Africa races towards enduring dream of a Great Green Wall

Monique Barbut Agriculture & Environment NEWS & ANALYSIS

John Lennon once said, ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality’. Never did these words ring more true than for Africa’s Great Green Wall, a collaborative initiative built on unity and the shared hope of a brighter future.

This dream of a Great Green Wall, which has loomed large in the hearts and minds of the African people for many years – from political visionaries like Thomas Sankara to the local people who work the land for their daily survival – is moving ever closer. Senegal has planted more than 11 million trees. Ethiopia has rehabilitated 15 million hectares of land. Nigeria’s land restoration has created more than 20,000 jobs in rural areas.

Together, we can realize this compelling African dream by ensuring that the USD 4 billion pledged to the initiative over the next 5 years by world leaders at last year’s Paris Climate Change Conference is fully met. Achieving the ambition of restoring 50 million hectares of currently degraded land will sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon by 2030. More importantly, it will cushion highly vulnerable communities against climate change by creating employment for youth set to migrate from the region, and renew stability and security both within and beyond the Sahel.

Momentum is growing

The Great Green Wall, an 8000km stretch of sustainable livelihoods that will cut cross the entire width of the continent, was launched in 2007. It is now a pan-African movement involving 20 countries. The African Union is providing the leadership, with the international community playing a supportive role. Once complete, the Wall will stand amongst humanity’s greatest achievements of World Wonders.

Africa’s 21st Century World Wonder

This is a grand dream considering the unprecedented threats of food and water insecurity, mass migration and war facing sub-Saharan Africa.

About half – 46% – of Africa’s productive land is currently degraded, jeopardizing the livelihoods of nearly 65% of the Continent’s population. In 2015, more than 20 million people were food insecure. And the population is youthful and growing.

The stakes couldn’t be higher and more pressing for rural households in the Sahel, where a major part of the incomes is linked directly to agriculture.

Moreover, Sahel’s population growth rate is one of the highest in the world, at 3% on average. Here, the population is expected to rise from 100 million today to 340 million by 2050. Demand for food and the pressure to gain access to other natural resources, which are the basis for livelihoods and the survival of the rural population, will only soar.

A cycle of poverty due to a lack of opportunities, coupled with the growing demand for ever diminishing natural resources, especially productive land, is unleashing social, economic and political crises in a regional with many fragile states.

Earlier this year, I witnessed the stark reality of these crises when I visited Agadez and Dirkou, two cities in northern Niger. Previously tourist and trading centers, these cities have turned into major migrant transit hubs. The main economic activity now is the smuggling of migrants across the Sahara to the North African coast.

All of the migrants I met, without exception, were men. The majority were in their early 20s and from the rural areas, which depend heavily on agriculture. In the past, seasonal migration helped these men to cope in difficult times; but not anymore.

Unable to live off what the land produces due to the increased unpredictability of the weather, they are now looking to migrate to support their families. The long droughts, changes in the seasons, reduced rainfall and flash floods have all taken a toll on their livelihoods.

Migration is only one of the ‘ways out’ the people have turned to in order to escape grinding poverty in the Sahel. Smuggling of the migrants is another. Conflict and extremism, unfortunately, are the other perverse options now offered to unemployed and disillusioned youth, who like everyone else, are searching for a better life. For the rural people who depend heavily on agriculture, migration is a last-ditch option.

The impacts of land degradation on local livelihoods in the Sahel come in various forms. Flash floods in Niger. Food crises in the Horn of Africa. Terrorist attacks in Mali or Burkina Faso or massacres by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.

When you cannot feed your family, provide a basic education for your children or afford medicine to treat the sick migration becomes a necessity, not a choice. Faced with a similar situation, would you weigh up the odds of successfully making the perilous journey across the Sahara or the treacherous sea crossing to Europe or would you simply just go?

The dream of a Great Green Wall has emerged as a key solution to restoring badly degraded lands and preserving the productive, non-degraded areas. And it is built on concrete evidence. The Sahel accounted for 16% of the land restored globally between 1980 and 2003.

For the local people, this dream is about far more than growing trees. It is the promise of realizing a long-standing African vision: to restore vast swathes of degraded land and in the process boost food and water security, increase resilience to climate change, promote regional peace and security and curb mass migration. It is about weaving a mosaic of sustainable interventions across the Sahel region to build community resilience and provide economic opportunity.

Its rallying call, ‘Growing a new Wonder of the World’, symbolizes the hope that we can build safer and more secure communities in the face of multiple challenges – poverty, climate change, war, terrorism and insecurity.

The Great Green Wall represents a global commitment to feed the hungry and put people back to work at a time of existential environmental threats. It is a dream to grow peace and security by helping communities to thrive once again.

The progress to date offers hope for a better future. Further and rapid progress now depends on the ability of the international community to both dream with Sahelians and act decisively. It will benefit us and the communities on the Continent today, and our children, for generations to come.

Written by

Monique Barbut is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). She has over 30 years of experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance and financing. From 2006 to 2012, she was the Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and World Bank Vice President.