How countries along the Sahara can restore productive land faster

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is about to take over presidency from the Pan-African Agency of the Great Green Wall – the continent’s efforts to restore destroyed farmland, pastures and woodlands bordering the Sahara Desert. He succeeds Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, President of Mauritania.

Buhari is supported by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and an international accelerator platform with new funding. But based on the slow development so far and the long-standing confusion about the initiative’s vision, much work remains to be done to achieve the prosperity of farmers.

Africa’s great green wall is an ambitious initiative launched in 2007 by the African Union. It is now far behind schedule. It has to speed up immediately to reach its goal of 2030, which is in demand by the new infusion of money and as needed by the people along the edges of the desert.

The original goal was to plant an 8,000 km long, 15 km wide tree barrier that connects Dakar with Djibouti. This was to stop “desert encroachment” and protect ecosystems and human communities in southern and northern Sahara from the harmful effects of desertification and drought.

The African Union and the Pan-African Bureau of the Great Green Wall rejected this idea during 2012, shift the focus of efforts from trees to humans. Improving food security and livelihoods will be linked to desertification.

The new vision that emerged in 2012 is to establish a mosaic of green and productive landscapes over a wide zone surrounding the Sahara. The aim is to restore the entire agricultural system through land management practices that improve rural livelihoods.

The goals for the Green Wall 2030 are:

  • restore 100 million hectares of degraded land

  • remove 250 million tonnes of coal

  • create 10 million green jobs in rural areas.

Read more: Africa has plans for a Great Green Wall: why the idea needs to be reconsidered

Reported progress has been slow and erratic, say reports commissioned by UN Convention to Combat Desertification and that World Bank. Only about 18 million hectares have been restored so far and the movement in some countries is lagging behind. The food and Agriculture organization and United Nations has estimated that the pace must increase by a factor of 10 if the 2030 targets are to be reached.

Fortunately, help is on the way. January 11, 2021 at the One Planet Summit in Paris, world leader announced $ 16 billion in financial support over five years – almost 10 times as much as international donors contributed between 2010 and 2019. A new multi-stakeholder platform will accelerate the Green Wall process through better coordination, implementation, monitoring and impact tracking. This accelerator will be managed by the agency headed by Buhari.

The task is a challenge but far from hopeless. Successful cases of greening exist, as shown by The Food and Agriculture Organization’s map of 2016. The accelerator would be good to study what has worked for renews on different case.

The following suggestions are based on our experience and review of successful cases.

Build on past successes

In the densely populated parts of southern Niger there are farmers renewed more than five million hectares since 1985 by adding at least 200 million trees to their agricultural systems. They did this not by planting trees, but by protecting and managing natural renewal from the tree stumps already there and from the plants that come naturally from the soil.

On Malis Seno Plains, about half a million hectares have been regenerated by farmers since the mid-1990s. IN central Senegal, hundreds of villages are now greener than 30 years ago. IN Burkina Faso and Niger, farmers have restored hundreds of thousands of hectares of barren degraded land to productivity by using simple water harvesting techniques.

These and other successful cases of restoration were driven and achieved through the mobilization of the grassroots community and the independent efforts of millions of households. They were also encouraged by some NGOs and development projects. They gave massive results at a very low cost.

Many of these efforts have not been officially reported as contributions to the Green Wall, as they took place outside the budgets and control of the national forestry departments.

The Pan African Agency must now persuade governments to recognize and vigorously support investment in bottom-up, cost-effective, grassroots initiatives of this kind. This may not be the preferred choice for government agencies through which funds are likely to pass. But many years of slow progress suggest that it is the only path to success.

No need to plant

The idea of ​​the narrow green line across Africa still persists in too many senses. It’s over time to let it go. More trees are really needed, but planting is one expensive and uncertain ways to establish them in arid and semi-arid countries.

Budgets can be stretched enormously by switching to proven methods that achieve evergreens faster than conventional tree planting. We have discovered that transformation is almost always led by farmers. Farmers can protect and deal with the natural renewal of trees and shrubs on land they manage. There is also proven methods for harvesting rainwater and conserving land and water.

Clarify goals and track progress

The shift in vision has made it more challenging to follow the progress of the green wall. It is easier to imagine and monitor a long wall of planted trees than an extensive restoration initiative. New baselines must be created. All progress should be counted, not just what comes from government spending. The Pan-African Agency should insist on greater clarity and consistency in what needs to be monitored.

Cooperate with the non-governmental sector

The non-governmental sector must complement government departments. The members of Global EverGreening Alliance has promised its joint capacity to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of contaminated land. The alliance covers almost all the major development and conservation non-governmental organizations around the world and those working in the Sahel.

The NGO community is a huge resource. The Pan African Agency can greatly increase its impact by working with it.

It is possible to restore the 100 million hectares of degraded land surrounding the Sahara. But the mindsets of governments and donor organizations need to change. The success so far has largely been due to grassroots efforts with only modest support from external sources. Thus, the strategy going forward is clear: invest in scaling up the proven successes and let go of those that have failed.

Although President Buhari has not indicated the direction the agency will take under his chairmanship, we hope he can follow these recommendations.

Author: Lars Laestadius – Adjunct Researcher, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Chris Reij – Sustainable mark management specialist, World Resources Institute | Dennis Garrity – Senior Fellow, EverGreen Agriculture Partnership Chair, World Agroforestry (ICRAF) The conversation






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