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December 01, 2011

Prospects and pitfalls along Sahel's anti-desertification Great Green Wall

Former goat-herder Samba Ba proudly points to a row of metre-high acacia trees growing amid the fine
grasses that are the only other vegetation in this part of northern Senegal's arid savannah. "Planting trees is a blessing - trees mean life. We call this the Nile River of the Sahel."

Ba hopes that in time the trees will bear black fruits that can be used as goat-feed. He and his fellow villagers are also planting the Sahel acacia, which produces a gum with medicinal properties, the tamarind, which has edible bitter-sweet fruit, and the desert date or "sump" tree, which bears small fruits whose oil can be used in cooking. These are all thorny trees with small leaves, the only kind that can survive in the arid conditions.

Sedentary and semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen are planting five hectares of vegetable and fruit crops and approximately 1,000 trees as part of the Great Green Wall project ("La Grande Muraille Verte"), an ambitious pan-African environmental programme designed to combat desertification along the southern edge of the Sahara and provide nomadic populations with extra livelihoods while enhancing their food security.

The scheme falls within the framework of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which aims to decrease poverty and improve food sources, and is being supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Donors have pledged US$3 billion to the 11 participating countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

The governments of these 11 Sahelian states intend that 20 years from now, a giant hedge, 15km wide and 7,000km long, spreading across two million hectares, will help slow the advancing desert and impede the hot winds that increase erosion.

"The wall is just the final result. What we're looking for... is to protect and improve the eco-systems of these Sahel regions, and [through this] to improve the diets, health, lifestyle and environment of the Savannah people," said Matar Cissé, director general of the national agency implementing the project, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Chronic drought has made it increasingly difficult for Fulani nomads to make a traditional living as pastoralists. Ba, 42, a Fulani who has settled in the village of Mbar Toubab, 100km south of where the Sahara desert starts in neighbouring Mauritania, says herdsmen would consider settling in such villages if they could earn a living by growing and selling fruit and vegetables.

Cissé said, "We are, we hope, developing a system that will help these people help themselves to stay in one place, create jobs and raise their own incomes. For the nomadic peoples, this could fundamentally change the way they live."

Villagers are taught how to plant market gardens and use drip irrigation by connecting a small elevated water tank to perforated pipes that deliver small amounts of water to each plant. "We travel great distances in search of pasture and water. If this project is successful... this area won't be hopeless any more," Ba said. "To have water and food to feed ourselves and our animals on our doorstep can only be beneficial."

A Niger government study found that pastoralists with small herds had lost 90 percent of their livestock in successive droughts.

So far, the 133 women participating in the scheme in Mbar Toubab have produced lettuce, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, okra, aubergines, watermelons, carrots, cabbages and turnips. Their mango and orange trees have yet to bear fruit, said Kumba Ka, President of the Gardening association, who walks six km every day to work in her garden

Many villagers thought something like this would never be possible. "We're growing so many different types of vegetables that normally only grow where water is deep," Ka said.

Such a project must be based on market research that identifies who will be able to buy the vegetables, where, and at what prices, if it is to support livelihoods and food security, said Peter Gubbels, West Africa coordinator of NGO Groundswell International and author of the Sahel Working Group's recent report, Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel.

The Great Green Wall could play an important role in environmental management and supporting nomadic livelihoods, but it must not be seen as "the solution" to food security, Gubbels said. The project risks being too ambitious by taking on desertification as well as food security, which are separate issues, requiring separate solutions.

Food insecurity in the Sahel is largely due to a growing gap between rich and poor, with an "underclass of the bottom 30 percent" living in chronic poverty, he said. Solutions include subsidized prices, social protection schemes, and disaster reduction, among many others.

Desertification is what forces people to migrate. "In the popular imagination desertification is about billowing sand dunes advancing at a rate of two kilometres a year, but... [it] is the overuse of natural resources, over-grazing, intensive farming and the subsequent erosion of land-pockets that become completely denuded and then join together," Gubbels said.

Tree-planting projects to combat desertification work best when the trees are owned by the farmers themselves, said Chris Reij, coordinator of the African Regreening Initiative.

Gubbels noted that "Usually only 20 percent of newly planted trees will survive... so there is a high risk to tree-planting... unless we mobilize millions of [farmers] to invest in trees as well as manage them themselves, the battle against desertification cannot be won."

The most innovative projects to improve the lives and livelihoods of pastoralists are being developed by the pastoralists themselves, with the help of NGOs, said Reij. In Niger they have established settlement sites where they plant trees and market gardens alongside health and education services. Pastoralists then migrate from these points.

Rather than using such schemes to encourage the nomads to settle - which often leads to tension with sedentary communities - a combination of mobility and agriculture is the most risk-averse survival strategy. "[Partial] a much better and less risky strategy than staying in one place... [which] leads to over-grazing," and if the area does not get much rainfall that year, "you are much more vulnerable," Gubbels pointed out.

In a worst-case scenario, "[Without] sufficient technical guidance and support... [for the Great Green Wall], in a few years you'll see a broken-down tractor, a scattering of a few small trees in the village plantation, a few families benefiting from the market gardening, and little positive overall change, with the poorest families as chronically vulnerable as before," Gubbels said.

However, if the ambitious project is seen as a framework for funding and a platform for sharing information across the 11 Sahelian states, he said, it could positively impact the lives and livelihoods of pastoralists.


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