As global warming melts ice caps and the weather grows harsher, “Africa is the continent that will suffer first and worst from the extra heat and drought that climate change will unleash over the coming decades,” writes The Nation (November 2, 2011). One solution, proposed by the president of Nigeria in 2005, is to plant a nine-mile-wide strip of trees coast to coast along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Called the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel, the ambitious initiative recognizes that trees dramatically improve water absorption and soil fertility, and is intended to keep the northern desert from encroaching on the agricultural Sahel belt just below.
But the utopian plan is too simplistic. “Planting what amounts to a vast tree plantation across thousands of miles of African dry lands is bound to fail,” writes The Nation. Without proper care, the saplings would simply die. U.S. Geological Survey data also indicate that the Sahara is not expanding southward like a wave, but rather desertification is occurring in isolated pockets.
World Agroforestry Centre former director general Dennis Garrity has endorsed a metaphorical wall that still calls for trees but prudently planted in a mosaic of targeted zones, such as the West African village of Koutal, where once-fertile farmland is being degraded. Fifty miles inland of the Atlantic Ocean, Koutal’s fields have grown hard and salty from the rising sea seeping into the groundwater. While the men labor in the local salt factory or seek higher-paying jobs in distant cities, the women have spent the past six years planting 700 acres of trees interspersed among food crops, a tactic called agroforestry. They work under the guidance of a Senegalese agricultural extension agent and receive training to plant, water, and prune the new growth. “Through no fault of their own, the people of the Sahel find themselves on the front lines of the fight against climate change,” writes The Nation. The literal Great Green Wall of Africa may be doomed, but a more symbolic version will serve to combat the widespread drought and famine that has taken root in Africa.