Photo credit: ISS Africa
Commanding the Sahara to retreat
The blueprint for the Great Green Wall is nothing if not ambitious. Quite Canute-like, it would seem.
The aim is to plant a forest of trees about 15km wide, snaking some 7 775km from Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Red Sea – crossing another nine Sahelian states on the way – to halt the southward march of the Sahara into the Sahel. This elongated forest would cover about 11 662 500 hectares.
The idea was originally conceived by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 and enthusiastically embraced by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. In 2007, the African Union Commission (AUC) took it up as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). Obasanjo seems to have borrowed the idea from China, yet the Chinese precedent is not entirely encouraging. Its bricks and mortar equivalent failed to keep out the Mongolian hordes from the north in the 13th century. And China’s Great Green Wall – launched in 1978 with the aim of creating a forest of trees 4 500km long – has also not stopped the southward drift of the Gobi and other deserts, despite the planting of about 70 billion trees to date.
In a 2012 paper published by the Comité Scientifique Français de la Désertification, a group of 13 French desertification scientists suggested that the notion of Africa’s Great Green Wall, at least in its original form, is based on several basic misconceptions. The first was that ‘the desert is a disease… that spreads into surrounding areas.’ In reality, the Sahara ‘is actually a healthy and precious ecosystem,’ they said.
The second misconception was that ‘the Sahel is being invaded by a sand sea.’ Though the Sahara’s sands do move around, such movements are local and manageable – and they are not always southwards, they said. ‘This is not a continent-wide movement trend that should be halted like an invader.’ The desertification of the Sahel is not caused by the invasion of sand from the Sahara. Instead it is the result land degradation caused by low rainfall, population concentration and poor agricultural practices, mainly over-exploitation.
The third misconception was that ‘a great forest wall could be planted in uninhabited or sparsely inhabited regions.’ Instead, the GGW would have to ‘pass through inhabited regions where agriculture and livestock farming are already fully developed,’ they said. Local inhabitants would have to be involved in the effort to combat desertification by tree planting. So, no unbroken wall of trees from west to east, but only in areas already inhabited where, indeed, there would be people present to plant and tend them.
But the GGW should be about much more than just planting trees, they wrote. It should also include integrated development of economically useful drought-tolerant plant species, building water-retention ponds, establishing agricultural production systems and other income-generating activities, as well as basic social infrastructures.
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