Is The $1 Billion Project To Plant A Wall Of Trees Across Africa A Good Idea?

The Great Green Wall of Africa is one of the most ambitious environmental and social projects in the world. But is the premise flawed?

As grand visions go, the Great Green Wall is up there with the grandest. It’s been called a new “world wonder,” highly “ambitious,” and one of Africa’s most important climate change projects. Stretching 4,400 miles across 11 countries, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti alongside the Indian Ocean, it would contain up to 11.6 million hectares of vegetation, all aimed at keeping the Sahara from encroaching southwards and maintaining productive land for the people of the Sahel region. The World Bank, the African Union, and the French government have collectively invested, or pledged, billions of dollars to the project.


But is the Great Green Wall a good idea? A recent article by Peter Fabricius, a consultant with the Institute of Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank, pours a little cold water on the concept. Quoting anti-desertification scientists, he says it’s founded on several misconceptions.

The first is that the desert is “a disease” that needs to be countered. Actually, it’s a “vital ecosystem” in its own right. The second, that the Sahara is encroaching at all–the sands do move around, Fabricius says, but not necessarily southwards. And third, the idea that there’s miles of virgin land just waiting for tree planting. In fact, much of the area is already used for livestock and agriculture, and farmers there don’t necessarily want a load of trees planted.

To be effective, the Great Green Wall needs to be more than simply planting nonnative trees. “Planting trees in the Sahel is risky and often ends in failure,” Gray Tappan, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, tells Fabricius. “It’s not about planting trees–it’s about farmers encouraging, protecting, and managing the natural regeneration of native trees that sprout spontaneously in their fields–with a goal of greatly increasing on-farm tree cover.”

Tappan says he’s tracking Great Green Wall (GGW) projects, some of which started as early as 2007, and he’s yet to see “any significant physical changes or improvements related to GGW activities.”

Elvis Paul Tangam, who oversees the project for the African Union, says about 15% of the trees have been planted so far, mostly in Senegal and Burkina Faso. “They have planted more than 27,000 hectares of indigenous trees that don’t need watering. Many animals that had disappeared from those regions are reappearing–animals like antelopes, hares, and birds that for the past 50 years, nobody saw,” he told Public Radio International.

Tangam concedes the need for “managed natural regeneration” as well as just massive tree planting. But he also says the whole project needs better monitoring and progress assessment. Without it, it’s possible a lot of money will be spent, and a lot of greenery planted, but without the hoped-for environmental benefits.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.