Women plant and take care of a dozen different vegetables in their gardens. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)
As human activity puts pressure on land in Africa and the planet warms, the Sahara desert threatens to overtake the arid Sahel region. But a bold initiative to plant a wall of trees 4,300 miles long across the continent could keep back the sands of the Sahara, improve degraded lands, and help alleviate poverty. We return to a 2012 Living on Earth story on the Great Green Wall, reported by Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb in Senegal.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. To mark Earth Month – yes at Living on Earth, we believe our only planet deserves more than just a day – we’re celebrating by catching up on the progress of some stories we covered in the past. Today, we head to Africa, through a story Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reported on back in 2012 – the ambitious plan to build a Great Green Wall of trees, at least 9 miles wide, to stretch more than 4,000 miles across the continent. The Great Green Wall is designed to encourage sustainable development and keep the Sahara desert from advancing further south as the planet heats up. And when it is finished it will cross 11 countries from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti in the east. Bobby reported from a village in the arid Sahel in Senegal where trees were already being planted to hold back the desert.
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.
[SOUNDS OF SCRATCHING WITH FLIP FLOPS]
[SOUND OF WOMEN WORKING / LAUGHING UNDER]
YARATI: 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 in it delivers just the right amount of water to each plant to minimize evaporation loss but some plants are watered by hand.
[SOUNDS OF FILLING WATER CANS]
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.
[WATERING SOUND UNDER ACTUALITY]
SUMASO: 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.
[COW SOUNDS, WATER TOWER SOUNDS]
BASCOMB: In the early morning white hump-backed cows with giant horns gather around 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 6 inches of rain each year, water is life.
[DONKEY CART SOUNDS THEN WATER TOWER AND COW SOUNDS]
BASCOMB: Scientists say the trees of the Great Green Wall will improve rainfall and recharge the water table. That pleases Alfaca, a local herdsman.
ALFACA: 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.
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.
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