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  • Writer's pictureTali Orad

Building a Living Wall

Why Growing a Wall is More Complicated than Engineering One

A group of international banks and governments recently promised $14 billion to a reforestation effort in Africa that aims to build a barrier over 4,350 miles long to prevent further desertification. The “Great Green Wall” is an initiative that spans 11 countries that want to finish the project by 2030. It’s progress so far is not on pace to complete it on time. It is only about 15% finished and is already over 13 years old.

Desertification is a major threat to the Sahel, part of the southern Sahara desert and one of the poorest regions in the world. Over the past couple of decades, the Sahara desert, one of the harshest climates to live in, has been creeping south. This climate threat is largely responsible for food insecurity, resource conflict and mass emigration. This wall is intended to be a literal barrier to prevent further desertification and has the potential to bring back jobs and stability to the region.

The project is projected to cost about $30 billion to finish, making the new pledge a significant portion of its overall cost. However, funding is not the only challenge the Great Green Wall faces.

Many tree planting projects have proved to be a waste of resources after the young saplings are left to die on their own. Reforestation projects that hope to actually grow trees to adulthood must care for them in the long term.

“Tree planting is often viewed as the simple act of digging a hole, but this short-term, naïve view has resulted in large quantities of money being spent on … efforts that have failed almost entirely,” said forest scientists Pedro Brancalion and Karen Holl in a review of agroforestry projects in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist said, "If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia.

Essentially 80% or more of planted trees have died."

One successful method of reforestation has helped regenerate part of the southern Sahara desert. This method relies on educating farmers to create a positive relationship with trees. Historically, trees have been viewed as a threat to property rights, since the governments legally owned any trees that grew on farmland. Farmers would cut down trees to protect their property. Long after these laws perished, this negative relationship persisted. Through new positive relationships, farmers actually care for trees that sprout naturally. These trees survive because of the water and nutrients that farmers provide, and the trees prevent rampant runoff and erosion of water, nutrients, and soil that are used to grow crops. Natural regeneration paired with farmers’ care has resulted in 12 million acres of restored land in Niger alone.

Regardless of the specific method, experts agree that the key to sustained reforestation projects is engaging people to care for them. That’s why 1Treellion bases its restoration projects around communities. When the people living near the project are engaged in it, from planning to the trees’ adulthood, both the reforestation effort and the community are strengthened.

As mentioned in our recent article, a project in Kenya thrived through the pandemic, because the community came together to care for the saplings despite unraveled plans. Without engaged communities, or worse, no one at all to care for the trees, the project can buckle under much less pressure.

Another important factor in reforestation success is whether the tree species planted are native. Often, nonnative species are the cheapest, and reforestation projects, therefore, choose quantity over quality. However, these nonnative species frequently flounder in the hot, arid environment. Consulting with experts and local communities can allow reforestation groups to choose the best performing species for the desired impact. These species might be important for biodiversity, for supporting an endangered species, or for direct value to the community. In Kenya, we planted moringa trees. Described as the tree that never dies, this species also offered nutritional value in its leaves, which the community can sustainably harvest.

Planting can be simple, but growing is much more complicated. We must do so intentionally to optimize resources. Projects that fail not only cost precious reforestation funding but also erode the faith communities have in these projects. By relying on local communities as the valuable resource they are, we are both strengthening the stability of the regions we plant in, and also strengthening the relationship between humans and trees. This relationship is the key to sustaining projects that improve livelihoods and will continue to strengthen as reforestation proves to be a path to stability and a reason for hope in the Sahel.


Written by Grace Parker

B.A. Environmental Studies, UNC 2023

1Treellion's Volunteer & ambassador

Fact checked by Tali Orad

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