The 25-member African organisation CEN-SAD (Community of Sahel-Saharan States) has initiated a project to build a Great Green Wall across the continent from Mauritania in West Africa to Djibouti in the East. The project is an attempt to stop growing desertification in the northern regions of the continent.
Other key objectives of the Great Green Wall initiative include conservation and recovery of existing vegetation, introduction of new plantations, promotion of modern bioenergy instead of unsustainable biomass use, and improved range and water resources management.
A report (pdf) by the Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel (OSS) on the initiative says:
The Great Green Wall Initiative has not been conceived as a wall made up of trees planted across the Sahara, but rather as a set of cross-sectoral actions and interventions aimed at the conservation and protection of natural resources with a view to achieving development, and particularly, alleviating poverty.
But tree planting is a crucial part of the exercise. At the CEN-SAD meeting last month Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said: "This project consists in planting trees over a distance of 7,000 km from Dakar to Djibouti to constitute a 5 km wide green strip across the desert to stop any further progress of desertification process. With the regeneration of biodiversity, we plan to give our planet a new 'green lung' and contribute thus to the fight against climatic changes. Alongside of the Great Green Wall we are planning to build water capture basins...to enable farmers in rural areas to grow food all year long, develop fish farming and satisfy their nutritional needs and even export market garden produce." Senegal has been chosen to provide technical leadership for the effort owning to its past successes in combating desertification.
The CEN-SAD is a regional economic community composed of member states from North, West, Central and East Africa. The bulk of the population in these countries is rural and the conservation of renewable natural resources and ecosystems is crucial to their development. Land degradation is a leading factor in driving poverty in this region. The expansion of arid areas across the world threatens the livelihood of millions of people: 10 million hectares of arable land is being degraded every year, and of the 130 million hectares of land seriously affected, 50% is in Africa.
The Green Wall initiative was conceived and first proposed by Nigeria's ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005. While the idea was met enthusiastically, the African nations have lacked funding to begin work on the project. In late 2007 however, the European Union pitched in with help in designing the plan. The EU has promised further support with implementation, as well.
The Green Wall initiative is of particular strategic importance to the EU which is likely to take the brunt of the impact of climate change driven migrations out of the Sahel and Saharan regions.
While EU support will be a great boost to the effort, participant countries have also been wise to realize that (pdf):
grandiose national, transboundary or transnational projects that cover huge areas...have not been feasible in the past, and will continue to be hardly feasible. (...) However it is possible to conceive a discontinuous great green wall, covering a relatively vast area, composed of a network of greenbelts installed where they are urgently needed and given high priority. The great green wall thus conceived can expand gradually depending on the needs and means available.
There has also been emphasis on local communities across the region taking ownership of the project. Biopact has a good critique of the venture which points out the potential pitfalls and details the many social, economic, cultural and political issues that need to be addressed for the Green Wall to become reality.