this constitutes integrated rural development. “These projects already exist,” says Nugteren. So does this mean, then, that the entire Green Wall concept boils down to taking existing projects and bringing them together under a new moniker? Nugteren, “Yes, I think that’s precisely what’s going on.” 

Successes have been reported in Niger and Ethiopia, but other participants are lagging behind

Senegal is leading the pack: an area of 8,000 square kilometres has been reforested in combination with vegetable gardens and animal husbandry in order to meet all the wishes and desires of the people living there. Former president Wade’s role has certainly been important in this respect, as is the fact that his successor, President Macky Sall, wants to turn Senegal into an exporter of agricultural produce. Moreover, many of the areas that are being returned to green are sparsely populated and conflict-free, which helps ease the execution of this ambitious plan. In about ten years’ time, Senegal will have completed its share of the job. Successes have also been reported in Niger and Ethiopia, but other participants are lagging behind. 

The United Nations, which wholeheartedly supports the project, says that they want to achieve the following: 50 million hectares (that’s 1.25 the surface area of the Netherlands) full of new crops and trees; 20 million people who have achieved food security, and jobs for 350,000 youths. Doulkom has this to say, “People who make their own money and send their children to school cannot be bought by any ideology.” This is a clear reference to the jihadist movement that finds its rank-and-file in precisely the same arid and impoverished regions: young men with no formal education, no jobs, no prospects, off the radar of their countries’ authorities and the development industry, without a place where they can put their energy to positive use. And thus they become a target for recruiters, in the same way that child soldiers were brought into the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone a quarter of a century ago. Except that this time, the flag hovering over these poor children bears the sign of Islam, albeit in a ridiculously simplified form. 

Is this new money or is it money already pledged to existing projects? Given the notorious opacity of money flow from donors, it is impossible to answer this question

You would think that this plan merits immediate action, however that’s not what Pieter Hoff, the founder of the ecological company Groasis, has experienced. “It’s all going very slowly. We’ve approached the African Union in Addis Abeba with our idea to help them carry out their plan, using our solution: planting trees and vegetables. We’ve not yet had an answer.” One of the reasons for this is the bureaucratic nature of these and other organisations. “Procedures, procedures…” laments Hoff. “These procedures are also there, of course, to slow down progress. After all, when it’s ‘job done’, you’re out of a job too.” And the second reason? “That’s even more straightforward,” says Hoff. “The African Union has no money…” But for that problem, a solution, as simple as it is radical, may be at hand.

But there are many other obstacles. Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan are all embroiled in large or small national and/or international conflicts. Moreover, the Great Green Wall runs smack through all these conflict areas. There’s no better example of the link between environmental degradation and armed conflict. “Yes, this is an obstacle,” Doulkom readily admits. “In places where the State is no longer present, such as Central Mali, the work has come to a standstill. That’s all the more reason to redouble our efforts in those places where we are able to work.” But that requires money, which is available: or is it? 

“The idea for the Great Green Wall comes, in fact, straight from the drawing board,” Nugteren says. “If you take all the existing projects and place them under a new conceptual umbrella, what exactly will the added value be?” He answers his own question. “If it inspires people, it has value.” In short, the Great Green Wall should not only be seen as an enormous integrated rural development project, but also as a great piece of marketing: give us money. But what does the donor get in return?

Of the estimated eight billion euros required, some seven billion has already been pledged by – among others – the World Bank and the European Union. During the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris, another four billion was pledged. But the problem is always the same: is this new money, or is it money already pledged to existing projects that have now found a new place under what Nugteren terms the ‘new conceptual umbrella’? Given the notorious opacity of money flow from donors, it is impossible to answer this question. 

Sand and dust blowing around; China knows all about it. The north of the country borders the world’s fifth largest desert, the Gobi. In 1978, the Chinese government decided that the desert had to be contained.

Sand and dust blowing around; China knows all about it. The north of the country borders the world’s fifth largest desert, the Gobi. In 1978, the Chinese government decided that the desert had to be contained. The plan was named after China’s historical Great Wall: The Great Green Wall. One hundred billion trees had to be planted over a distance of 4,500 kilometres. By 2016, 66 billion trees had been planted – but has it worked? Opinions are divided, even in China. The Beijing Forestry University says that of all these trees, only 15% survive: the wrong species in the wrong place; quantity instead of quality. But China perseveres and has dedicated more than 8 billion euros to the scheme, annually. After all, China has money. But the plan itself has also changed: from being a rigid and ruthless tree planting scheme, it has now put environmental protection at the forefront. 

Another scenario is provided by Algeria. Here, the Green Dam was invented, also in the 1970s. Three million hectares of new trees, at the edge of the world’s second largest desert, the Sahara. And because this is a country essentially under military rule, the question ‘Who’s going to do this’ was quickly answered: the army. Soldiers started planting trees, but here again, the tree belt idea got stuck in the mires of stubborn reality: too few species and a lack of involvement of the local population. The program came to a temporary halt in the 1990s – also because of the upcoming civil war. Five years later, though, work was resumed. But this time, forestry experts were involved and the plan was expanded to include irrigated agriculture and animal husbandry, which enabled the people living in those areas to benefit.

In Kuwait, they’re already doing it! In the 1990s, Khaled Al Khulaib, citizen, civil engineer and lover of butterflies started fighting the advancing sands in his country, while trying to convince his fellow citizens that camping in the desert in an ecologically friendly way was a real possibility. There are literally thousands of camp sites dotted around the country, and he thought this was an excellent entry point to do some environmental advocacy work. Could campers not take care of their environment and… plant a few trees? Khaled was not looking for big money, instead he wanted to make sure that new-born babies would be assigned a tree, for a fee, payable by their parents. During their lifetime, as these babies grew up, they would be able to follow the progress of their own trees. Eureka!

His organisation, Kuwait Oasis, had a plan to plant 315,000 trees all around the country. By 2010–2011 he had planted 3,000 trees in three different locations. The trees are doing well but lately things have gone a little quiet around Khaled. Here’s hoping that, one fine day, this kind and clever man will resurface to pick up where he left off. 

Can it be done differently? Pieter Hoff thinks so. “We have a plan to get the Netherlands to finance the Great Green Wall. In return, we’ll get CO2 absorption by the new green band across the world’s second largest continent. In one fell swoop, the Netherlands will be climate neutral,” concludes Hoff. But there are many more advantages, he adds. “You create an economy for people where previously there was none. You create employment opportunities and you take away an important reason for migration, as well as Jihadism.” Can we kill six birds with one stone? Let’s hope so. Because as a Dutch poet once wrote: Between dream and deed / stand laws / and practical objections.

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