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Building the African green wall, piece by piece

Halting land degradation in Niger helps to tackle African desertification

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
The Great Green Wall is a mosaic of interventions adapted to local ecosystems and tailored to the needs of communities

18 July 2013, Kouloumboutey, Niger  – When village people and local authorities in southern Niger won back over one hundred hectares of degraded land, they added one extra piece to a mosaic being laid across the Sahel and the Sahara aimed at tackling desertification and land degradation.

Ibrahim Dan Ladi, a 47-year-old farmer from southern Niger, remembers that his village of Kouloumboutey used to be surrounded by thick forest.

The trees protected the villagers against the  wind, and their leaves and undergrowth provided good fodder for the animals.

But the trees started to disappear with El Boukhari, the great famine of 1984-1985, which was caused by drought.

“Overgrazing and excessive felling did the rest to transform a forest into an area of barren land,”  says commander Sidi Sani of Niger’s service for the environment and the fight against desertification.

Without the protection of trees and grasses, soil easily becomes a “glacis” – a  thin cover of arable land at the mercy of wind and rain.

Working together

But land degradation can be stopped and precious soil be restored as the example of Kouloumboutey shows. Since last year, the community and Sidi Sani’s service have joined forces to put an end to land degradation around their village.

Together, they identified the areas to be restored, as well as the vegetation to be planted, so there would be trees and herbage, where the animals can feed themselves.

The villagers constructed bench terraces to stop water from running off and planted grass and trees to prevent the wind from carrying soil particles away.

Science-based

Initiatives like these are crucial across the Sahel and the Sahara, where the lives and livelihoods of millions of rural people are challenged by desertification and land degradation.

To reverse these trends, African Heads of State and Government endorsed a pan-African initiative called the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative in 2007. It has mobilised more than twenty countries, international organizations, research institutes, civil society and grassroots organizations.

From an initial idea of erecting a line of trees from east to west through the African desert, the vision for a Great Green African Wall has evolved into a more science-based and integrated approach:  a mosaic of interventions adapted to local ecosystems and tailored to the needs of communities.

Action

Since 2010, FAO in collaboration with the European Union (EU) and the Global Mechanism of the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCDD), has been supporting the African Union Commission (AUC) and partner countries to promote and further develop the initiative.

For example, action plans are in place in Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, while those of Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania and Sudan are in the making.

On the ground, results are being achieved. In Senegal, the planting of 11 million trees contributed to the restoration of  27 000 hectares of degraded land, while multi-purpose gardens – orchard, kitchen garden and pasture in one - enabled women to increase their income and produce food for their families at the same time.

Dune fixation is being successfully rolled out in Mauritania. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger work together with Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew on the production of the most suitable trees, shrubs and herbs to turn degraded land into productive areas.

But to make the vision of a Great Green Wall a reality, huge challenges remain in terms of political commitment, funding, capacity development, as well as the buy-in of the local population.

B
ack to life

“If we want to win this battle, we need to work with the local population, ” says Sidi Sani in Kouloumboutey.

In one year, a total of 115 hectares of glacis has been restored.

“We can see the forest coming back,” says Ibrahim Dan Ladi, adding: “Something that was dead has come to life again.”