By Leah Garden
The Sahel region of Africa runs across the width of the continent, covering several unique ecosystems as the sandy desert transitions to more productive, arable soil. Crossing multiple international borders, the Sahel has been suffering from drought and desertification since 1970. The lack of rain dries the soil, ruining the productivity of the land and creating dire circumstances for the communities that call the region home. As conditions worsen, populations are forced out of their homes, desperately seeking farming work that no longer exists in the region. Environmental degradation leads to poverty, which in turn leads to an increase in crime and desperation. To combat this impact, the Great Green Wall (GGW) project was born.
The Great Green Wall is “an African-led movement with an epic ambition to grow an 8,000km natural wonder of the world.” Emerging in 2007 from a joint effort conceived by the African Union, the Great Green Wall is a pan-African movement focused on the rehabilitation and revitalization of the once lush and productive stretch of land. The project was announced with much fanfare and was portrayed as a renewed lease on life and a biologically-centered plan to combat severe desertification. Designed to run from Senegal to Djibouti, this wall was intended to halt the cycles of environmental degradation, poverty, and violence now running rampant across the continent.
The wall’s original framework, born from the minds of Nigeria and Senegal’s former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Abdoulaye Wade, was to plant a wall of trees from coast to coast. But as technology, scientific insight, and climate change have progressed, so have the original plans of the initiative. Though communal gardens and nature reserves have proven to prevent further desertification and have thus been added to the original 2007 framework of the Great Green Wall, these changes have added additional complexity to an already convoluted international project.
As of 2020, only four percent of the wall has been completed, which means 10 million acres have been restored in the last 14 years, and which leaves another 235 million acres yet to be completed by the self-imposed deadline of 2030. This is not due to a lack of action, however. In the early days of the project, over 50 million seedlings were planted, but only 12.5 million actually survived to maturation. A lack of manpower and water caused the newly planted trees to wither and die.
The difficulties with the GGW are not limited to the natural hardship that comes from trying to grow trees in an arid climate. From an economic perspective, the GGW faces an uphill battle for sustainability. Alisher Mirzabaev of the University of Bonn estimates that $44 billion USD is necessary to fully and responsibly complete the GGW. To help achieve this goal, the initiative received a donation of $14 billion USD at the January 2021 One Planet Summit for Biodiversity, co-organized by France, the United Nations, and World Bank. And though the GGW has received renewed financial backing thanks to recent international climate events such as COP26, the new funds are not nearly enough to complete the project. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged $1 billion USD to land restoration, but that money is earmarked for projects in both Africa and the United States.
While finding funds for the project remains a constant battle, the GGW’s original mandate to use those donations to plant trees and increase biodiversity may not make the most financial sense for specific regions of the GGW’s designated footprint. Non-profit Mongabay reported that northern Nigeria is experiencing civil conflict due to drought and desertification, amplifying the already dire situation. Locals are desperate for restored crops and farms to increase income and see little immediate value in financing nature reserves. The current popular practice of informal cross-border trade, involving the moving of produce between markets close to international borders, is currently an illegal economic lifeline for many families, according to an International Food Policy Research Institute study. Focusing on sustainable agricultural projects would help create legitimate marketplaces near these border regions, stimulating the economy while simultaneously restoring the surrounding environment. But that alternative is controversial, sparking further conflict and debate within the Great Green Wall initiative itself.
Additionally, barriers to the project’s success aren’t exclusively scientific or due to economics. Ethiopia – one of the countries on the eastern side of the wall and the second most populated in the entire continent – is currently in a state of civil war. With a population of 110 million, the conflict has resulted in massive famine, impacting at least 40 percent of the population, while another estimated 2 million people have been forced from their homes. As a landlocked country, Ethiopia is impacting other Green Wall signatories such as Eritrea and South Sudan. As fighting intensifies, these neighboring nations may be forced to handle the influx of Ethiopian refugees, diverting resources and attention from the wall to a burgeoning humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, insurgent groups like Boko Haram have claimed swaths of area subject to restoration in Nigeria, creating a dangerous environment for the GGW staffers. Deaths of GGW staffers due to Boko Haram have been reported, halting much needed progression for climate change mitigation.
Whether the GGW will be a success remains to be seen. A deluge of environmental, economic, and geopolitical factors continues to make or break this ambitious plan. Millions depend on success, but the path forward is blocked due to underfunding and civil unrest. But the unceasing perseverance of GGW staffers, coupled with renewed international interest in the restoration of the African continent, bode well for the future of the Great Green Wall.
Leah Garden is the 2021 Environment Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a freelance climate journalist, and Director of Sustainability at Genetic Literacy Project. She previously served as the Dairy Greenhouse Gas Impact Intern at World Wildlife Fund, the Sustainability Communications Intern at the Can Manufacturers Institute, and Account Coordinator at the consulting firm Schultz & Williams. She holds an M.S. in Sustainability Management from American University’s Kogod School of Business and a B.S.B.A. from Bucknell University.