Sahel violence hits Great Green Wall eco-project

Plan to grow trees to halt spread of the Sahara hit by climate change and conflict

Extremist insurgencies in the Sahel region of Africa are hampering a vast environmental project known as the Great Green Wall designed to hold back the Sahara.

Researchers found that long-running conflicts had delayed the cultivation of about 14 million hectares of degraded land, a seventh of the area being replanted under the programme, according to a study in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The Great Green Wall was launched in 2007 to grow a “natural wonder of the world” spanning Africa’s widest point to revive some of the planet’s poorest places.

Its backers said the expanse would become world’s largest living structure, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.

The wall was intended to stop desertification as the sand of the Sahara was blown south.

Under the initiative, an 8,000 kilometre belt of vegetation would be grown, crossing 11 countries and stretching from Senegal to Djibouti by 2030.

But armed groups linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS operate in several countries of the Sahel, including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

More than two million people have been displaced and thousands have died in fighting linked to the extremists, the UN has said.

Only four per cent of the Great Green Wall’s original area has been cultivated and millions of trees that were planted have died as rainfall has decreased and the temperature has risen.

The study, published on Monday, said $44 billion would be needed to replant all the areas and that every dollar invested led to a return of $1.2. The findings suggested that the project made economic and environmental sense.

But the researchers found that conflicts reduced the amount of areas primed for restoration from 27.9 million hectares to 14.1 million.

France ordered its military to intervene in Mali in 2013 to counter the rise in violence, forcing extremist groups south.

At least 20 people were killed on Sunday in a terrorist attack on a military police post in northern Burkina Faso. France has said that its 5,000-strong military force will leave the region in the first three months of next year.

“The Sahel region has experienced a growing number of violent conflicts involving human fatalities over the past decade, which is already limiting the implementation of land restoration activities,” the study found.

Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, spoke about the importance of stopping desertification in the Sahel during the UN’s Cop26 global climate conference. He announced a commitment from the bank to release $6.5 billion towards the Great Green Wall by 2025.

Updated: November 15th 2021, 7:11 PM