China has its Great Wall that used to guard off foreign raiders, Westeros has the Wall in the North to stop white walkers, and since a couple of years, a group of African countries is working on its very own Great Green Wall. Sounds impressive, isn’t it? Truth be told, it’s not a real wall. But one day, it will be great.

The Great Green Wall stretches 11 countries, from Senegal to Djibouti (graph: National Geographic)


For decades, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, which borders the Sahara desert, have been plagued by droughts that resulted in food and water shortages. In a concerted effort among 11 countries to bring relief, the African Union approved the Great Green Wall Initiative in 2007. The original plan envisioned a 15-kilometers wide wall of trees stretching over 8000 kilometers from Senegal in the West of the African continent, to Djibouti in the East. The aim: bring a halt to desertification of fertile land bordering the Sahara desert.

In the years that followed, the vision evolved due to the recognition of criticism from the international community. The first myth being debunked: it turns out the desert is not expanding. Or at least not in most of the 11 countries the Great Green Wall is running through. The idea that the desert is eating up fertile land around it is outdated. Scientists have shown that the Sahara desert is a rather stable ecosystem, and desertification of fertile land in the Sahel is a result of climate change and poor land management. Overfarming and overgrazing are degrading land quickly, and trees are chopped down to serve as firewood. Secondly, it is now recognized that you don’t necessarily have to plant trees to restore degraded land. In some areas, the land has retained enough biocapacity to restore itself, a process called regeneration.

Southern Niger was hit by a large drought in the eighties of last century, and never fully recovered (photo: FAO)

That’s why the idea of an 8000-kilometers long belt of trees has evolved into a patchwork of local land restoration projects. In some countries, it indeed means planting trees, while in others it is about training farmers to adopt sustainable agroforestry practices. The ambition is to restore 100 million hectares of currently degraded land by 2030.

Besides stopping the desert from moving Southwards, the Great Green Wall Initiative aims to reverse detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts thereof. It offers farming communities food security and employment opportunities. For example, in Senegal 25000 acres of land have been reforested with 11.4 million drought-resistant acacia trees. The trees not only withstand long periods of low rainfall, they also produce Arabic gum, a commodity that generates income for the local communities. In Nigeria, 20000 new jobs were created during the restoration of degraded land. The effects are far-reaching — there is a direct relationship between hunger and religious or political extremism.

Organisations large and small have pledged their support for the initiative, such as the World Bank and the European Commission, adding up to over 2 billion US dollars. The question is: is it enough? As illustrated above, the first results are promising, yet progress is too slow. To reach the ambitious 2030-goal, the pace has to be sped up more than tenfold. Considering the increased stress on ecosystems and food security due to climate change, one can argue that local governments should step up the game, if necessary with more international support. The initiative deserves it — the Great Green Wall is an ambitious dream that can change the continent and the world for the better.

Watch this award-winning 360-degree video about the initiative: Growing a World Wonder

(photo: the Great Green Wall initiative)