The Great Green Wall is a project of eleven countries in the Sahel-Sahara region: Thye are Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal. They have joined together to combat land degradation and restore native plant life to the landscape. I reported on a small part of this project, based in Tanzania, in a May blog under the title “Water Bunds”.

      In recent years, northern Africa has seen the quality of arable land decline significantly due to climate change and poor land management. Uniting under the banner of the “Great Green Wall” initiative, national and regional leaders hope to reverse this trend. The bulk of the work on the ground was originally concentrated along a stretch of land from Djibouti, Ethiopia in the east to Dakar, Senegal, in the west—an expanse 15 kilometers (nine miles) wide and 7,775 kilometers (4,831 miles) long. The project has since expanded to include countries in both northern and western Africa. See the map above.

      Land degradation typically stems from both human-related and natural factors; over-farming, over-grazing, climate change, and extreme weather are the most common causes. Beyond affecting land and the natural environment, land degradation also poses serious threats to agricultural productivity, food security, and quality of human life. Nowhere is this issue more urgent than in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 500 million people live on land undergoing desertification, the most extreme form of land degradation.

      Jean-Marc Sinnassamy is a senior environmental specialist with the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He helps manage a program developed under the Great Green Wall initiative with countries in the Sahel and West Africa. The GEF joined the initiative at the beginning, helping to convene country leaders at the headquarters of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Bonn, Germany, in February 2011. The World Bank and other organizations focused on global development and GEF provided financial and technical support. For Sinnassamy, the partnership represents a unique opportunity to work across the region with a solid political base. 

      “We saw political leaders, heads of state, ministers in different countries wanting to work on common environmental issues, and wanting to tackle land degradation issues together,” he says. “For us, this is a political blessing. We have to respond to that demand. Working to combat land degradation is the best way to address both very local issues, and the global environment,” Sinnassamy says. “We are working with the land, which is the basis of livelihood in these communities. We are working with people to improve soil quality, which improves crop yield and, in turn, agricultural production and the overall quality of life in the community. These very local benefits are also a way to generate global benefits for water, land, and nature.”

      Having spent the better part of a year planning, strategizing, and building partnerships with agencies on the ground, the Great Green Wall initiative is beginning to report positive early results. The project’s $2 billion budget, stemming largely from World Bank co-financing, and partnerships fostered by the African Union, ensures participating countries will have the means to see the project through to the end.

      Examples of success include more than 50,000 acres of trees planted in Senegal. Most of these are the acacia species Senegalia senegal, which has economic value for the commodity it produces, gum arabic. (Gum arabic is primarily used as a food additive.) A small portion of the trees are also fruit-bearing, which, when mature, will help combat the high levels of malnutrition in the country’s rural interior.

      Even more dramatic is the project’s potential social impact. The improvements in land quality and economic opportunity in Mali may help curb terrorism in the country, where famine and poverty have exacerbated a spike in political and religious extremism.

      It is good to hear about major, multi-country projects in Africa that are making a huge difference in a sustainable and visionary approach to environmental conservation.

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