The Green Wall: Successes and Shortcomings

With Earth Day having recently passed and the need for environmental action greater than ever, many across the world have come to reckon with the serious environmental issues that pose an existential threat to humanity. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the largest and most menacing environmental issues is the expansion of the Sahara Desert in which the Desert subsumes arable land and turns it infertile. Not only are the environmental issues this problem severe, but this issue causes mass displacement of people in Sub-Saharan Africa which results in even further instability in an already fragile region. Faced with a crisis, leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa have developed a plan in 2007 to halt the spread of the Sahara Desert create a Green Wall of trees that cut across the entire continent through 11 different countries.

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In theory, the Green Wall will be a 10-mile thick, 4,350-mile long barrier of trees and vegetation that will not only stop the advance of the Saharan Desert, but increase food production in the region, provide fresh drinking water, and serve as a boon to the local economies. As amazing as this sounds, many were initially skeptical of plan. One notable figure, a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre, chided the plan, stating that “this is was a stupid way of restoring land in the Sahel. (Sahel is the large are that borders the Saharan that the Green Belt is being constructed in).” Now, 12 years after its inception, the project has proved to be far more than a flash in the pan and has actually achieved substantial progress in restoring barren areas in the Sahel region, with 15% of the wall having been completed by 2018.

Some of the most notable, positive outcomes of this project has been the progress made in the nations of Senegal and Niger. In Senegal alone, where most of the trees in this project have been planted, 4 million hectares of land have been restored thanks to the project. This restored land has not only proved to be environmental improvement for the region but also a boon for the people living there. According to official statistics, the Green Wall project has directly and indirectly created almost 2,000 new jobs in Senegal since its founding, which has served the local economies well in the provinces where the Green Wall is being formed. Niger, according to Chris Reij, “has seen the largest positive transformation in the whole of Africa,” thanks to the initiatives this project started. Local grassroots efforts have restored 5 million hectares of land and around 200 million trees, all due to local water-efficient and cheap solutions to restore arable land despite Niger being one of the poorest countries on the planet. The effect of this restored land has been nothing short of vital to the local people in Niger. Food production estimates predict that Niger’s arable land will be able to produce 500,000 more tons of cereal grain, which can feed approximately 2.5 million people.

In spite of all of this progress in the face these initial concerns, there are still justifiable concerns today about the current course and goals of the Green Wall. First and foremost, many in the scientific community have come to the agreement that the “Sahara Desert is not advancing,” and that the recent desertification in the Sahel has largely been caused by other factors, such as “climate change, overdevelopment, and unsustainable land management.” Furthermore, many have continued to argue that simply just planting trees en masse along the border of the Sahara will not work, and that the Green Wall Project should focus more on engaging with local communities instead to promote tailored solutions for them in order to better manage and protect their land. Many, including locals, experts, and officials have come to the realization that the original, while well intentioned, is perhaps too ambitious. With this recognition and acceptance of the need to change, the leaders of the project have edited the goals of the project to focus more on ecological and agricultural stability in the Sahel regions instead of trying to create a continent forest.

Ultimately, the success of the Green Wall will depend on the project’s willingness to adapt and on the individual commitment of each country involved in fulfilling the ambitious goal set back in 2007. In this regard, the Project seems willing to be tweak their vision into something new. Currently, the goals of the Green Wall have shifted towards promoting a general restoration of land in the Sahel with “a wide belt of vegetation,” which includes not only trees but native shrubs and grasses. Furthermore, the scope of the project has changed as well, expanding towards including land restoration around the entire Sahara, with the Green Wall now including new members in the north of the Sahara such as Algeria among others. As some individual countries have made greater strides than others, the fulfillment of this grand dream will require each nation involved to do their part and promote reforestation efforts at the local level. Only then can the Green Belt follow through on its founding philosophy.