In the mid-1980s a terrible drought devastated the Sahel. Sahel is a strip that crosses Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean where around 150 million people live.
The inhabitants of the Sahel suffered terrible famine and many had to emigrate because of the droughts.
This was not the first drought in this part of Africa and the problem of desertification had been talked about for years before that.
In 1996, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) entered into force, defining it as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, such as climatic variations and human activities".
This definition is important because it expressly indicates that overexploitation of resources and the intensive grazing that was also responsible for recurrent droughts in the Sahel.
An idea that has already been influenced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) when the 1984 famine broke out:
"...drought alone does not lead in the short term to resource degradation. Other factors include population growth, the expansion of agriculture resulting in deforestation and rapid urbanization (which increases the demand for firewood).
Changes in political, economic and social institutions, both at the national and regional levels, have reduced local self-reliance and the ability to undertake joint projects," said Jean Gorse, director of the World Bank working group on desertification in West Africa, in an article in the International Journal of Forestry and Forest Industries edited by FAO.
The Great Green Wall
The Great Green Wall is an initiative launched in 2007, that aims to literally create a large green wall, made up of more than 8,000 kilometers of productive landscapes that run through the Sahel.
The wall helps to stop desertification, restoring damaged ecosystems and recovering fertile land.
The idea came from the African Union and has been supported by the FAO, the European Union and the World Bank, and partly reflects the heritage of Kenyan environmental leader Wangari Maathai (1940-2011).
Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and founded the Green Belt Movement; a project that puts African women in the forefront of change and a project that has already planted millions of trees across Kenya.
Since its inception a little over ten years ago, the initiative has managed to cover about 15% of the land across Africa.
Millions of hectares of degraded land have been restored and many jobs have been generated thanks to the Great Green Wall project.
A domino effect has been created by this macro project. The recovery of fertile land, the possibility of recovering grazing, the role of trees as temperature regulators and carbon sequestration have become a means to mitigate climate change.
The UN's Sustainable Development Goals
The Great Green Wall project contributes directly to the achievement of almost all the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN for the year 2030.
“Creating a green wall across the Sahel is much more than restoring degraded land. This initiative combats poverty and hunger, generates local resistance to climate change, improves health and well-being, creates jobs, increases economic opportunities and so on,” it explains on The Green Wall project’s website.
Criticism of the Great Green Wall
One of the main criticisms that the project received was that the reality was far from what it had envisioned. Although the project thought that planting trees is the solution to all environmental problems, the reality is that the natural vegetation of the planet is made up of non-tree species.
So, rather than planting tuntún trees, it is more advisable to identify the local flora in order to protect it and favour the natural regeneration of these species.
In short, the proposed solution would be to carry out ecosystem restorations just as The Green Wall project has been able to do.
In recent years not only hundreds of trees have been planted but millions of hectares of degraded land have been restored.
An inspiring project
In August 2019, those attending the Venice International Film Festival were able to attend the premiere of the documentary ‘The Great Green Wall’, directed by Jared P. Scott, which has contributed to giving more visibility to the initiative.
A few weeks later, FAO announced a new plan to support nature-based solutions to climate change: The Great Green Wall for Cities.
A project which aims to restore and create new urban forests in various cities in the Sahel and Central Asia.
Thirty years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but many human rights organizations denounce the existence of many more walls that divide the world in the 21st century.
With many walls acting as a barrier in the context of world politics and international relations, perhaps the creation of more green walls and less concrete walls is the solution to our problem.