Africa: What Happened to Africa's Ambitious Green Belt Project?

(File photo).

The 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) wide Great Green Wall project stretches over 7,775 km from Senegal on the Atlantic to Eritrea on the Red Sea. The aim was to curb the Sahara Desert's spread. But major challenges remain.

The change in climate and weather patterns is precipitating a rapid spread of the Sahara Desert, encroaching into lands and engulfing huge lakes, according to climate scientists.

Seven countries of the Sahel region, an area located just south of the Sahara, therefore initiated a project that will see billions of trees planted across 11 countries by 2030, which will serve as buffer zones to stop the desertification.

The African Union (AU) launched the initiative in 2007 under the name the Great Green Wall.

"The Great Green Wall is an inspiring and ambitious attempt to find an urgent solution to two of the major challenges of the 21st century, namely desertification and the loss of fertile soil," said Janani Vivekananda, climate consultant at adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank on climate, environment and development.

Work and income against rural-urban migration

The Great Green Wall is more than just an environmental project that is intended to restore 100 million hectares of fertile lands in the Sahel, and in the process cut 250 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It aims to create 10 million so-called green jobs.

"It's not just about planting trees in the Sahel region, but also about tackling issues such as climate change, drought, famine, conflict, migration and land degradation," Vivekananda told DW.

Climate expert and Energy Watch Group president, Hans-Josef Fell, said: "Many people should get work through such a project, the trees bring fruit and wood."

In the shadow of the forest, the soil could potentially be used for agriculture. "Creating work and income is one of the most important measures to combat mass migration in the region," said Fell.

Back to traditional methods

A total of 20 countries pledged support to the Sahel countries for the mammoth project. The European Commission has already invested more than €7 million ( $7.5 million).

But according to the United Nations, the initiative has only reached 15% of its targets after just over a decade. "Progress is slow, but we have learned a lot along the way," said climate consultant Vivekananda.

One of the lessons learned so far is that a continuous wall is not such a good idea, because trees would otherwise be planted in areas inaccessible to the people who could take care of them. Instead, local initiatives have been formed to preserve existing trees, using traditional methods of securing a water supply.

Threats of corruption and terrorism

"The project is successful in some areas, less so in others," said climate expert Fell. Ethiopia in particular has made great progress since 2007, reportedly restoring around 15 million hectares of desolate soil, according to the UN.

"The main reason is that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has put afforestation at the top of his agenda," Fell told DW.

Successes in the fight against desertification can also be reported in Nigeria where five million hectares of land has been restored and 20,000 green jobs created. In Senegal, too, more than 11 million trees have been planted, making 25,000 hectares of land fertile again.

This progress cannot be said for many countries in Central Africa, according to Fell. "Terrorism is very strong here and paralyzes human efforts and aid organizations. Corruption also plays a role with money rather going into politicians' pockets than into project development."

Nevertheless, in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, around 120 municipalities have jointly created a green belt on more than 2,500 hectares of deserted land and planted more than two million seeds and seedlings of 50 native tree species.

Far behind schedule

But lack of funding is a particularly big problem for conflict-torn countries such as Burkina Faso. The cross-border Great Green Wall Initiative is currently not investing in the country due to its high insecurity.

Janani Vivekananda thinks this is a mistake: "The project would be a good way to create peace. But if investments are only made in stable states, then it will harm the weakest who, without investments, are exposed to further conflicts and climate change. Ultimately, this increases the inequality between stable and fragile states."

It is now up to Africa's governments to recognize the initiative as an important motor, Fell argues. "But it is going too slowly, Africa is far behind schedule, the necessary needs have to be launched much faster. This requires concentrated action in development cooperation and by local governments."

A rich mosaic of different initiatives

Nevertheless, the German climate expert believes that Africa's green dream can become a reality. However, it would require certain foundations: "Education and training for the population, as well as money for the first measures such as irrigation. In addition, fighting corruption and terrorism. Because that massively destroys the activities of the population," said Fell.

Vivekananda believes that if Africa's governments concentrate on these steps, a living wonder of the world could indeed blossom in 10 years' time: "If enough work is put into the green wall, we may soon have no continuous wall, but we will have one rich mosaic of different initiatives that contribute to people's livelihood and food safety. If women and young people are included, the Great Green Wall will be a success by 2030," she said.

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