From Soil to SandScientists at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate that roughly 33 percent of global land surface—42 million square kilometers (16.2 million square miles)—is undergoing desertification. About one billion people live on land undergoing desertification; half of this population is in sub-Saharan Africa.
By Ryan Schleeter
Monday, November 4, 2013In Africa, scientists are hard at work restoring land once rich with biodiversity and vegetation. Eleven countries in the Sahel-Sahara region—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal—have joined to combat land degradation and restore native plant life to the landscape.In recent years, northern Africa has seen the quality of arable land decline significantly due to climate change and poor land management. Uniting under the banner of the “Great Green Wall” initiative, national and regional leaders hope to reverse this trend. The bulk of the work on the ground was originally slated to be concentrated along a stretch of land from Djibouti, Djibouti, in the east to Dakar, Senegal, in the west—an expanse 15 kilometers (9 miles) wide and 7,775 kilometers (4,831 miles) long. The project has since expanded to include countries in both northern and western Africa.Land degradation typically stems from both human-related and natural factors; overfarming, overgrazing, climate change, and extreme weather are the most common causes. Beyond affecting land and the natural environment, land degradation poses serious threats to agricultural productivity, food security, and quality of life. Nowhere is this issue more urgent than in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 500 million people live on land undergoing desertification, the most extreme form of land degradation.Jean-Marc Sinnassamy is a senior environmental specialist with the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He helps manage a program developed under the Great Green Wall initiative with countries in the Sahel and West Africa. The GEF has been with the initiative since the beginning, helping to convene country leaders at the headquarters of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Bonn, Germany, in February 2011. The World Bank and other organizations focused on global development and the environment provide financial and technical support.For Sinnassamy, the partnership represents a unique opportunity to work across the region with a solid political base.“Here, we saw political leaders, heads of state, ministers in different countries wanting to work on common environmental issues and wanting to tackle land degradation issues together,” he says. “. . . For us, this is a political blessing. We have to respond to this demand, and we have to capitalize on that.”Integrated Landscape ApproachBeyond the project’s strong political foundation, its carefully crafted approach brings environmental benefits both locally and globally. The initiative uses an “integrated landscape approach” that allows each country to address land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity, and forestry within its local context.“In this case, working to combat land degradation is the best way to address both very local issues and improve the global environment,” Sinnassamy says. “We are working with the land, which is the basis of livelihood in these communities. We are working with people to improve soil quality, which improves crop yield and in turn agricultural production and the overall quality of life in the community. These very local benefits are also a way to generate global benefits for water, land, and nature.”In the end, Sinnassamy hopes the region as a whole will be composed of a “mosaic of landscapes” that increases biodiversity and maintains native flora as part of agricultural land. Each participating country has its own individual goals, which include reducing erosion, diversifying income, increasing crop yield, and improving soil fertility.While trees and forests are only part of the focus of the Great Green Wall initiative, many in the media have cast the project as solely a tree-planting project and an attempt to halt the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert.Sinnassamy is quick to point out two faults in this perception. The first is that the Great Green Wall initiative is much more nuanced than simply planting a belt of trees across the continent.“Behind the name or the brand ‘Great Green Wall,’ different people see different things. Some people saw just a stripe of trees from east to west, but that has never been our vision,” he says. “In Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso . . . natural regeneration managed by farmers has yielded great results. We want to replicate and scale up these achievements across the region. It’s very possible to restore trees to a landscape and to restore agroforestry practices without planting any trees. This is also a sustainable way of regenerating agroforestry and parkland.”The second misperception Sinnassamy points to is that the Sahara Desert is not, in fact, expanding.“We are not fighting the desert,” he says. “In the majority of the areas we are working in these 11 countries, the desert is not advancing. The [Sahara] Desert is a very stable ecosystem. Of course, there are some areas on the margins—for instance in Senegal, Mauritania, and Nigeria—where there are some sand movements. But from a geographic perspective, over time the desert has been relatively stable in this area.”What Will It Take to ‘Build the Wall’?Having spent the better part of a year planning, strategizing, and building partnerships with agencies on the ground, the Great Green Wall initiative is beginning to report positive early results. The project’s $2 billion budget, stemming largely from World Bank co-financing and partnerships fostered by the African Union, ensures participating countries will have the means to see the project through to the end.Examples of success include more than 50,000 acres of trees planted in Senegal. Most of these are the acacia species Senegalia senegal, which has economic value for the commodity it produces, gum arabic. (Gum arabic is primarily used as a food additive.) A small portion of the trees are also fruit-bearing, which, when mature, will help combat the high levels of malnutrition in the country’s rural interior.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry achievement Noun
accomplishment or successful completion of a task.
system of land management combining the cultivation of both crops and trees.
land able to produce crops.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity budget Noun
money, goods, and services set aside for a specific purpose.
to take advantage of something.
climate change Noun
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate change combat Verb
a good or service that can be sold or traded.
items gathered closely together in one place.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent convene Verb
to assemble or come together.
crop yield Noun
material produced by a farmer or farm, usually measured in weight per hectare.
to reduce or go down in number.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert desertification Noun
the spread of desert conditions in arid regions, usually caused by human activity.
growth, or changing from one condition to another.
Encyclopedic Entry: development diversify Verb
to select a variety of options.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem ensure Verb
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
Encyclopedic Entry: erosion exacerbate Verb
to worsen, increase or intensify a problem or pain.
to grow or get larger.
extreme weather Noun
rare and severe events in the Earth's atmosphere, such as heat waves or powerful cyclones.
an extreme shortage of food in one area during a long period of time.
the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.
capacity of soil to sustain plant growth; or the average number of children born to women in a given population.
Encyclopedic Entry: fertility financial Adjective
having to do with money.
plants associated with an area or time period.
food security Noun
access a person, family, or community has to healthy foods.
management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.
to promote the growth or development of something.
geographic perspective Noun
a way to understand a topic or area using spatial features and relationships.
gum arabic Noun
natural adhesive made from the sap of some acacia trees, used to stabilize and thicken items such as pharmaceuticals and manufactured foods.
wages, salary, or amount of money earned.
first step or move in a plan.
land degradation Noun
natural or human activity that wears down landforms, making them less viable.
ability to economically support oneself.
lack of a balanced diet.
border or edge.
process of becoming or making something milder and less severe.
picture or design made from many tiny pieces of colored glass.
very slight difference in meaning or response.
process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.
status of having very little money or material goods.
process of growth where material had been lost, removed, or injured.
religious extremism Noun
beliefs and actions outside the accepted practices of an organized faith or religion.
to duplicate or reproduce.
to return something to its former status or quality.
having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.
transition zone in northern Africa between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savanna ecosystems in the south.
important or impressive.
to schedule or plan something for a particular time and place.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
steady and reliable.
sub-Saharan Africa Noun
geographic region located south of the Sahara Desert in Africa.
able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.
use of violence and threats of violence to influence political decisions.
all the plant life of a specific place.
World Bank Noun
United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.