The Great Green Wall, a real opportunity or just a miracle for the development of rural areas in the Sahel?

Increasingly intense droughts, irregular rainfall, agricultural overexploitation, soil erosion, deterioration of vegetation and advancing desert: since the end of the 1970s, the Sahel has been one of the most deteriorated and degraded regions in the world. Particularly exposed to climatic hazards, this region is also heavily affected by poverty, which makes it more vulnerable to climate change. According to the ND-GAIN (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index), which measures a country’s vulnerability based on its capacity to cope with climate change, in 2020 all Sahelian countries were ranked among the 20% most vulnerable and least prepared to climate change. To such an extent that scientists now estimate that the temperature increaseis likely to be 1.5 times higher there than in the rest of the world.

The Great Green Wall from the air. Photograph by Alex Baramgoto Jr. for Chad Infos. 

A new and ambitious project

In order to combat desertification and the advance of the Sahara towards the semi-arid regions, the idea of revegetating these areas and building a “great green wall” emerged in the 1980s, from Thomas Sankara, a former political leader from Burkina Faso. But it was not until 2007 that this transnational program was actually launched, under the impetus of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, and initiated by the African Union. 

In concrete terms, the Great Green Wall (GGW) is a program to ecologically restore 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. In total, 250 million tons of CO2 should be captured and 10 million green jobs should be created. This project, which targets the area between isohyets 100 and 400 mm, covers more than 7,500 km in length and 15 km in width. It involves no fewer than 11 countries, from Senegal to Djibouti, through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

In order to coordinate the implementation of the project, harmonize actions and support the mobilization of resources, the African Union and CEN-SAD (Community of Sahel-Saharan States) created an inter-state body in 2010: the Pan-African Agency for the Great Green Wall (PA-GWW), with international legal capacity. Designed by Africa and for Africa, this colossal and ambitious project is also extremely innovative. For many, this wall is synonymous with hope and represents a new way of thinking about ecology in Africa. While the GMA is a global project with a single strategy, there is nonetheless a great diversity of possible ways to implement it, depending on the local context and the specificities of each territory (soil context, climate, etc.): pure replanting, agroforestry, agropastoralism, market gardening, construction of ecovillages, etc.

A project that has become multisectoral and transversal

For many years, the Great Green Wall was seen as a simple environmental tree replanting project. But in the end, it is much more than that: the GGW creates important positive externalities, and thus becomes a true rural development program. In addition to combating desertification, it also contributes to the agenda of the Paris Agreement, and more broadly to the sustainable development goals promoted by the UN.

Indeed, in addition to the issues related to the sustainable management of ecosystems, the preservation of biodiversity, and global health, the GGW must be a project that involves local populations and creates resources and wealth to ensure its sustainability.

Through agroforestry, agropastoralism or market gardening, the idea is that GGW contributes to the food security of the Sahel populations. The development of these income-generating activities in these sparsely populated rural areas also helps fight poverty and the rural exodus, which is particularly important in the Sahel region. The GGW is also a real opportunity for a better recognition of the role of women. 

Moreover, GGW presupposes access to sufficient water resources, and therefore the existence of basic infrastructure to ensure water supply. This supply itself requires energy. Thus, the implementation of GGW is bound to be coupled with drinking water supply, energy access and electrification programs, which in itself constitutes a tremendous development opportunity for these isolated rural territories.

But in the face of insecurity and the expansion of jihadism, which feeds on poverty and conflicts over access to natural resources and land, the GGW is also becoming a geopolitical issue. If populations are socially and professionally integrated, they will be less tempted to join armed groups. Widely discussed at the last G5 Sahel summit, which brings together countries at war against terrorism, GGW is ultimately an economic and environmental weapon against jihadism, which constitutes a real paradigm shift compared to the purely military responses deployed until now.

Where are we today?

In September 2020, a report commissioned by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) stated that only 4 million hectares had been restored. But the French Development Agency counted at the end of 2021, 12 years after the launch of the project, 20 million hectares restored out of the 100 million planned, half of which by Ethiopia. The results are very different from one country to another: while 57% of the land has been restored in Ethiopia and 20%  in Niger, there was only 5% in Burkina Faso and Mali. From a socio-economic point of view, 350,000 jobs have been created, and 90 million dollars have been generated between 2007 and 2018 thanks to GGW activities. 

Several explanations have been put forward to explain this mixed record: first, as mentioned earlier, the GGW has long been seen as a reforestation project, and its cost has therefore been largely underestimated. In addition, when the project was launched, governments had difficulty finding sufficient financial resources because donors were traditionally unaccustomed to subsidizing agro-ecology-related projects. Although national programs have been developed, there is a lack of technical and financial resources in the field, particularly for raising awareness among local populations about the principles of agroecology and soil conservation techniques.Conflicts and persistent instability in some countries have also delayed the progress of GGW.

What are the future prospects? 

In January 2021, at the One Planet Summit, Emmanuel Macron announced the launch of the “GGW Accelerator,” a program that aims to facilitate collaboration between donors and stakeholders of the project – the World Bank and several countries including France, which pledged $14.3 billion for the GGW. At COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, also pledged $1 billion for the project.  

In addition to the financial challenge, it is also a question of setting up real territorial projects, and of integrating local players more closely into the projects. This means cooperation between local authorities, private actors and local associations. This is an essential condition for the long-term viability of the GGW. The establishment of consultative processes, local governance including a participatory and inclusive approach will be made possible through capacity building in the field, another essential pillar. 

Finally, the systematic implementation of project monitoring and evaluation systems is necessary to capitalize and continue to improve GGW implementation. Research and innovation will have a key role to play in this regard.

Written by Valentine Le Cras

Translated by Xiaosu Wang

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