Can We Turn a Desert Into a Forest?

In the last decade, millions of Africans in the Sahel, a region of semiarid land that stretches for thousands of miles below the Sahara, have been displaced by violence and food and economic insecurity. Climate change is partly to blame — droughts and floods are growing longer and more frequent. But surging population growth, deforestation and overgrazing have also contributed to denuding much of the land.

Many Africans in countries in the Sahel, like Niger, live in rural areas with limited access to education.Credit…Photographs and video by Nick Parisse/Dawning 

In the mid-2000s, African leaders envisioned creating a huge swath of green that could help combat desertification and land degradation. The project, called the Great Green Wall, began in 2007 with the aim of planting a nine-mile-wide belt of trees and shrubs that would extend from the coast of Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. These newly forested areas could create seasonal jobs, help farmers feed their families and offer a way to fight climate change by capturing carbon dioxide in plants.

A man shields himself against a sudden sandstorm in Dantyandou, in the Tillabéri region of Niger, where the wet season is shrinking.

The World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, in partnership with 12 African nations, have poured over $1 billion into this endeavor, and the initiative’s scope has grown to include efforts to fight poverty, reduce inequality and build climate-resilient infrastructure. In ecological terms, the program has been a huge success. As of 2020, nearly 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of land has been restored to arability in Niger alone, according to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification.

An acacia plantation in Loga, Niger, where the Great Green Wall is underway.

After years of planting trees and experimenting with methods to capture water, farmers in Niger have begun to see results — soil health has improved, and crops are growing again. In 2019, we visited the country to see how the program’s ambition translated in a country where most people depend on the land for their livelihood.

“Nine years ago, the land was a disaster,” said Nomao Alkali, a farmer in Fada, a village about 130 miles southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. “If you put seeds in the ground, you would have almost nothing, the soil was so poor.”

Nomao Alkali, whose father signed the original agreement to make his land part of the Great Green Wall program.

Mr. Alkali hoped the program could help transform his father’s acres of red rock desert to fertile land. Indeed, in addition to acacia trees, the property now supports millet, peanuts, beans and sesame crops. But it’s worth noting that too often land restoration efforts mainly benefit men like Mr. Alkali, who have access to large tracts and can take a gamble on a program that may seem mystifying or threatening to others.

In a society where land often lies in the hands of elders, young men must wait their turn to profit from tree-planting efforts. Given population growth, there may not be much left to go around. When faced with this reality, many young men, like Bahari Salisu in Nigeria, decide to leave.

At 17, Mr. Salisu left his 15 brothers and sisters and his village, in Gamji, to sell newspapers on the streets of the northern city of Damaturu. When he returns to help on the family farm, it’s only temporary. “I came back home to help plant as the rainy season starts. If I finish the work here on my family’s farm, I will go back. We are jobless,” he told us.

With few opportunities in farming available, many young men leave their rural villages in search of work and end up in informal settlements like this one in Niamey.
Tassala Naïno at her home in Fada. She is among the few women in her village who own land.

Cash for work programs used for planting trees puts money directly into the pockets of poor farmers during lean seasons, giving them a safety net. But cultural norms can often exclude groups from these programs. Women need formal permission from their husbands to participate. Some women are not allowed to work alongside men in the fields. Others are forced to fend for themselves because their husbands and children left to find work elsewhere.

Some landowners opted not to participate in the program because they feared that their land would be expropriated. They now find themselves surrounded by green while their land remains denuded. 

The newly planted trees and crops can also disrupt traditional land use agreements between farmers and pastoralists. About 50 million people in the Sahel depend on raising livestock. But as more of the land becomes usable for crops, less of it is available to pastoralists.

Salle Ibrahim’s family has grazed animals in Gamji since long before he was born. Now he has to keep a close eye on his goats and sheep to make sure they didn’t eat the ever-encroaching millet crops. His way of life is “nearly finished because farmers have taken almost all of the land that was once reserved for grazing,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

Salle Ibrahim herds his animals along the pastoral corridor. More and more of the land once used for grazing has been transformed into farmland, and keeping grazers away from the crops is a challenge. Credit…Rafe H. Andrews/Dawning

The news from the recent climate change summit in Glasgow was encouraging. Pledges were made to continue funding the expansion of the Great Green Wall. Still, figuring out how to balance the needs of different people is key if the program is to succeed.

The initiative must also propose alternative income-generating options to ensure equity. It could expand programs that train women to nurture the saplings that are the building blocks of the wall, and create agribusiness opportunities that allow young people to make a living in their hometowns. Pastoral grazing corridors should also be reinforced and respected to ensure that nomadic herders as well as farmers can benefit from the Great Green Wall.


Mr. Alkali near his farm in the Great Green Wall.

Across the Great Green Wall there are communities that are already working together to eke out a living. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of restored land, with trees, water and a thriving landscape, affords the chance to develop a more diverse and productive set of economic opportunities tailored to the different groups of people who live amid the wall. But regreening the Sahel will mean little if the gains will be reaped only by a lucky few.

Raul Roman is the founder and executive director of Dawning, a multimedia investigative reporting organization. Lauren Kelly is a lead evaluation officer at the World Bank. Rafe H. Andrews is the assistant director and chief curator at Dawning, where Nick Parisse is the director of photography.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Back to top button