Trees function as the lungs of our planet, but they also serve as footholds. Their roots stabilize and aerate the soil, allowing water to be absorbed. Trees are a powerful antidote to the impacts of overgrazing, which exposes soil to erosion by wind and rain, and also compacts the soil, diminishing its capacity to hold water.
Travelling around the Sahara in 1952, Richard St. Barbe Baker saw how the power of trees to stabilize the soil could be used to halt desertification. During that journey, he conceived the visionary idea of a Green Front, a band of trees that would act as a front-line barrier to contain the desert.
The idea was put to the test when Algeria and China decided to address desertification in their respective countries. Algeria implemented a vast reforestation project called The Green Dam in the early 1970s. China began its own Great Green Wall project, also known as the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, in the late 1970s.
In 2002, the idea of a similar barrier to reverse desertification was taken up and approved by the 11 countries south of the Sahara, during a special summit held during the annual World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Since then, it’s been gathering momentum, funding, and supporters. The African Union endorsed the project in 2007, launching The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI).
The aim of this Wall is to prevent the desertification of the Sahel, the transition zone along the southern edge of the Sahara.
The trees of the Wall would be planted in a belt stretching across the entire continent of Africa, from Senegal in the west to the Republic of Djibouti in the east, spanning the 9 other African countries that lie in between.
The GGWSSI has modified and expanded the scope of the project to include boosting food security, and supporting local communities to adapt to climate change. The Wall project now consists of a mosaic of projects implemented by over 20 countries in the region with the support of about 24 development partners.
Contrary to popular perception, desertification is not caused by sand-dune movement. It occurs during periods of drought, where activities like overgrazing can lead to extreme erosion of topsoil. This is exactly what has happened in the district of Mopti in Mali where recurrent drought, unsustainable land practices, and deforestation have severely degraded the land, leading to poverty and food crises.
Working with our partner, Sahel Eco, and local communities, ITF has now regenerated 16,972 trees in this area. The trees chosen are drought resistant species that fertilize the soil as well as providing fruits, fodder and fuel wood for local communities.
Farmer, Amadou Kassambara told us,
Working with Sahel Eco we realized that low production is linked to our behavior through clear cutting the trees during ploughing…Through the project, I realized how I could better meet the needs of my family.
ITF has its roots in promoting the value of trees at this local level whilst keeping bigger ambitions firmly in sight. It’s fantastic to know that with the Green Wall St. Barbe’s grand plan is now coming to fruition.
The results speak for themselves. In Ethiopia, 15 million hectares of degraded land restored, in Nigeria, 5 million hectares restored, and in Sudan, 2 000 hectares restored. As of the end of 2015, Senegal has planted over 12 million trees over 40,000 hectares of land. And as of March 2016, the tree population in Burkina Faso has increased by over 3 million.
By Patricia Lee Harrigan
You can find out more about the Great Green Wall and the initiatives to combat desertification in these articles.
Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative
United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
“The Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative” April 2016
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
“Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative: The African Wall”
Great Green Wall https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Green_Wall
“From the Dust Bowl to the Sahel”
“The Great Green Wall of Africa”
“Push for ‘Great Green Wall of Africa’ to halt Sahara” June 2010
“African countries are building a ‘Great Green Wall’ to beat back the Sahara desert” December 2015 by Omar Mohammed
Global Environment Facility
“The Great Green Wall Initiative”
French Scientific Committee on Desertification
“The African Great Green Wall project: What advice can scientists provide?”
“The Green Dam in Algeria as a tool to combat desertification” Saifi et a, 2015
Dear EarthTalk: What is the Great Green Wall of China?