Desertification and land degradation affect millions of people in the Sahel and the Sahara, home to the world’s poorest populations. In a place where around two-thirds of the land cover consists of drylands and deserts, desertification makes its way – boosted by human pressure, deforestation and climate change. Food security and the livelihood of local communities are at stake.

The will of facing this challenge lies at the core of the Great Green Wall (GGW). This ambitious initiative, which aims to be a game changer in African drylands, was originally conceived as a band of drought-resistant trees stretching from Senegal to Djibouti, and has turned into a patchwork of actions oriented to increase resilience and fuel rural development.

Eulogio Montijano, from the EU Delegation to the African Union and Project Manager of different projects in support of the GGW explains the origins, timeline and objectives.

A brief recap: What are the origins of this initiative?

In 2005 the Nigerian president Obasanjo formulated the idea of a great green wall. This idea was endorsed officially by the African heads of state and government in 2007. The idea was to tackle all the detrimental social, economic and environmental effects of land degradation and desertification. The initiative aims to support the efforts of local communities in the sustainable management of forests and other natural resources, and also to contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, improving food security and the livelihoods of the local population.

Who drives this initiative?

At the driving seat are the African Union Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture (REA), and the Pan-African agency for the Great Green Wall (CILSS) which was created around 2010 and is composed by ten member countries. There are a wide variety of regional and sub-regional, technical and political organisations taking part: FAO, the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD, the World Bank, and many others. The European Union also participates in it.

To what extent is the EU involved?

On the one hand, most Member States have a national envelop, and most of them have selected agriculture and food security as a focal sector, supporting for example some activities related to the Great Green Wall initiative. On the other side, the EU finances different projects against the backdrop of the GGW and in the future, it is expected that the pan-African programme include some money for this initiative.

Has the crisis reduced the allocation of EU funds to this initiative?

Not at all. You might see a reduction not on the figures but on the percentages for middle income countries. In turn, there has been a re-focus on lower income countries, including those in the Sub-Saharan Africa.

Has there been a turning point in the development of the GGW?

The most important milestone was the agreement on the harmonized strategy. At the beginning the Great Green Wall was seen as physical barrier of trees to stop desertification, 10.000 km long and 15 km wide. Although this is a romantic idea, it is not very realistic. Therefore, it was transformed into a mosaic of interventions that take into account sustainable livelihood, and the interest of the local population, the ones taking care of the land.

This turned into a resilience programme, with integrated actions addressing sectoral problems, covering a wide range of issues: natural resources management, infrastructure, sustainability of rural production systems, including agriculture, breeding, forestry, etc. It is mainly a rural development programme with a strong sustainability component.

The harmonized strategy set as well clear objectives and allowed the different actors involved to speak with a single voice.

What is the timeline?

The initiative has an open end, as it targets ambitious objectives that are meant to be sustained over time but there are deadlines in which some of the objectives are expected to be achieved. By 2025, it is expected that there will be a reversal in land degradation trends, and increased climate change resilience. By 2050, it is expected that huge areas of the Sahara and the Sahel will be transformed into rural production and development hubs.

Is this realistic?

The timeline might be a bit optimistic, but the objectives are realistic and achievable, should there be the politic will, and the support of all collaborating partners.

What have been, so far, the main achievements?

Between 2011 and 2013 there have been ten national action plans and some transnational projects, as well as the formulation of a capacity-building strategy.

How will this translate into ´real-world´ activities?

There will be, for example, many sustainable land management initiatives: tree-planting, adoption of more sustainable agricultural techniques, use of more resistant seeds, etc.

How will this forward-looking initiative cope with the unpredictable (development of national economies, effects of climate change, etc.)?

If you work in development cooperation, especially agriculture and development in Africa, the question of how to deal with uncertainty is very relevant. Climate change is a very important factor and it is not possible to predict how it will evolve exactly. But this initiative is precisely about that: how to equip people in the area with the best possible means to cope with the unforeseen. That is why it is, first and foremost, a resilience programme.

More information can be found here.

Photo Gallery of the Great Green Wall, here.