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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Africa’s Great Green Wall of Trees

Air Date: Week of

Women plant and take care of a dozen different vegetables in their gardens. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

Africa is turning to desert. Studies show that as much as two thirds of the continent’s arable land could become desert by 2025 if current trends continue. But a bold initiative to plant a wall of trees 4,300 miles long across the African continent could keep back the sands of the Sahara, improve degraded lands, and help alleviate poverty. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports from Senegal.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Now to the West African nation of Senegal where an audacious and ambitious project is underway to create a vast forest across the African continent. It’s known as the Great Green Wall. The idea is to plant 43 hundred miles of trees through 11 African nations, from coast to coast.

The Senegalese government hopes the Great Green Wall will stop the advance of the Sahara Desert southward, but as Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports, others see it as a way of alleviating poverty.


BASCOMB: Horses pull wooden carts alongside cars on the main streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Dakar sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula. And while it’s at least a thousand miles to the Sahara desert, the air today is thick with sand. It’s the worst sand storm in a year.


VOICEOVER: The rainy season is becoming shorter, it used to start in July or August, now it doesn’t start until September. The climate is definitely changing.

BASCOMB: Papa Sarr says shifting seasons and climate change could make these sand storms more common but he believes there is a solution. Sarr is the technical director for the Great Green Wall in Senegal. The goal of the project here is to plant two million acres of trees. It’s part of a larger initiative to plant a nine mile wide wall of trees, across the African continent. African leaders hope the trees will trap the sands of the Sahara.


VOICEOVER: We are convinced that once we start to plant the wall of trees, dust will decrease in Dakar.


BASCOMB: The paved roads of Dakar give way to red sand paths.

SARR: We are going to Widou, Widou Chigoli.

BASCOMB: Black and white goats meander in front of our four-wheel drive. [CAR HORN] This is the Sahel, a dry savanna transition zone between the equatorial jungles in the south and the Sahara to the north. Flat-topped acacia trees dot the sandy landscape. They are virtually the only vegetation in a region where the dry season can last up to ten months.


BASCOMB: Four hours later we arrive near the village of Widou. Twelve thousand acres of the Great Green Wall have already been planted here. These acacias are just four years old, waist high and thorny. The trees are surrounded by a firewall, an area without vegetation that would stop a fire in the surrounding Sahel from entering the planted parcel. A metal fence keeps out tree-eating goats.


BASCOMB: Papa Sarr leads the way through the fence, to inspect this small section of Senegal’s Great Green Wall. He says the trees here have been chosen carefully.


VOICEOVER: When we design a parcel we look at the local trees and see what can best grow there, we try to copy nature. In total we planted seven different species of acacia trees. We plant about two million trees each year.

It may not look impressive now but the Senegalese government hopes trees like this will soon grow into a forest. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: The window for planting trees is short. It must be done during the rainy season, when laborers work long days to plant acacia saplings in the sand along with animal manure for fertilizer.


VOICEOVER: This is Acacia nilotica. It produces Arabic gum used in local medicine and a fruit that can be eaten by animals.

BASCOMB: For the project to succeed it was crucial to plant trees that would also provide benefits for people living here.


BASCOMB: The government hopes the village of Widou will serve as a model for the rest of the Great Green Wall in Senegal. It has big plans for planting more trees but this is also a development project, aimed at helping rural people.


BASCOMB: The Peuhl are the dominant ethnic group in the Senegalese Sahel. Extremely tall and lean, they wear long flowing robes of emerald green and sapphire blue. They look like jewels against the rust colored sand and brown dry grass. Traditionally nomadic, the Peuhl are now helping tend to the trees and gardens. One day a week, women in the area volunteer to help care for gardens full of carrots, cabbages, tomatoes, even watermelon. On this day a group of women, including Guncier Yarati, is using the sides of their flip flops to mound the sandy soil around potato plants.

Women mound the dry dusty soil around their potato plants (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)



VOICEOVER: I like working here. I like working with my friends, we laugh and play while we work but what’s really great is that we have more diverse vegetables. We eat the vegetables and can sell them in the market as well.

BASCOMB: The closest market is about 30 miles away and before the gardens came along it was a day’s trek in a horse drawn cart to get fresh vegetables.


BASCOMB: Most of the gardens are watered using drip irrigation. A hose with holes delivers just the right amount of water to each plant to minimize evaporation loss, but some plants are watered by hand.


Mornings are busy around the well in Widou. People travel miles to get water for their animals and fill containers to take home. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: The women dip large plastic cans into a basin filled with water from a nearby well. Nime Sumaso pours her jug of water over some carrots.


VOICEOVER: When people came from Dakar and showed us that they could plant vegetables in their center, we saw that it was a way to help women in the community so we knew the Great Green Wall project was important for us.

BASCOMB: It’s exactly that kind of community support that the government is hoping to garner. While women here mostly see benefits of the project in their gardens, the men have a different perspective.


The cows in Widou gather around a water trough to drink. (Photo: Mark Fabian)

BASCOMB: In the early morning white hump-backed cows with giant horns gather around the water troughs. The Peuhl depend on their large herds of cows and goats for subsistence, and livestock need a lot of water. French colonizers built water wells every 20 miles in this region. In an area that gets as little as six inches of rain each year, water is life.


BASCOMB: Scientists say the trees of the Great Green Wall will improve rainfall and recharge the water table. That pleases Alfaca, a local herdsman.


VOICEOVER: Planting trees is good for us. Those trees can bring water and water is our future. Water can solve our problem. We are praying for this project to continue.

BASCOMB: Roughly 40 percent of Africa is affected by desertification, where non-desert land turns to desert. The United Nations says two thirds of Africa’s arable land could be lost by 2025 if the desertification trend continues.

Everyone involved in the Great Green Wall agrees that the end goal is to help rural communities. But opinions vary on how the project will do that. African leaders envision the Great Green Wall as a literal wall of trees to keep back the desert. That’s what was proposed by the president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, when he came up with the idea in 2005. But scientists and development agencies see it more as a metaphorical wall, a mosaic of different projects to alleviate poverty and improve degraded lands.

SINNASSAMY: Sustainable management of natural resources with the aim of reducing poverty - this is really our goal for this program.

Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb interviews a local herdsman called Alfaca. (Photo: Mark Fabian)

BASCOMB: Jean-Marc Sinnassamy is a program officer with the Global Environment Facility, one of the funders of the Great Green Wall. SINNASSAMY: We do not finance a tree planting initiative. It’s more related to agriculture, rural development, food security and sustainable land management than planting trees.

BASCOMB: The Great Green Wall has received 108 million dollars from Sinnassamy’s Global Environment Facility and another 1.8 billion dollars from the World Bank. The 11 countries involved with the project are committed to making progress but there are many challenges; abject poverty, shifting seasons and political instability are top among them. The entire region is in the middle of a food crisis. The United Nations Food Program estimates that as many as 11 million people in the Sahel do not have enough to eat. And Mali recently had a military coup.

Senegal is currently the furthest along with the Great Green Wall. They’ve planted roughly 50,000 acres of trees in addition to protecting existing trees. While it’s been successful so far in Senegal, not everyone believes that it can work across the entire Sahel region. Gray Tappan is a geographer with the United States Geological Survey.

TAPPAN: There’s been a long history of one failure after another in, you know, external projects that come in and try to plant trees.

BASCOMB: He says a better model can be found in Niger. Historically farmers there removed any trees or bushes that sprouted up in their fields. But following a devastating drought in the 1980s, farmers decided to allow the natural vegetation to grow and planted food crops around it. The result was a surplus of food and 12 million acres of trees, an area the size of Costa Rica. Tappan has spent 30 years working in the region and was shocked by the transformation.

TAPPAN: In about 2006 we did a big field trip across Niger and were just blown away by the vastness of this re-greening.

BASCOMB: Tappan says that type of natural regeneration is much more likely to succeed than planting trees. But political leaders in Senegal are committed to their vision. Djibo Leyti Ka is the minister of the environment. He’s in charge of the Great Green Wall project for the entire country. [KA SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

VOICEOVER: We have a lot of desert from Senegal to Djibouti, 4,000 miles long. A wall of trees will stop the wind.

BASCOMB: And for critics? scientists who say planting a wall of trees isn’t practical? [KA SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

VOICEOVER: They are crazy! You saw it, you are witness that the dust is coming. The sand is going to cover us all and we need to stop it. There are many, many environmental projects in Senegal but this is the most important. This one will help men, women and children in the future. [WIND SOUNDS, WALKING]

BASCOMB: Back at the Great Green Wall near Widou, Papa Sarr stops to take in the work they’ve done so far. The waist high trees are just four years old now but he expects big things from them. [SARR SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

VOICEOVER: In ten to 15 years this will be a forest. The trees will be big and this region will be completely transformed. We are already seeing animals come back that haven’t been here for years. Mostly deer and many species of wild bird, even jackal.


BASCOMB: It’s unclear if the newly elected president of Senegal, Macky Sall, will have as strong a commitment to the Great Green Wall as his predecessor. But for the people living here, tending their cows and watering the garden, and hoping the rains will come, the Great Green Wall holds great potential for positive change in Senegal and this region of Africa, for generations to come.


BASCOMB: For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb in Widou, Senegal.

GELLERMAN: Our story about Africa's Great Green Wall was made possible with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and produced with the help of Mark Fabian. Bobby Bascomb took lots of photos on her journey around Senegal. For a slide show visit our website www dot loe dot org.



Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Read Bobby Bascomb’s blog from Senegal

The Global Environment Facility on the Great Green Wall

Scientific American on the Great Green Wall


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