AFRICANGLOBE – Despite the United Nation’s recent declaration that the deadly Horn of Africa famine of 2011 has finally ended, it remains an obvious and inescapable certainty that the continent will soon confront another convergence of climatic, political and economic problems that produces a similar tragedy.
Unless immediate and effective measures are taken forthwith, the lives of possibly an even greater number of people will continue to be imperilled. Moreover, it seems imprudent to imagine that such a crisis can truly be thought to have abated, as the latent effects will be felt for the foreseeable future amongst both people and the environment.
An integral characteristic of regions at risk, particularly the famine-prone Sahel region, is the continued human insecurity of many of its inhabitants, not simply in terms of food, but also water, land and livelihood. The Sahel region of Africa is an environmental zone stretching from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic coastlines of Senegal and Mauritania. It separates the Sahara Desert to the north from the temperate regions and rainforests to the south. Combined with long-standing concerns over shrinking land and water resources available for the production of food, the search is on for long-term viable and sustainable solutions on a pan-African basis that can raise human security levels and ensure future famines can be averted.
One such project that is successfully attracting and exciting the imaginations of local stakeholders, international donors and global environmentalists is the proposed Great Green Wall (GGW). This ambitious project is immense in both its scope and the possible consequences it could have on the geographical and political-economic fortunes of the peoples and states in the Sahel and beyond. In effect an approximately 8000 km long, 15km wide belt of trees and bushes would be planted, cultivated or regenerated across the entire length of the Sahel, in order to safeguard against any southward encroachment of the Sahara, thereby preventing further desertification. Behind this green safety barrier Sahel countries would theoretically be able to increase the yield of the land to feed growing populations. Increasing vegetation cover ensures that water is retained as it causes rain water to seep into the ground rather than disappear as run-off, which would otherwise carry away vital top soil.
The origins for idea of the GGW are commonly credited to former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara, although contemporary interest and impetus largely occurred once former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo backed the plan in 2005. The GGW was subsequently taken up and has since been adopted by the African Union as a major future initiative. The project has also received widespread backing from a number of international and non-governmental organisations such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which has pledged support in the region of $115 million in grants and investments.
Such a grand and long-sighted environmentally-orientated project is welcome given the fact that Sahelian lands are amongst the most vulnerable in the world to the process of desertification. This is as a result of the environmental damage endured as a result of climate change, as well as the increased pressure upon them as means for livelihoods and survival.
However, despite the repetition of good intentions and statements of praise for the project, some observers are noting that its promise remains unfulfilled, as large-scale projects are not yet being undertaken. This loses sight of some of the inspiring and encouraging farming and conservation practices that have emerged in Africa in response to droughts and desertification.
The techniques and ideas deserve greater attention and funding, as the potential benefits are huge. Upon critical reflection, a number of crucial points emerge concerning the GGW that need to be addressed whilst the project proceeds. Foremost amongst these considerations is the fact that projects that plant trees with the aim of preventing desertification have proven largely unsuccessful as a result of poor planning, policies and because inadequate resources were devoted to sustaining the projects. Little encouragement was also given to local farmers to partake in such projects. Indeed, legislation often penalised farmers for encroaching on wooded areas, as they were accustomed to do.
The GGW needs to mirror the success of projects elsewhere. Two important examples stand out, firstly the work of the late Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in planting seedlings and trees and successfully replacing lost wooded areas. Planting alone, though, is not deemed a feasible continental-wide solution, and to combat this problem the Green Belt Movement successfully encouraged local participation on a wide scale, particularly amongst women.
The second project which provides useful insights stem from the examples of Yacouba Sawadogo in Burkina Faso and other proponents of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). FMNR has encouraged farming techniques suited to vulnerable areas of Sahel, such as agro-forestry, which entails the practice of allowing trees to grow inside crop fields, thus anchoring soils and shielding surrounding crops. It also reflects a key lesson from past projects that trees must be grown and nurtured, rather than simply planted and left to grow. Moreover indigenous trees must be chosen, ones well suited to the environment and that have additional economic benefits derived from their seeds, fruits, oils, bark or leaves.
A major challenge for GGW proponents is to ensure that the region does not become viewed as a veritable cornucopia for revenue. One of the major difficulties of the greening process is that the area could ultimately succumb to desertification if the process is abused and the green belt is not allowed to flourish before it is exploited. Economic gain should not become the main driving force for the project, as the past has illustrated that too often the environment is destroyed for short-term profit. The GGW will only prove to be a success over a long period of time, and rewards from the endeavour will not be immediately apparent. A combination of planting and regeneration techniques is required that suits the particular context but also ensures that the project is not driven by commercially oriented desires to use GGW project money to create new industries in these countries.
Local opposition to the plans for the GGW are not widely known at present and a worry is that the rights of farmers and communities will not be considered in the decision-making processes for the location and construction of the GGW. This would ultimately derail the project, as it is vital that any artificial change to the landscape is made with the consent and support of the populace. In addition, local populations risk being marginalised by authorities. The failure of past projects also points to the inadequacies of a top-down state directed process. Instead, as far as possible, responsible bottom-up leadership and initiatives are required to ensure that it remains human security orientated. The successes of the Green Belt Movement also affirms the importance of local participation, and a sense of being a permanent stakeholder in this holistic process.
By Timothy Walker
Mr. Walker is a consultant in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis programme of the ISS.