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A Giant Green Dream For Africa’s Sahara Desert

A “crazy” pan-African plan is looking to fight desertification in the Sahara with a giant green belt. The ambitious initiative calls for planting millions of trees – from Senegal all the way to Djibouti.

The Sahara (300td.org)
The Sahara (300td.org)
Laurence Caramel

WIDOU, Senegal – The rainy season has started in the rest of the country, but in Widou, in the heart of the Ferlo region in northern Senegal, the first raindrops won't fall until the end of July. In these tough times between harvests, most of the flocks have migrated to the South in hopes of grazing. Here, on the brown and parched land, all that is left is a pitiful looking green carpet burned by the sun and trampled by animals.

Just 100 meters away, an open-air lab is writing a new page of the region's history. In the tree nursery built by the Water and Forests Department, men are working, hose in hand. The women, bent over rows of small plastic containers, plant seedlings that will have to be ready for when the first rain arrives. This year, they need 390,000 of them.

Widou is one of the first communities selected by the Senegalese government to start the "Great Green Wall" project, a pan-African initiative launched in 2007 by the African Union. The goal is to create a 15-kilometer-wide and 7,600-kilometer-long wall of trees from Dakar to Djibouti to slow the progression of the desert. Eleven countries are participating, but Senegal, where 535 kilometers of the wall are planned, is the first country where the project is starting to take shape.

Colonel Matar Cisse, an environmental engineer, is wearing army fatigues and a cap. "The Great Green Wall is a crazy project!" he admits. But he quickly swipes away the idea that this project is about building an impenetrable wall. "It wouldn't make any sense," he says. "It's better to see it as us trying to make the forest denser wherever possible, to develop water retention, create natural reserves for the fauna, which has almost completely disappeared." For Cisse, the "wall" image works because it shows that they've "decided to colonize the desert instead of being at its mercy."

Cisse is also the head of the Great Green Wall National Agency and as such, is in charge of turning this dream into reality. "We will succeed. We have the best scientists and we have some experience," he says with a wide grin. Since 2008, reforestation has gained 5,000 hectares per year. "That's a first," says his colleague Pape Sarr, in charge of technical operations.

With time, agronomists, botanists and soil specialists have improved their work. First they had to select the right species to plant. Seven were selected according to how they would adapt to the roughness of the terrain, but also for what they bring to neighboring populations. The Senegal Acacia for its Arabic Gum, the Balanite tree for its berries and oil, the Zyzyphus for its fruit… "We must plant trees people won't want to cut down," says Aliou Guisse, plant ecology professor at the Sheikh-Anta-Diop University of Dakar (UCAD).

The distance between trees was increased to limit competition between plants. "Soils are extremely destructured here, so in order for the reforestation to be viable, it must recompose and house more bacteria. It's one of the main constraints of this project. We will have to wait seven or eight years to see if it worked," warns Rene Bally, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Reforested parcels – from 500 to 2,000 hectares in surface area – will be surrounded by a fence for five years. Cattle farmers will be able to get special authorized access. "First I remind them of the rules, no machetes and no matches, then I give them a laissez-passez that allows them to cut the grass for their flocks or to sell it," explains Omar Faye.

The Great Green Wall is certainly a technical challenge. But it is also a very human one. "If we can't convince the people that this project will give them a better life, we will fail," warns Guisse.

With about 30 technicians, the Great Wall Agency doesn't have the means to have a strong presence in the field, meaning it will soon be up to the people themselves to look after the project. In Windou, residents have proven a penchant for that kind of responsibility with a seven-hectare vegetable garden project that was set up just outside the town. There, 300 women produce tomatoes, salad, melons and potatoes. They quickly learned how to sow, replant, fertilize with manure and harvest. "Last year, these women made more than 1,500 euros from the part of the harvest they sold on the market," says Momar Mbaye Ba, who's in charge of the project.

"In about three years we'll be autonomous, we're starting to think about it," says Fatou Aidara, president of the Garden Commission. She's lived here forever, witnessed the great droughts of the 70s and 80s, when both people and animals died. She also saw hopes crushed by several development projects thought up by international cooperation groups. She wants to believe that this time, promises will be kept.

Read the original article in French.

Photo – 300td.org

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