Will the Great Green Wall’s architecture support its future?

The story is the third of a three-part Landscape News series on the Great Green Wall.

Last month, in a room at the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan filled with reporters and international delegates, Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO), announced a plan to build a Great Green Wall for Cities.

Inspired by the Great Green Wall initiative (GGW) in Africa’s Sahel region between the Sahara to the north and more forested lands to the south, the FAO program aims to create urban green areas that would ideally connect to wider landscape restoration areas. An FAO news release featured an artists’ rendition of the wall beginning where Africa’s GGW ends: on the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It then winds northeast, tracing the Himalayas and crossing most of China before curving north to Beijing and North and South Korea.

Like the Sahel’s GGW, the wall of trees here seems metaphorical rather than literal, as it is meant to pepper urban spaces in addition to regreening degraded areas in areas less developed.

Dongyu’s announcement is just the latest upward blip in the GGW’s growing popularity and renown. Yet because it is such a grand effort happening in a large geographic area, it is not surprising that the program seems to be suffering from a few growing pains.

A Burkinabe farmer shows the leaves she used to feed her family during a time of drought. Pablo Tosco, Oxfam

Tracks in the dark

“There are so many actors,” says Paola Agostini who is currently the World Bank’s lead natural resources specialist and was the organization’s first task manager for the GGW. “There is not one single centralized place where you can find information. I think it’s a problem.”

Agostini thinks this prevents current and would-be donors from finding up-to-date information about contributions and how the restoration projects in different countries of the Sahel are doing.

For example, Agostini saw statistics at the recent Conference of Parties to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP), held in September in Delhi that said 15 percent of the Great Green Wall has been completed. “I think it’s an optimistic scenario,” she says. “But even if it’s just 5 percent, that’s fine. It just means we need to do more.

“I hope in the second phase of the GGW, we will be able to have a secretariat where everything can be reported and tracked.”

Chris Reij, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI) who has worked in the Sahel region since the late 1970s, also thinks that some of the reported hectares restored are not accurate and can be misleading. “There are quite a few unsubstantiated claims of what has been achieved under the GGW,” says Reij.

One GGW website lists 5 million hectares restored in Niger under the program. “But that has been done by farmers in Central Niger since 1985 and has nothing to do with the GGW,” says Reij.

“It also mentions Nigeria has restored 5 million hectares. I can’t find any evidence to underpin this claim,” he continues. “Burkina Faso is said to have restored 3 million hectares using the zaï technique. I know Burkina well, and it is much closer to 0.3 million hectares than to 3 million.”

In the desert of Mauritania. Vix Mørá, Flickr

A maze of funds

A few years after the African Union set up the GGW program, it was easier to track funding and project progress. Twelve countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Togo – participated in the program, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) issued grants totaling USD 108 million with the World Bank as GEF Implementing Agency.

“Each of the countries had their own separate project,” says Mohamed Bakarr, lead environmental specialist with the GEF. “For example, some worked with the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Some with the U.N. Development Programme. Some of them worked with the African Development Bank.”

Funding was routed to the countries through the agencies they had chosen to work with. All GGW countries worked from a common framework and platform that the World Bank coordinated, together with other partners in the region. To some degree, the World Bank tracked what each country hoped to accomplish using the GEF funds.

However, these funds were only meant to kickstart projects. The 12 countries raised an additional USD 1.1 billion, largely from World Bank co-financing and partnerships sealed by the African Union, to see their projects through. The countries used co-financing from other development partners such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the U.N. Development Programme and the African Development Bank.

The African Union established the Pan African Agency for the GGW in 2010, an organization that might have been well placed to do centralized monitoring. However, it focuses more on implementing decisions made by representatives of its 11 member countries rather than on project monitoring. Agostini also says the staff is small and not funded properly for such an undertaking.

Eventually, 10 other countries joined the GGW program, and other international agencies began working on new projects. Further clouding the accuracy of the wall’s real progress, many projects promote themselves as part of the GGW vision, though they are not funded under the program.

According to the UNCCD, more than USD 8 billion has been mobilized and pledged since the beginning of the initiative. But as new funding and commitments come in, it is becoming harder to find detailed and centralized information about donors, pledges and projects.

As Agostini observed, it seems that there is no single agency that monitors the progress of all GGW counterparts.

Financing for new and profitable uses of landscapes, such as plantations for commodities like the mangos here pictured, could help the Wall’s future growth. Ollivier Girard, CIFOR

A dream worth clinging to

The task of putting all GGW reports in one place seems mammoth. However, it could be key in helping stakeholders assess whether their efforts can effectively address the Sahel region’s looming humanitarian crisis as a landscape suffering from sweeping degradation, perpetual armed conflicts, a warming climate and a population projected to almost triple by 2050.

“The GGW has not yet lived up to its expectations as expressed when it was created in 2007,” says Reij. “But it has been changing.” Reij thinks the transition of its initial vision of a wall of trees into a mosaic of different landscapes that best support the environment and livelihoods in situ was a useful policy change. “It’s much better now than it was at the start,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s there yet.”

Agostini thinks the program will keep evolving, and all of its players should be in it for the long-haul. She also feels that the GGW will continue to draw more people and organizations who want to help.

“The program is huge, and it’s more of a dream. And it’s a long journey. I knew I was getting into something that was for the long term,” she says. “But the beauty of the dream is that it’s rare to find something more appealing. It makes you want to be a part of it.”

Read the rest of the series:
Part 1: As the Sahel dries, the Sahara advances
Part 2: Why trees could bring water back to the Sahel

Originally published in Landscape News.

Banner Image: Children in Africa. Photo credit: Daniel Tiveau, CIFOR