Reviews | Can you turn a desert into a forest?
Over the past decade, millions Africans in the Sahel, a region of semi-arid lands that stretches thousands of kilometers below the Sahara, have been displaced by violence and food and economic insecurity. Climate change is partly to blame — droughts and floods are getting longer and more frequent. But rapid population growth, deforestation and overgrazing have also contributed to denude a large part of the territory.
In the mid-2000s, African leaders planned to create a huge strip of greenery which could contribute to combating desertification and land degradation. The project, called the Great Green Wall, began in 2007 with the aim of planting a nine-mile-wide belt of trees and shrubs that would stretch from the coast of Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. These newly forested areas could create seasonal jobs, help farmers feed their families and offer a way to fight climate change by capturing carbon dioxide in plants.
The World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, in partnership with 12 African countries, provided over a billion dollars in this business, and scope of the initiative has grown to include efforts to fight poverty, reduce inequality, and build climate-resilient infrastructure. In ecological terms, the program has been a huge success. According to United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
After years of planting trees and experimenting with water harvesting methods, farmers in Niger have begun to see results: soil health has improved and crops are resuming. In 2019, we visited the country to see how the ambition of the program translates in a country where most people depend on the land for their livelihood.
“Nine years ago the land was a disaster,” said Nomao Alkali, a farmer from Fada, a village about 210 km southeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. “If you put seeds in the ground, you would have almost nothing, the soil was so poor.”
Mr. Alkali hoped the program could help turn his father’s acres of red rock desert into fertile land. In fact, in addition to the acacia trees, the property is now home to crops of millet, peanuts, beans and sesame. But it should be noted that too often land restoration efforts primarily benefit men like Mr. Alkali, who have access to vast tracts and can gamble on an agenda that may seem mystifying or threatening to others.
In a society where land is often in the hands of elders, young men have to wait their turn to benefit from tree-planting efforts. Given population growth, there may not be much left to do. Faced with this reality, many young men, like Bahari Salisu in Nigeria, decide to leave.
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At 17, Mr. Salisu left his 15 siblings and his village of Gamji to sell newspapers on the streets of the northern town of Damaturu. When he returns to help on the family farm, it is only temporary. “I came home to help plant at the start of the rainy season. If I finish the job here on my family’s farm, I’ll be back. We are unemployed,” he told us.
Cash-for-work programs used to plant trees put cash directly into the pockets of poor farmers during lean seasons, giving them a safety net. But cultural norms can often exclude groups from these programs. Women must obtain official permission from their husband to participate. Some women are not allowed to work alongside men in the fields. Others are forced to fend for themselves because their husbands and children have left to find work elsewhere.
Salle Ibrahim’s family grazed animals in Gamji long before he was born. Now he has to keep a close eye on his goats and sheep to make sure they don’t eat the ever encroaching millet crops. His way of life is “almost over as farmers have taken almost all the land that was once grazing,” Mr Ibrahim said.
News from the recent climate change summit in Glasgow is encouraging. Promises were made to continue finance the expansion of the Great Green Wall. Yet figuring out how to balance the needs of different people is essential for the program to succeed.
The initiative should also provide alternative income-generating options to ensure equity. It could expand programs that train women to cultivate the saplings that are the building blocks of the wall and create agribusiness opportunities that allow young people to earn a living in their hometowns. Pastoral grazing corridors should also be strengthened and respected to ensure nomadic herders as well as farmers can benefit from the Great Green Wall.
Mr. Alkali near his farm in the Great Green Wall.
On the other side of the Great Green Wall, there are communities already working together to earn a living. Having hundreds of thousands of hectares of land restored, with trees, water and a thriving landscape, offers the potential to develop a more diverse and productive set of economic opportunities suited to the different groups of people who live in the middle. from the wall. But greening the Sahel will mean little if the gains will be reaped by only a lucky few.
Raul Roman is the founder and executive director of Dawn, a multimedia investigative journalism organization. Lauren Kelly is Evaluation Manager at the World Bank. Rafe H. Andrews is assistant director and chief curator at Dawning, where Nick Parisse is the director of photography.
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