The Great Green Wall of the Sahara: Inside the Fight to Stop a Desert's Sprawl

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This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

(WIDOU, Senegal) — The rainy season has started in the rest of the country, but in Widou, in the heart of the Ferlo region in northern Senegal, the first raindrops won't fall until the end of July. In these tough times between harvests, most of the flocks have migrated to the south in hopes of grazing. There, on the brown and parched land, all that is left is a pitiful-looking green carpet burned by the sun and trampled by animals.

Just 100 meters away, an open-air lab is writing a new page of the region's history. In the tree nursery built by the Water and Forests Department, men are working, hose in hand. The women, bent over rows of small plastic containers, plant seedlings that will have to be ready for when the first rain arrives. This year, they need 390,000 of them.

Widou is one of the first communities selected by the Senegalese government to start the Great Green Wall project, a pan-African initiative launched in 2007 by the African Union. The goal is to create a wall of trees — 15 km wide and 7,600 km long — from Dakar to Djibouti to help slow desertification. Eleven countries are participating, but Senegal, where 535 km of the wall are planned, is the first country where the project is starting to take shape.

Colonel Matar Cisse, an environmental engineer, is wearing army fatigues and a cap. "The Great Green Wall is a crazy project!" he admits. But he quickly brushes away the idea that this project is about building an impenetrable wall. "It wouldn't make any sense," he says. "It's better to see it as us trying to make the forest denser wherever possible, to develop water retention, create natural reserves for the fauna, which has almost completely disappeared." For Cisse, the wall image works because it shows that they've "decided to colonize the desert instead of being at its mercy."

Cisse is also the head of the Great Green Wall National Agency and, as such, is in charge of turning this dream into reality. "We will succeed. We have the best scientists, and we have some experience," he says with a wide grin. Since 2008, reforestation has gained 5,000 hectares per year. "That's a first," says his colleague Pape Sarr, in charge of technical operations.

With time, agronomists, botanists and soil specialists have improved their work. First, they had to select the right species to plant. Seven were selected not only according to how they would adapt to the roughness of the terrain, but also for what they could give to the neighboring populations: the Acacia senegal for its gum arabic, the Balanite tree for its berries and oil, the Zyzyphus for its fruit. "We must plant trees people won't want to cut down," says Aliou Guisse, plant-ecology professor at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar.

The distance between trees was increased to limit competition between plants. "The soil is extremely depleted: in order for reforestation to be viable, it must be reconstituted with a higher concentration of bacteria. It's one of the main constraints of this project. We will have to wait seven or eight years to see if [our efforts have] worked," warns René Bally, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Reforested parcels of land — from 500 to 2,000 hectares in area — will be surrounded by a fence for five years. Cattle farmers will be able to get special authorized access. "First, I remind them of the rules — no machetes and no matches — then I give them a permit that allows them to cut the grass for their flocks or sell it," explains Omar Faye, who is charged with regulating access to land on the project.

The Great Green Wall is certainly a technical challenge. But it is also an ethical one. "If we can't convince the people that this project will give them a better life, we will fail," warns Guisse.

Employing only about 30 technicians, the Great Green Wall agency doesn't have the means to have a strong presence in the field, meaning it will soon be up to the people themselves to look after the project. In Windou, residents have a proven penchant for that kind of responsibility, with a successful 7-hectare vegetable-garden project just outside the town. There, 300 women produce tomatoes, salad, melons and potatoes. They quickly learned how to sow, replant, fertilize with manure, and harvest. "Last year, these women made more than €1,500 from the part of the harvest they sold on the market," says Momar Mbaye Ba, who's in charge of the project.

"In about three years we'll be autonomous," says Fatou Aidara, president of the Garden Commission. She's lived there forever, witnessed the great droughts of the '70s and '80s that killed people and animals. She also saw hopes crushed by several development projects designed by international-cooperation groups. She wants to believe that this time, promises will be kept.

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