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The Great Green Wall

Acacia tree in the desert

The Great Green Wall

Bobby Bascomb

12th July, 2012

Africa’s answer to climate change is a proposed 4,000-mile long, nine mile wide wall of trees stretching from Senegal to Djibouti. Designed to stop encroaching desertification, some interpret the project (and its benefits) literally whilst others see it as more of a metaphor. Despite this split, the project is now taking root in Senegal where they have already planted 50,000 acres of trees.

Senegal’s capitol city Dakar sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean on a peninsula. It’s at least a thousand miles to the Sahara desert yet the air today is so thick with sand that the tops of buildings disappear in a sandy haze.

It’s the worst sand storm in a year and people here are worried that climate change will cause these events to be more common. Seasons are shifting across the region. In Senegal the rainy season used to start in July or August but now it doesn’t start until September. Decreased rain – along with over grazing of land – is causing an increase in deserts across the Sahel. Roughly 40 per cent of Africa is now affected by desertification and according to the UN, two-thirds of Africa’s arable land could be lost by 2025 if this trend continues.

Senegal is one of 11 countries in the Sahel region of Africa looking towards the same solution to the desertification problem: The Great Green Wall. The goal of the project is to plant a wall of trees, 4,300 miles long and 9 miles wide, across the African continent, from Senegal to Djibouti. African leaders hope the trees will trap the sands of the Sahara and halt the advance of the desert.

Papa Sarr is Technical Director for the Great Green Wall in Senegal: “We are convinced that once we start to plant the wall of trees dust will decrease in Dakar,” he says.

Sarr sits in the passenger seat of a four-wheel drive on his way to Widou, a village he hopes will serve as a model for the Great Green Wall in Senegal. The paved roads of Dakar give way to red sand paths of the Shahel; a dry savanna transition zone between the equatorial jungles in the south and the Sahara to the north. Black and white goats meander in front of the truck and 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 10 months.

Four hours northwest of Dakar, the village of Widou sits next to one section of Senegal’s Great Green Wall. The acacia trees here are just four years old, waist high and thorny. The trees are surrounded by a firewall and a metal fence to keep out tree-eating goats. All of the trees were chosen carefully. Sarr says, “When we design a parcel we look at the local trees and see what can best grow there, we try to copy Nature.”

Two million trees are planted in Senegal each year; but all of them must be planted during the short rainy season. Labourers plant acacia saplings in the sand along with animal manure for fertiliser. Sarr points to a three feet tall tree. “This one is Acacia nilotica. It produces Arabic gum used in local medicine and a fruit that can be eaten by animals.”

For the project to succeed, it was crucial to plant trees that would also provide benefits for people living here. The government has ambitious plans for planting more trees but the Great Green Wall is also a development project, aimed at helping rural people. 

In the Senegalese Sahel the dominant ethnic group is the Peuhl.  Tall and lean, they wear long flowing robes of emerald green and sapphire blue. They look like jewels against the rust coloured sand and brown dry grass. The women have blue tattoos on their chins and wear heavy earrings that stretch their earlobes.

Traditionally nomadic, the Peuhl are now helping tend to the trees and planting gardens. One day a week women in the area volunteer to help care for gardens full of carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and even watermelon. Guncier Yarati uses the side of her flipflop to mound the sandy soil around potato plants. “I like working here,” she says.  “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 ourselves but sell them in the market too.” 

The closest market is about 30 miles away and before the gardens came along, it was a full day’s trek in a horse-drawn cart to get fresh vegetables. Close by the potatoes, Nime Sumaso pours a jug of water over some carrots. She says, “when people came from Dakar and showed us that they could plant vegetables in their communities we saw that this would be a way to help women in our own community and so we knew the Great Green Wall project was important for us.”

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