Originally conceived to stop the spread of deserts, the Great Green Wall of Africa is now not only a means of slowing climate change, it also believed to be a way for Africa to combat migration through providing sustainable livelihoods for people.
Africa’s Great Green Wall is slowly changing the face of the continent. In Ethiopia, indigenous trees and shrubs and commercial forests cover 15 million hectares. Nigerians have planted a further 5 million hectares. In Sudan, 2,000 hectares are helping the country to push back against desertification.
It has created jobs for migrants trapped in refugee camps, improved food security for 20 million Africans and helped African farmers implement climate-resistant farming techniques. For the women of Koyli Alfa in central Senegal, it provides a financial safety net.
With funding from the World Bank, the women of Koyli Alfa began planting lettuce, watermelon and eggplant. Almost 300 women, in groups of 30, work the patch of green at the edge of a rapidly expanding dust bowl. All the women contribute about R4 a week to the equivalent of a stokvel that is available to whomever needs it.
The women have used their savings and profits earned from the sale of vegetables to buy seeds and chickens, and to support their families. Koyli Alfa, like many villages across central Africa, is populated by women and children. Most of the men have migrated, or tried to, to Europe.
As Batta Mbengu, one of Koyli Alfa’s farmers, told a Guardian journalist: “When we realised our sons were risking their lives in boats we asked for this kind of programme. We want the garden to yield a lot so our sons won’t go abroad. Maybe someday, the garden can be a reason for the young men of Koyli Alfa to stay.”
The United Nations estimates that almost 60 million people, mostly men, from sub-Saharan Africa will emigrate to North Africa or Europe by 2020. Most of them are economic migrants escaping the effects of desertification. Environmentalists and campaigners for Africa’s Great Green Wall project are using Europe’s and the US’s fear of a wave of migration to open the wallets of Western governments and donors.
The Koyli Alfa project, for example, received money from a new R146-billion World Bank fund to improve food security, fight desertification and create employment in African agriculture. The hope is, if migrants have opportunities in their home countries they will choose to stay instead of try to get to Europe.
The African Union co-ordinator of the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, Elvis Paul Tangem, says migration has made it easier to find outside funding for the project. Discussions, he says, have moved beyond stopping the spread of deserts across the continent to issues about natural resources, food security and employment.
“The inability to make a living from the land is one of the biggest push factors for immigration. That is what makes ambitious youth leave. Either you leave or you join the next employer – which is either the traffickers or an extremist group, the leading favourite being Boko Haram.”
With World Bank funding in place people are being employed as managers of grazing lands and produce gardens. Guards are employed to prevent overgrazing or to plant trees, and new infrastructure to carry water is being built. To make a real difference, subsistence farmers are being encouraged to expand operations so they can sell fresh produce beyond their own and neighbouring villages. The UN and AU are improving infrastructure to help get produce to ports. Tangem hopes that as the Great Wall spreads across Africa, more young men will choose to remain at home instead of risking death in the desert or drowning in the Mediterranean.
Originally envisioned as a project to stop the spread of deserts, the Great Green Wall of Africa is now seen as a way for Africa to combat climate change. In the village of Tessékeré, Senegal, what was once arid savannah is now a forest of acacia trees. Villagers began planting the forest in 2009 and they can now harvest the gum as a source of income. The forest has brought with it other benefits as well, says Elimane Diop, chief of the neighbouring village of Widou. “Wildlife has returned to the site. We have seen antelope, hyena, porcupine and guinea fowl here.”
To date, 15% of trees for the Wall have been planted, mostly in Senegal. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger local communities have been planting vegetation that can be used in food or as medicine. This, says Nora Berrahmouni of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is important. As long as local communities get to choose what to plant, and where, the programme has escaped accusations of being forced on them from the top down.
Khatim Kherraz of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory, speaking at the UN’s World Day to Combat Desertification on 17 June, said the Great Green Wall project had the backing of local communities. “This project comes from African countries, and there is a will from affected communities.”
In 2015, the Nigerian government budgeted 16-billion naira – about R580-million – for Great Green Wall projects in northern Nigeria. The government believed that this investment would create 40,000 jobs across the eight northern provinces most affected by the encroaching desert.
According to Dr Newton Jibunoh, founder of Fight Against Desert Encroachment and a member of the Great Green Wall Council, the Great Green Wall project could create 1.5 million jobs in Nigeria alone. “You can imagine if you are able to green the area, stop encroachment and migration, and start building communities, create movement of goods and services and calculate the kind of employment that will come with such services, it is not a minor thing,” he told the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust.
More money had to be spent on putting in place infrastructure to keep the programme growing. Access to water, he said, was the most important, especially between the rainy seasons. “Reclaiming land from the Sahara will not only create employment, but will solve issues such as security.”
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