What’s green, controversial, 15km wide, 7,775km long, cuts across 11 African countries and is designed to reduce livestock deaths and boost food security for millions of people? Nothing yet, but the Great Green Wall project, a pipe-dream for decades, was recently endorsed by a swathe of African states stretching from Senegal to Djibouti.
An estimated 10 million people faced severe food shortages due to recurrent drought and climate change in the Sahel region last year. In Niger alone, the famine in 2010 left half the country’s population needing food aid and one in six children suffering from acute malnutrition. Some villagers in Niger described 2010 as worse than the 1973 drought that killed thousands of people, according to Malek Triki, West African spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP).
The Great Green Wall (GGW) project, originally proposed by Burkina Faso’s Marxist leader Thomas Sankara in the 1980s, was later resurrected by former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo in 2005 before receiving approval by the African Union in December 2006. In June 2010, 11 countries involved signed a convention in Chad to further the development of the project, but the plan remained on standby until February when it was officially approved at an international summit in Bonn, Germany.
During the summit, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) set aside US$115 million to fund the wall. Mohamed I Bakarr, a senior environment specialist with GEF, told IRIN the wall “is in reality a metaphor to reflect the vision of African leaders for an integrated land-use system that addresses environment and development needs across all affected countries”. The GEF foresees the wall adopting a “mosaic” of “sustainable land-management systems with stakeholders, including grassroots communities, in all 11 countries implementing options that are appropriate to the local context”.
The plan entails each country implementing its own land, water and vegetation-management projects on up to two million hectares of land, under the framework of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Monique Barbut, CEO of the GEF, said in a statement it would not fund “an all-out tree-funding drive from Dakar to Djibouti”, but rather, would allocate the funding according to national priorities, which have yet to be finalized. In a paper adopted by the Sahara and Sahel Observatory (OSS) in 2008, alleviating poverty is said to be one of the wall’s principal objectives.
The paper outlines national and regional objectives, including consolidating and expanding existing greenbelts of trees, conserving biodiversity, restoring and conserving soil and promoting income-generating activities, as well as carbon capture and storage of 0.5-3.1 million tons of carbon per year.
Indigenous communities "threatened"
The project has faced opposition, despite its stated commitment to combating drought and desertification, which have exacted a heavy toll on the region as a whole. Wally Menne, a member of Timberwatch, the African NGO focal point for the Global Forest Coalition, told IRIN the organization was sceptical. “In our view it seems poorly conceived in terms of both ecological and socio-economic considerations. Its chances of being a success could be limited, and it may even cause more harm to the environment,” he said. The Global Forest Coalition campaigns for the rights of indigenous and forest people and for socially just policies.
Menne added that the inclusion of carbon sequestration activities and the potential future development of REDD projects (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as components of the GGW would require converting suitable land within the belt to fast-growing foreign species of monoculture tree plantations and carbon sinks opposed by many indigenous groups in the Sahel. Growing plantations would also require displacing people living on land earmarked for the GGW and would lead to further depletion of scarce water sources.
A concept paper on the kinds of vegetal species to be included in the GGW states that the wall will run through both inhabited and uninhabited areas, but will be located in areas where the average annual rainfall is higher than 200mm. It also stated that the only species to be adapted to the wall would be "primarily those that are found, live and develop there".
However, in a statement to the Indigenous People’s of Africa Coordinating Committee, IPACC, Sada Albachir, director of Association Tunfa, a Tuareg human rights group in Niger, said that “international agreements in the past introduced alien invasive species into the Sahara, without tackling the root problems of poor governance, dangerous uranium mining, and a failure to conserve biodiversity and water security in the arid region. I think the idea of planting a Green Wall across Africa is not to be entertained by indigenous people living in the proposed sites, unless the project has been studied in collaboration with them and they are also involved in the implementation.”
The programme coordinator for the OSS, Jihed Ghannem, told IRIN such concerns were baseless. “The full participation of communities is essential,” he said.
Timberwatch’s Menne told IRIN: “In my experience, ‘consulting’ local communities usually means misinforming them about the potential impacts of a project by exaggerating how they will benefit, whilst neglecting to inform them of the negative impacts. When they say that local communities will be an integral part of the project, it normally means that they will be used to provide cheap labour.”
Part of the GGW concept plan includes a section on “Food for Work” designed to recruit unemployed workers in each country to help with the planting of the greenbelt in the Sahel. According to OSS, under the scheme, “members of the communities assuming responsibilities are paid in part at the time of planting. The remainder is paid two years later on the basis of the plant growth scale.” The plan also indicates that private businesses, including “initiators of safari parks, modern farming, ecotourist sites” will find “some economic opportunities” in the wall.
Menne said the wall could be a useful tool to combat desertification only if “viewed as an exercise in adaptation, rather than as an opportunity for climate change mitigation and making money from CDM/REDD carbon offsets as presently envisioned”.
According to Khadija Hassan*, representative of an indigenous people’s organization, the GGW might also interfere with migration patterns of pastoral communities and instead should incorporate ancestral systems of land management. “It would be best to protect what already exists in the region, stop the felling of trees in valleys and oases, repair damage caused by climate change, educate communities about REDD and restore livestock that has been lost,” she said. “I find the project is good, but too ambitious.”
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