Across Africa, from Senegal to Djibouti, the world’s longest vegetative wall is being built: the Great Green Wall. It is 7,600 km long. More than just a reforestation program, the vast project that will cross 11 countries aims to transform some of the world’s most fragile arid areas into dynamic rural centers of production and development. It addresses multiple challenges related to combating desertification, economic development, food security, climate change, and biodiversity conservation. A wall to unlock the potential of millions of people in the Sahel. But with what technical, organizational, and financial credibility?
Will building the Great Green Wall (GGW) be the solution to the various crises threatening the African Sahel? Will it be up to the demographic challenge by 2050? Sahel countries, which have the world’s highest fertility rates, will have 330 million inhabitants.
The project was adopted by the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the African Union at the 5th Summit held in July 2005 in Sirte, Libya, and at the 8th session held on January 29 and 30, 2007 in Addis Ababa. It was structured in 2010 around the Pan-African Agency of the GGW, which now includes 11 countries (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad).
What does this ecological restoration initiative consist of? How is it being implemented? What are its chances of success?
The GMV project and its evolution
A grandiose project! The GMV presents itself as a vast program to combat desertification. A 15 km wide vegetation strip should stretch over 7,700 km from Djibouti to Dakar, covering an area of 780 million hectares of arid and semi-arid areas. The project is to create a more or less linear, but continuous, multi-species vegetation strip including various land use systems, crossing inhabited areas (villager’s land), uninhabited areas (classified forests, national parks, animal parks, botanical reserves, community reserves). Due to certain factors (water plans, mountains, rocky hills, sacred or haunted areas), the Great Wall may be diverted to the north or south.
Map 1. The GMV’s outline
The GMV will help contain the desertification process, protect soils and biodiversity, respond to climate change and rainfall crises, while reversing migration flows. Once the GMV is completed, 100 million hectares of degraded land will have been restored. 10 million jobs will have been created by 2030. 250 million tons of carbon will have been sequestered.
The evaluation of the carbon sequestration potential includes both carbon stored in woody biomass and in soils, based on restoration impacts reported by countries until 2019 for three activities: tree planting, assisted natural regeneration in enclosures, and agroforestry systems. Estimates are based on the assumption that these reported measures are effective and continue at least until 2030 (e.g., survival of all planted trees).
In 2012, the GMV project was reviewed with a Harmonized Global Strategy (HGS) to consolidate national strategies and action plans of member states (with the support of FAO and the European Union), resulting in a coordinated implementation strategy structured in five-year planning stages. Member countries have thus developed national action plans to develop steps to achieve national GMV objectives.
For a decade, the vision of the GMV has evolved towards an approach called “integrated ecosystem management” as a means of revitalizing all natural and human ecosystems. The project aims to integrate a mosaic of different land use and production systems, including sustainable land use and restoration of arid lands, regeneration of natural vegetation as well as water retention and conservation measures.
Figure 1. A brief history of the Great Green Wall
An ancient concept
The concept of a green wall or green belt is one of the most commonly used approaches in arid or semi-arid regions. It was mentioned in Algeria in the 1960s by President Houari Boumédiène and in Burkina Faso by Thomas Sankara in the 1980s. The idea for both was to use a strip of trees to create a barrier against environmental challenges.
The concept originated in China. The original goal was to protect against invading nomads, and it emerged when Chinese emperors built a great wall to defend against Mongol forces that were invading the northern region (Monastersky, 1994). When Mao Zedong came to power after the Chinese revolution, he transformed it into a green wall of trees to combat dust storms from the Gobi Desert. Since 1950, China has planted over 300 million trees along the access routes to the arid northern region to prevent dust storms from the Gobi Desert and other arid areas, making it the largest man-made forest in the world. The belt of trees is said to reduce dust and act as a windbreak, slowing down the winds and preserving soil moisture in the arid northern region. Chinese scientists have claimed that monoculture tree plantations are a more effective means of absorbing greenhouse gases than slow-growing natural forests. While biodiversity may be lower, the planted trees are expected to offset China’s carbon emissions.
Europe has also recognized the importance of nature preservation and sustainable development by launching the “European Green Belt” in 2004, creating a transboundary ecological network. It aims to establish a mega-biological corridor spanning nearly 13,000 km, forming one of the backbones of the future Pan-European Ecological Network. This corridor would connect the Arctic (via the Barents Sea) to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, passing through 23 countries. The Green Belt initiative presents regional diversity and traverses Europe’s biogeographical regions to preserve biodiversity in protected areas. The European Green Belt initiative is structured into three regional sections: “Fennoscandia” and “Baltic,” “Central Europe,” and “Southeast Europe,” each with a regional coordinator and supervised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The European Green Belt spans 23 countries and is created to transform social division into nature conservation, contributing to the building of strong transboundary identities.
An initiative among others
In recent years, a number of international and regional land restoration initiatives have been launched. Since the signing of the International Convention to Combat Desertification in Paris in 1994, various national and sub-regional action plans have been developed and implemented, and significant financial resources have been mobilized.
The Convention on Desertification
Emerging from the Rio Earth Summit (1992), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted in Paris on June 17, 1994, and entered into force in 1996. Its primary goal is to promote sustainable development at the community level. The convention aims to support concrete measures by building on innovative local programs and international partnerships. As desertification is closely linked to climate change and the decrease in biological diversity, synergies are sought to be established with other conventions (such as climate change and biodiversity) to take complementary actions. Indeed, droughts and severe floods resulting from climate change have the potential to intensify soil degradation, erosion, and consequently desertification.
Various institutions have been established to combat desertification and drought. These include the Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), the Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC). Environmental issues are also a concern for regional economic communities such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD).
Several governments and regional communities are engaged in defining priorities for agricultural, fisheries, and forestry research. One notable example is the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) launched in 2003 by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). CAADP is the most comprehensive African initiative and serves as the agricultural component of NEPAD. It is regularly evaluated and updated, providing a framework to guide national strategies and investment programs while promoting better coherence of agricultural and rural development programs across the continent.
Regional, sub-regional, and national Action Programs to Combat Desertification (PAR, PASR, PAN), TerrAfrica programs for Restoration and Management of Degraded Lands (GTD), as well as significant initiatives led by intergovernmental institutions tackling desertification and arid zone development, should also be mentioned.
Despite the efforts made and some progress achieved, it is evident that the results in land restoration and biodiversity have fallen short of expectations.
Lessons can be drawn from these experiences: no individual state has the technical, human, and financial resources necessary to address these major constraints, hence the need for a solidary, integrated, and inclusive approach.
The organization of the GMV
The immense project involves a series of stakeholders, including national governments, international organizations, the private sector, and civil society.
The GMV is based on an original governance structure, in line with global standards and models: the Pan-African Agency of the GMV (APGMV), established in 2010, and its national counterparts in the eleven member states, aim to be the privileged interlocutors of a wide range of local and global actors, both governmental and non-governmental (NGOs, foundations, research centers, private sector, etc.) operating in various fields such as ecological restoration, agricultural development, or renewable energy. This aims to make the GMV an attractive project that fosters partnerships.
The 9 Regional Structural Programs (RSPs) coordinated by the APAGMV are structured around the project’s 5 major strategic axes. They are tailored to the specific needs of each country, with a common thread that includes the restoration of degraded lands, economic development, increased adaptation and resilience to climate change, and the fight against food insecurity and migration. At the national level, member states have established national GMV agencies or focal points to oversee and coordinate the implementation of national GMV priority actions.
The first cycle, 2011-2015, focused on establishing the institutional and organizational framework of the GMV structures, conceptualization, awareness raising, and ownership of the concept, as well as piloting activities at the country level and developing national GMV action plans. The second cycle, 2014-2020, was more geared towards operational activities and aimed to accelerate concrete actions. The third cycle, 2021-2025, is intended to consolidate the activities and measures that have been implemented. Finally, the fourth cycle, 2026-2030, would intensify activities and make a substantial contribution of the GMV to the achievement of sustainable development goals and the international commitments of member states.
The process of desertification
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines the process of desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” It is primarily caused by factors such as overgrazing, overexploitation of agricultural land, deforestation, increased frequency of fires, over-pumping of groundwater, water impoundment, increased soil salinity, and global climate change.
Currently, deserts cover 4 billion hectares of the planet. This area is at risk of expanding further, as one-third of the Earth’s land surface is threatened by desertification, including natural spaces, grazing lands, rainfed crops, and irrigated crops. It poses a threat to 1.5 billion people in around 100 countries. All continents are affected.
Up to 65% of productive land is degraded, while desertification affects 45% of the land in Africa. While the general trend is decreasing, the net loss of forests continues to increase in Africa, with four million hectares of forests disappearing each year. The significance of this vast area becomes evident when considering that approximately 43% of the continent is characterized as extreme deserts (desert margins represent areas of very high vulnerability).
In the Sahel region, in particular, desertification is a multidimensional process involving climate, biophysical, economic, and social dimensions. It leads to a decline in the fertility of the natural environment, starting with vegetation alteration and drying up of wells and ponds. Subsequently, vegetation cover thins out, and biomass production decreases. The soil, less protected, is subjected to the mechanical action of precipitation, leading to surface changes and progressive soil destruction. Where vegetation disappears, the soil is exposed to wind, causing the particles to be carried away and deposited elsewhere, resulting in erosion of the topsoil. Additionally, due to the disappearance of shade provided by vegetation cover, the evaporation rate increases, and salt accumulates on the soil surface. Soil salinity rises, hindering the growth of new plants. The loss of vegetation leads to a decrease in retained moisture, with potential consequences such as changes in climatic patterns and reduced precipitation.
A spiral of degradation is then recorded. Desertification not only contributes to food insecurity, famines, and poverty but can also fuel economic, political, and social tensions (people displaced due to desertification create new pressures on natural resources and other neighboring populations). These tensions, in turn, can lead to further migration, conflicts, increased poverty, and additional land degradation.
Is the Sahel experiencing a severe environmental crisis ?
One of the determining ecological parameters is rainfall. While part of the GMV is located in inhabited areas, another equally important part will be situated in uninhabited areas and will rely solely on rainfall for its maintenance. Therefore, the Wall must be located at latitudes with annual average rainfall ranging from 400 to 100 millimeters (1 mm = 0.001 meter of rainfall).
Due to its detrimental and recurring effects, desertification has led to significant devastation of natural resources, a decline in agricultural production, a situation of food insecurity, and a heavy socio-economic toll that negatively impacts the development efforts of countries in the Saharan-Sahelian region.
Over the past thirty years, the Sahelian region has experienced a significant increase in temperatures, more erratic rainfall patterns, and an increase in torrential rains. Droughts and heatwaves regularly and more severely affect certain regions compared to others.
The ecological zone of the Sahel has shifted several tens of kilometers southward due to a combination of declining groundwater levels and increased land degradation, resulting in a reduction in biodiversity and an expansion of arid lands.
Map 2. Soil degradation
All of these phenomena directly affect the food security and access to clean water of the Sahelian population, whose livelihoods depend largely on the exploitation of natural resources. Additionally, this region faces numerous social, security, and environmental challenges, including poverty, droughts, lack of decent rural employment, insecurity, population displacement, and competition for access to productive resources.
The irreversibility of desertification is debated by some climatologists who argue that the thesis of desert encroachment is oversimplified. In West Africa, some observers have noted a greening trend in many areas, with the visible return of woody vegetation both by the naked eye and through satellite imagery. This is not due to tree plantations but rather the interaction between improved rainfall since the 1990s and the dissemination of herbaceous and tree seeds through livestock consumption. In 2020, the Niger River experienced exceptional floods, submerging nearly 10,000 hectares of crops, particularly in the regions of Maradi, Tillabéri, Dosso, Niamey, Tahoua, and Zinder.
The observation of a “greening” of the Sahel is now widely acknowledged and recognized, as evidenced by the latest reports from the IPCC. It results from increased precipitation in the Sahel since the 1990s, following two decades of drought. However, this greening is not limited to increased moisture; it is accompanied by an increase in vegetation cover, including the development of woody vegetation. This highlights the resilience of tree formations in semi-arid areas, independent of restoration efforts such as reforestation and the Great Green Wall.
To reverse adverse trends
Nevertheless, the fundamental idea behind the Great Green Wall is that it is possible to reverse the negative trends undermining the Sahel region through restoration efforts and better land management. This should enhance the resilience of communities to climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure food security for future generations.
What is soil restoration ?
Soil restoration is the process of recovering the ecological functionality of degraded lands by restoring ecosystem services. To be effective and sustainable, land restoration must be approached at the landscape scale. A restored landscape may include a mosaic of naturally regenerated areas, agroforestry, orchards, protected wildlife reserves, tree and shrub plantations, and soil management measures. The key to long-term success is to involve local communities and other stakeholders in identifying and implementing appropriate restoration activities (IUCN 2017).
Where degradation is more severe, at least 10 million hectares will need to be restored annually, enriching the soils through plantations, ensuring high-quality seeds and seedlings, and involving local communities in the selection of native species to be used.
The project includes the establishment of a series of retention basins and a network of wells along the route, in suitable areas, to mitigate rainfall variability and make water available for domestic needs and income-generating activities such as the production and value addition of various fruits and non-timber forest products, including honey, gum arabic, baobab leaves, as well as the sale of forage and seedlings. A stable influx of income from natural products and services is important for exit strategies that contribute to the long-term sustainability of restoration projects.
The implementation of the GMV is achieved through the installation and integrated development of economically valuable plant species adapted to arid lands, retention basins, agricultural production systems, various income-generating activities, and basic social infrastructure.
Photo credit: WFP, Evelyn Fey
It has been demonstrated that low-input agriculture, especially in the absence of appropriate conservation practices, leads to land degradation. As agriculture in Africa is predominantly a system with very low inputs of soil-enriching materials and low yields, land degradation is accelerated, and recent studies show a progressive decline in yields.
To succeed, the GMV project must rely on local knowledge and involve the affected populations. Studies such as the Restoring African Drylands study by the European Tropical Forest Research Network (ETFRN) demonstrate how farmer-led climate-adapted natural regeneration projects, simple water harvesting methods, and binding community land-use rules have restored the productivity of degraded soils.
The merits of tree planting
Despite its long dry season, the area has the advantage of having a vegetal and ecological potential that can allow for the development of vegetation restoration projects.
Planting trees helps regenerate forests and bring back biodiversity. Trees also provide a habitat for grasses to grow underneath and attract new pollinators and insects.
The planned actions include tree planting, particularly of gum trees, acacias, desert dates, jujube trees with prized fruits, and forage plants for livestock, as well as indigenous plants.
By 2030, Niger, a country that is three-quarters desert, aims to “green” 3.6 million hectares of land, which represents 37.5% of its vast territory. There is hope placed in the plantations of Senegalia senegal (white gum) and Bauhinia rufescens, two drought-resistant species that can reach up to twelve meters in height. These species are rich in proteins for livestock, and their cooked or dried forms can be consumed as survival food during severe food shortages.
In Senegal, the choice of species was crucial and based on two criteria: the opinions of the local populations and the results of laboratory tests. Ultimately, seven species were selected, which are most likely to adapt to the harsh climate of the Sahelian zone.
The plants are grown in nurseries and, once they have reached a certain size, they are planted during the winter period to take advantage of the rainy season. Trenches are dug in the ground to capture rainwater.
Photo credit, Le Point Afrique
Many seedlings die quickly, so reestablishment in the early years is necessary for sufficient vegetation cover. Monitoring is required for at least 5 to 10 years. The results are sometimes poor, which is not surprising considering that a quarter of the GMV area is not suitable for sustainable planting operations. The ecological constraint is strong, which is why community-based management that focuses on assisted natural regeneration – a less expensive but effective and socially accepted method compared to reforestation – is seen as a preferred option by local populations.
The progress of the project
Since 2007, 18 million hectares have been restored and 350,000 jobs have been created. At this rate, we would need to rehabilitate twice as much land per year to reach the target set for 2030.
Table 1. Activities to be undertaken by GMV countries
In Senegal, the most advantageous showcase of the GMV is located in Ferlo, where transhumant pastoralism predominates. The GMV has been successfully implemented in several communes of the agro-pastoral zone. Two main types of interventions are being implemented. The first one concerns environmental restoration through reforestation (over 50,000 ha), while the second one relates to the objectives of food security and poverty alleviation through the creation of village vegetable gardens. These developments offer a range of resources and services to local communities in the short and medium term (income-generating activities for vulnerable populations, support for the coordinated management of natural resources for local authorities) as well as in the long term (increased vegetation cover, ensuring increased forage availability for livestock farmers). Here and there, the miracle of life unfolds. Water, pumped from a depth of 200 meters, nourishes the livestock and ensures the growth of trees. The roots limit soil erosion. The dung of herbivores fertilizes the land and disperses plant seeds. Pollinating insects return. The agents of the Great Green Wall do not get discouraged. They are committed to reforesting smaller plots of around 100 hectares, which are easier to fence. The future would also be found in “integrated agricultural farms” of about twenty hectares, where residents would engage in horticulture and livestock farming.
However, the impact of the Senegalese GMV remains limited: the sustainability of the gardens appears to depend on access to local land and water resources as well as external support, while reforestation of the enclosed plots constitutes an additional factor of fragmentation of the pastoral space and immediate resource withdrawals without direct compensation for transhumant herders.
Map 3. The route in Senegal
In some countries (Niger, Chad), the GMV is limited at best to a handful of reforested areas established in a few demonstration sites, or to the replication of low-impact developments.
In Nigeria, the implementation process was initiated in 2012 by the Ministry of Environment. In May 2015, the National Agency for the Great Green Wall of Nigeria was established to oversee the functioning of the initiative, with the operational zone located in the 11 states of Nigeria affected by desertification and climate variations. The law mandated the Agency to manage and reverse the desert encroachment in the frontline states of Nigeria through regional, sub-regional, and international collaboration. The goal is to sequester over 250 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030. An additional argument concerns the implementation strategy to enhance food supply and support local communities, with abundant food crops and agro-silvopastoral zones being created instead of relying solely on a narrow strip of the wall. However, the assessment is nuanced. The implementation process has been slow and appears inadequate in achieving the regional objective of restoring degraded lands by 2030. “In attempting to address the research question on the ecological restoration strategy adopted by Nigeria in the implementation process to restore degraded lands and create sustainable livelihoods for affected inhabitants, the study established that the land restoration process, though spanning several phases over a period of 15 years, is progressing at a snail’s pace and there is a significant gap between the initiation of the initiative and the implementation process” (Orakwe, 2020, p.36).
Photo credit, AFD
The challenge of governance
A primary issue that arises in most or many countries of the Great Green Wall (GMV) is weak governance in the environmental domain.
Only four governments have placed the Great Green Wall at the top of their agenda. Here, we find two characteristic features of large projects. First, the gap between the grand ambitions and the limited implementation capacities. An initiative like the GMV must receive government support based on the effective integration of various strategies, policies, and action plans in key sectors for the GMV, primarily agriculture, land use, rural development, and energy.
The Pan-African Agency overseeing the operations has officially allocated 170 million euros in funding over fifteen years, of which 132 million came from outside Africa. These figures are contested. The main donors, led by the World Bank, estimate that 768 million euros have actually been absorbed by the Green Wall, some of which have been diverted by clientelistic entities.
The inadequate alignment between the planned project developments and the complex local realities of the territory is observed almost everywhere. Although decision-makers and funders express their agreement on the objective, the success of the projects relies on the participation of local populations. However, this participation must take place even in the face of underlying problems such as insecure land rights, underdeveloped markets, and limited access to local financing.
The financing challenge
As part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Programme (2015), global leaders committed to “combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought, and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world” by 2030. International partners such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the European Union, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), among others, have mobilized significant investments to advance the implementation of the project.
The Accelerator gained momentum when eight financial partners pledged $19 billion for the Great Green Wall Strategy 2020-2025. By the end of 2022, half of the funding has been committed in the form of commitments, contracts, and a significant effort within nine months. The Accelerator is advocating for commitments of at least $4.3 billion per year – the funding level required to achieve the goal of 100 million hectares by 2030.
The World Bank has committed to invest $5.6 billion by 2025 in the eleven countries involved. The European Union has pledged over €700 million per year, without specifying the distribution by country.
The project aims to be eligible for the Green Climate Fund or other “green” financing, such as incentive mechanisms for carbon sequestration plantations, which represent a potentially significant source of funding for many countries in the Global South.
A. Mirzabae and his team from the University of Bonn (2021) assessed the economic costs and benefits of future land restoration projects within this program, applying different scenarios that take into account both the market and non-market benefits of restored ecosystems, considering the heterogeneity of local decision-making contexts in terms of investment planning horizons, discount rates, and the time needed for restored ecosystems to fully produce their benefits. The results show that every dollar invested in land restoration yields an average return of $1.2 in the base scenario, ranging from $1.1 to $4.40 depending on the scenarios.
Many of the projects are not financially “profitable” in a strict sense. Assessed in terms of financial returns, most restoration projects generate low returns to attract private investors. Furthermore, the continuity, long-term sustainability, and replicability of projects are considered to carry higher risks compared to other investments. Indeed, restoration activities are implemented in a constantly evolving environment, primarily due to climate change, and sometimes in insecure situations.
There are numerous requirements to gather respective funding proposals to international donors. These requirements include co-financing principles and project cycle requirements, with the implementation of projects linked to payments made based on results or increasingly to the provision of environmental services, with third-party validations, as in the case of carbon finance.
The ecosystem services provided by the actions to be financed are numerous. Their recognition and accounting radically change the perception of the “profitability” of the actions.
Expected ecosystem services
The assessment tools for ecosystem services are improving. They have become a means of assigning a price signal associated with the consideration of biodiversity. Thus, taking into account the various services provided by the forest (recreational activities, carbon sequestration, protection, etc.) contributes to tripling the value of the forest compared to its sole function of wood supply.
There is a need to lay the groundwork for other types of remuneration, such as payment for environmental services for the well-being of the residents of the GMV, which would require being able to evaluate them in timeframes that are not limited to short-term measurements and controls (O’Connor and Ford, 2014; O’Byrne et al., 2022). Payment for environmental services (PES) systems could be established. They would mainly concern land and resource use through conservation commitments, planting or soil restoration efforts, or changes in farming or livestock practices.
The security challenge
A major obstacle to the Great Green Wall is the high number of conflicts in the Sahel region. Nearly half of the region identified as viable for restoration falls within conflict-affected areas.
The combination of various factors contributes to the critical situations. Desertification and unrest in northern Niger have exacerbated conflicts between farmers and herders, as arable land becomes increasingly scarce. In Chad, the rapid drying of water sources in pastoral areas in recent years naturally pushes herders to move southward into agricultural zones earlier than expected. Conflicts over resource use have become recurrent and, in some cases, deadly.
The Great Green Wall initiative faces a significant challenge: six of the countries along its path (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad) are confronted with jihadist violence, while three others (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia) are torn by civil wars.
Map 4. Locations of violent conflict incidents since 2015
Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)
The study by A. Mirzabae (2021) estimates that violent conflicts in the Sahel region reduce accessibility to these degraded ecosystems from 27.9 million hectares to 14.1 million hectares.
The security crisis in strategic pastoral areas such as the Gourma in Mali or the Azawak in Niger has severely disrupted pastoral activities in the Liptako-Gourma region. Similarly, in the eastern regions threatened by the presence of Boko Haram, including the Lake Chad Basin, similar challenges are faced. When conflicts arise, there is always a combination of factors that involve questioning the traditional land use practices, poor governance of the territory, and the negative impact of climate change (Jacquemot, 2023).
The project’s requalification: the GMV Accelerator
Given the modest results achieved, the project has been redefined as a “mosaic of sustainable land use practices,” where each country embraces the project in its own way, based on its culture, land ownership, and soil characteristics.
A territorial requalification of the Great Green Wall has been adopted: the “tree belt” will give way to a continuum of diversified developments. The hypothesis is that with more vegetation in the region, a moisture basin will be created. Water cycles will increase, and precipitation will multiply. As a result, the land will become warmer and more humid compared to the ocean, leading to increased atmospheric pressure differences and stronger and more intense monsoon winds.
The opening message from the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Ms. Amina Mohammed, at the ministerial meeting on the achievements of the Great Green Wall held in Bonn in September 2020, acknowledged that the initiative would be a massive success through collective action. She stated that “the opportunity to act together through collective action will end poverty and hunger, combat climate change, and create an economic path for those involved. Additionally, the economic and sustainable development of millions of lives and communities residing in the Sahel and beyond will be achieved” (UNCCD, 2020).
In the face of persistent challenges and to revitalize the project, the “Green Wall Accelerator” (A-GMV) was launched in Paris in January 2021 at the One Planet Summit. If commitments are met, over $14.3 billion is expected to be mobilized by 2025. Its objective is to support states’ efforts towards “a more comprehensive approach to rural development,” for “improving production systems,” and for “ensuring long-term sustainability in the entire Sahel region.”
A multi-stakeholder coordination platform has been created. Its management has been entrusted to the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in coordination with the African Union Great Green Wall Agency. Its mission is to catalyze the efforts of financial partners, both public and private, bilateral and multilateral. The Accelerator is structured around five pillars towards which investments in favor of the Great Green Wall should be directed.
Figure 2. The 5 pillars of the GMV Accelerator
What is the new ambition?
“The priority is to refocus the GMV in order to anchor it better in its intervention areas, clarifying its objectives and partnerships. The goal is to align environmental benefits with socio-economic gains for communities in targeted localities, to rethink the project’s governance by better involving local stakeholders in their diversity, and to rebalance priorities between different levels of action. This essentially means consolidating the local anchoring of the physical, environmental, and socio-economic aspects of the GMV… otherwise it risks joining the long list of ‘white elephants’ in Africa, referring to large state projects that have had no lasting impact. Furthermore, in addition to responding to local aspirations, a research orientation that is less focused on plant ecology but more open to territorial governance and agricultural development would likely help bridge the significant gap that currently exists between local needs and the actions undertaken by the project” (Mugelé, 2022).
The ambition is not small: positioned at the interface between the global and the local, the GMV aims to be the flagship project of a cosmopolitan Sahel, bringing together the interventions of numerous actors with sometimes complementary interests, but often operating on different time scales: the short-term perspective of politicians and the long-term perspective of agents of ecological and social transformation.
Image or Territory ? The GMV at a Crossroads
Beyond its technical purpose, the GMV has been assigned a prominent political role by its proponents since its inception. The project is still viewed today as a tool for Sahelian states to advocate for better recognition of their voices and expectations within the context of globalization. It is presented as a unifying slogan to make the Sahelian region visible in international arenas where major environmental geopolitical orientations are decided on a global scale.
As a result, local populations, including farmers, agro-pastoralists, and transhumant herders, are somewhat overlooked. Their frustration with a top-down state-driven environmental project disconnected from their realities and their concern about the lack of involvement of local governance bodies (municipal councils, water management committees, pastoral units, women’s associations, etc.) can be observed on the ground.
The project continues to be the subject of controversies. Two distinct positions emerge:
– For its proponents, it represents an innovative, sustainable, and effective solution to address the multiple crises affecting Sahelian societies in terms of environment, food, politics, and socio-economics.
– For many researchers in the life sciences and social sciences, the idea of erecting a green wall to halt desertification is questioned both in terms of its technical feasibility (Promethean dimensions, weak state capacities) and its validity in terms of “greening.”
Reservations are therefore expressed, such as those of Michele Nori from the European University Institute: “The Great Green Wall, massive and costly — and probably ineffective — is just another large investment program that satisfies donors (…). Its limited progress receives massive funding and presents a glamorous image of how ill-informed environmental narratives fuel exogenous political interests that only partially include the concerns of the inhabitants” (Nori, 2022).
It must be acknowledged that the fight against desertification is difficult, if not impossible, without modifying land management practices. The excessive pressure on viable lands and climate change are two interconnected factors with cumulative negative effects, making it even more challenging to choose the right strategy and maintain continuity, especially in an uncertain security context.
Most likely, there will never be an impermeable vegetative wall crossing the continent from east to west, but rather a mosaic of scattered shrub parcels accompanied by economic activities for the inhabitants.
The GMV is at a turning point. Will it be able to move beyond its initial role as an environmental showcase and refocus on the future of diverse, inhabited, exploited, and experienced intervention territories with their own dynamics and spatial relationships? If it does not place the imperative of territorialization at the center of its approach, the GMV would be condemned to remain a disconnected utopia, certainly providing short-term financial and political resources for states, but ill-equipped to address the immense challenges faced by local societies.
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