Great Green Wall on Deutsche Welle


Photo credit: DW


The Great Green Wall of the Sahel

Environmental degradation and climate change are threatening the livelihoods of local communities living near the Sahara. An ambitious greening plan aims to prevent the spread of desertification in the region.

Africa’s “great green wall” of vegetation should run 7,700 kilometers (4831 miles) across the Sahara and Sahel from Senegal to Djibouti. This vast stretch of trees is meant to reverse land degradation and combat poverty by creating jobs and boosting food security. Not everyone thinks planting trees in the desert is the best approach to land restoration. But Robert Winterbottom of the World Resources Institute told DW about some of the project’s successes and how ideas about desertification are changing.

DW: Can you start by telling me about the problem the Great Green Wall is addressing?

Robert Winterbottom: I guess even the word desertification is a little confusing but we are working to reverse land degradation, by which we mean, the reduction or loss of what you can do with land in terms of productivity, agriculture, pastures and forest. It is a global issue but is particularly severe in the Sahel region.

Land degradation is really the loss of properties of the land, the water, the soil and so on, and the last stage is when it becomes a desert, which is then desertification.

I have heard it described as the Sahara desert expanding and your building a buffer to hold it back, but that is not quite the case, is it?

This is an old-fashioned way of thinking and scientifically, it’s wrong. Scientifically if you look at a very old picture, a satellite image or even an old map, you will see that actually the desert has not changed much recently. Of course, in some areas there is some sand movement but basically the desert is a relatively stable ecosystem.

But it is true that very early when we were talking about the Great Green Wall, probably it was a way to have a picture in mind. It was a way of creating momentum with political leaders, but when you work with people on the ground, with farmers and villagers, things become quite different. It is a case of working to restore agro forestry parklands in the Sahel with a diversity of trees and plants.

You talked about how the idea of an encroaching desert might have made it easy to understand and therefore to sell politically, can you talk a bit about how far this project began, because the concept goes back a long time.

Around the middle of 2005, the president of Nigeria launched the idea at a conference of the African Union. And one of the stronger supporters after that was President Wade of Senegal. It was a strong point on his political agenda.

Read the full article: DW

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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