Africa’s Disputed Trees


At first the women weren’t sure they could do it. Or should do it. Many in the village agreed. Digging holes, planting trees, being leaders, weren’t these men’s jobs? “Everyone said we were crazy,” said vivacious Nakho Fall. We were in Koutal, a village in western Senegal where goats and chickens amble across sandy lanes that separate households. She was sitting under a shade tree with other women and their children; at 11am it was already very hot. (A month later the summer rains and humidity would make that day’s weather seem sublime.)

The men of Koutal could not plant trees, she explained, because they were busy. Some worked in the nearby salt factory, transported there by beat-up vans that did not return them home until dark. Others had migrated far away to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in search of jobs. But something needed to be done. Trees had been disappearing in Koutal, and with them much else. “We didn’t even hear birds singing anymore.” None of the women were familiar with the term “climate change”, but all affirmed that Koutal’s weather had worsened in recent years: persistent drought had dried and hardened the soil. It had also grown salty.

Although Koutal is 100km from the Atlantic, two inlets bring the sea inland to the village. “The Senegalese government lacks precise data on how much the sea has risen,” says Adama Kone, an agricultural extension agent, “but soil tests indicate that seawater has penetrated the underground fresh water table,” making it harder to grow crops. “Taste it,” said one woman, pressing her finger into the white earth. “You will see we are telling the truth.”

So, defying local stereotypes, the women of Koutal decided to fight for their village. With seedlings and technical expertise supplied by the Senegalese government and foreign donors, they spent six years transforming 290 hectares of land from bare, crusted soil into a thriving agro-forestry reserve. They now harvest timber to sell in local markets and grow millet and other crops to eat. Incomes and food production have risen substantially, and they look to the future with a new confidence. “We are very proud that our children will benefit from this land,” said Adam Ndiaye, a grandmother. “And they will know this work was done by women.”

The women didn’t know that by planting trees to save their village they were also building part of the Great Green Wall of Africa. At the moment, the wall is more vision than reality. But if it gets built, it could change Africa — a solid advance in the fight against climate change, and also poverty and hunger.

Africa will suffer first and worst

The famine in the Horn of Africa is the latest reminder of what scientists have been saying for years: Africa will suffer first and worst from the extra heat and drought from climate change over the coming decades. Famine is not the only reason that 750,000 people — half of them children — are likely to die in the Horn soon, according to the United Nations: Somalia, the epicentre of the famine, has been plagued by civil war and a non-functioning government for years. But this famine was brought to a head by the worst drought in 60 years, which has caused deprivation and hunger in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, both more stable countries.

With Africa projected to get even hotter and drier, the need to prepare seems obvious. So does the need for fresh approaches. Rather than dispatching emergency food aid (which lets western governments and citizens feel good about themselves but does little to address the root causes), are there solutions that will help Africans avoid dire circumstances?

That is one rationale for the Great Green Wall, an idea that was first proposed by Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo in 2005. Obasanjo’s vision was simple: he urged planting a 15km-wide strip of trees across Africa to prevent the Sahara desert from expanding southward as climate change intensified. From Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, this wall of trees would protect the densely populated Sahel region just south of the Sahara, where tens of millions of poor farmers and herders faced the hot, dry conditions plaguing Koutal.

African heads of state endorsed Obasanjo’s vision, and the idea gained international traction with the establishment of the Africa-European Union Partnership on Climate Change, which in 2007 adopted the plan, now known as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative. “The Great Green Wall is an African-owned flagship initiative that will fight desertification, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and climate change while also tackling rural poverty and food insecurity,” says Professor Abdoulaye Dia, the CEO of the Pan-African Agency for the Great Green Wall.

’Give us the money, we’ll plant the trees’

But this initial vision has been criticised by scientists, NGOs and others who argue that it embodies a top-down approach that undervalues the importance of ecology and local people. What amounts to a vast tree plantation across thousands of miles of African drylands is bound to fail, the critics warn. Young trees need care to survive: watering, pruning, protection from animals. That means giving local people the incentive to provide such care, and irrigation facilities where there often is no water supply.

“There was a great razzmatazz in the 1970s around the same basic idea and it was a catastrophic failure,” said Dennis Garrity, director-general of the World Agroforestry Centre, ICRAF. “It sounded good to [African] heads of state and [the foreign aid that funded it] was a great money maker for the forestry departments of African governments. It was, ‘You give us the money, we’ll plant all the trees you need.’ So the forestry departments went out and planted millions of trees. And of course the vast majority of them soon died.”

Garrity wants a more metaphorical Great Green Wall that champions a grassroots-driven, science-based approach to environmental restoration and sustainable development. Tree planting remains central but integrated with local food production and livelihoods, as in Koutal. The goal would be to reverse land degradation as well as increase crop yields, rural incomes and food security. This vision would include a mosaic of projects throughout the Sahel, regardless of whether they lined up on a map to form a “wall”.

There are plenty of success stories a metaphorical Great Green Wall could draw upon. In Sustainable Land Management in Practice (1), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation describes the re-greening of millions of acres in the Sahel by farmers who grow (not plant) trees that regenerate naturally among their crops. Garrity and his ICRAF colleagues call such techniques “evergreen agriculture”. In fact, growing trees interspersed with crops is an old practice in Africa; it fell out of favour with the arrival of modern farming from industrialised nations, but is now making a comeback. “Inter-cropping”, as modern agronomists call it, relies on trees and their leaves to maintain a green cover on cropland throughout the year; this improves the soil’s structure, fertility and capacity to absorb water.

Too good to fail

The Great Green Wall is too good an idea to be allowed to fail. But can its stakeholders — African and European governments, international development agencies, NGOs in Africa and Europe and ordinary Africans in whose name the idea is advocated — come together around a shared vision and a means of achieving it?

That question hovered over a conference this June in Dakar. The choice of venue was significant for Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, has long been an adamant supporter of the original Great Green Wall. (According to his former aide Dia, Wade named it.) If African heads of state still support Obasanjo’s original vision, western donors whose resources are needed to finance any Great Green Wall — the European Union, the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank, the FAO — share the view that it is doomed to fail. There are also problems of organisation: three different African entities have claimed to lead the project: the Pan-African Agency, the African Union and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States.

Beyond the fear that Obasanjo’s literal vision of a Great Green Wall is likely to enrich African forestry departments more than local communities, it also turns out to rest on a basic scientific mistake. High-resolution satellite images captured by the US Geological Survey (USGS) show that the Sahara is not, in fact, advancing southward. Rather, says Gray Tappan of the USGS, the imagery shows that “there are many specific places where poor land management has led to severe land degradation.” This does not mean that a Great Green Wall is a bad idea — land degradation in the Sahel remains a serious problem — but it does imply that Garrity’s metaphorical vision is the better response. As Tappan says, “these blotches of degraded land are what need targeting, not the entire border of the Sahara and the Sahel.”

Dia, a geologist, understands the scientific arguments against the literal vision of the Great Green Wall. But to embrace such arguments would alienate his patron, Wade, and other heads of state. Dia tries to finesse the differing views, insisting: “We have one vision and one strategic approach.”

“There is a shadow play going on [at this conference],” said Garrity. “We don’t try to fight the battle of redefining the Great Green Wall, because the heads of state have already defined it. We’ve decided instead to go along with political realities in order to create an operational momentum that will allow for successful implementation of truly valuable land regeneration practices throughout the Sahel.” Let the politicians call it what they like, but let the rest of us start working on the ground, doing what science and practical experience have shown is best, and the results should prove themselves.  

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