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The Great Green Wall breathes life back into the desert

Plowed land in Senegal captured by Jane Hahn

Can the world's largest living structure made of trees help curb climate change in Africa? The Great Green Wall is a determined effort to plant a stretch of trees across the entire width of Africa, covering the whole Sahel-Saharan region from Senegal to Ethiopia. Spearheaded by the African Union and funded by the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations, the Great Green Wall project was launched in 2007 to halt the expansion of the Sahara by planting a barrier of trees running 8,000 km along its southern edge.

The productive landscapes in the region will transform the lives of millions. Now, as concerns mount about the impact of climate change on the Sahel, the semiarid band of grassland south of the Sahara that is one of the most impoverished regions on earth, the Great Green Wall is filling a new role. The goal now is to transform the lives of millions living on the front line of climate change by restoring agricultural land ruined by decades of overuse. When done, it would provide food, stem conflict and discourage migration. When the project is completed in 2030, the restored land is expected to absorb some 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of keeping all of California’s cars parked for 3½ years.

Gouebiaby by a lemon tree captured by Jane Hahn

The volunteers transforming abandoned land into forested brick in the Great Green Wall, have noticed the annual rains haven't arrived. This will mean the seedlings will not take root. Goudiaby, who has been overseeing Great Green Wall projects for Senegal’s forestry department for seven years wonders, how it is possible to grow trees to combat climate change if climate change is making it impossible to grow trees?

The answer may be about changing attitudes than changing the landscape. “If we can solve people’s problems by improving their living conditions now,” says Goudiaby, “they will be able to help themselves by protecting the trees that protect their future.”

Stopping global warming isn’t about saving the planet; the earth will survive no matter how much the climate changes. It’s about saving humanity. One way to do that is by helping those who are most vulnerable to what chaos we have already created.

Near the village of Koyli Alpha, 50-year-old Aka pulls her heavily laden donkey cart to the side of the road. She has spent the day cutting grass in a “forage bank” managed by the national Great Green Wall agency. For the past eight months, the field has been fenced off to let the grass, along with 250,000 saplings, grow undisturbed by the cattle, sheep and goats that roam free in this region. The field reopened in July, and now herders pay $1.70 a day to harvest the grass for their cattle until the rains bring new grazing opportunities. For Aka, the idea of a grass “bank” is a radical departure from an itinerant childhood spent following the family herd in search of forage. Now she can feed her cattle in the lean season without stripping trees.

Weeding in Koyli Alpha captured by Jane Hahn

Aka says, “Before­ the Great Green Wall, the kids had to go with us when we took the cattle to graze. Now they can stay in school.” In Mbar Toubab, the fees collected from last year’s forage bank paid for solar panels to power classrooms. This year they will cover construction of a dormitory for students who live too far to walk every day. The circular investment is part of the plan, says Goudiaby. “If we can make the children aware of the consequences of our actions today, they will teach the next generation.”

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