Desertification- when warming temperatures or human activity deteriorates soil fertility in drylands- causes 12 million hectares of land to lose their productivity each year. 1.5 billion people worldwide depend on land that is slowly being degraded by desertification, which causes around USD$42 billion of lost earnings from agriculture a year. Desertification is primarily caused by vegetation loss due to changing climates, droughts or overuse of soil. Projects to replace lost vegetation abound, the most ambitious of which has been the Pan-African Great Green Wall Initiative (GGW), a mammoth reforestation project that would stretch at least 7 000km across the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. While the megaproject has encountered several difficulties, it has helped uncover indigenous agroforestry practices in the region that had almost been completely lost. Indigenous land management and farming receives little in the way of funding or legal tender, but areas where land is primarily tenured by indigenous groups tend to be substantially more productive, sustainable and resilient.

The Great Green Wall was announced in 2007 by the African Union (AU). Funded by the EU, the World Bank and the United Nations, the wall was first planned as a barrier of vegetation across the Sahel region of northern sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahel is highly vulnerable to land degradation, as overgrazing, deforestation and persistent droughts have made the once-lush belt of land vulnerable to desertification. The Sahel’s population is projected to increase from 83.7 million in 2019 to 196 million by 2050, exacerbating these stressors.

As the inhospitable conditions of the Sahara expand due to reduced rainfall and receding vegetation, countries in the Sahel including Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Mali have worked with neighboring nations and the AU to establish the GGW. Initially planned as a literal wall of trees around 15km wide stretching 7 000km from Senegal to Djibouti, the project’s vision has evolved due to implementation challenges and concerns over the looming population boom in the region. 

The initiative now aspires to be a ‘mosaic of sustainable land use practices,’ implementing agroforestry to increase tree density while disseminating the most efficient local practices to farmers. The goal is to address the region’s lack of social and economic resiliency to climate change impacts, improving the efficiency of crop yields and creating jobs. Land degradation has caused the Sahel region to become chronically prone to food shortages, with as many as 37 million people suffering from food insecurity in 2016. 

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Figure 1: Great Green Wall Initiative and the Sahel; Food and Agriculture Organization; 2016.

The GGW has been championed by advocates as a prime example of the land restoration initiatives governments should be pursuing. The initiative addresses food insecurity and poverty as well as land degradation and biodiversity loss, and has been seen as a desirable effort by countries to engage in a communal conservation effort across multilateral lines. Its long term goals by 2030 are to reforest 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million new jobs. 

However, the project is worryingly behind schedule. In 2020, the Great Green Wall was only 4% complete ahead of its planned 2030 completion date. The delays and missed timelines are due to a number of reasons, but mainly insufficient funds, lack of oversight and improperly allocated technical support. 

By 2020, 18 million hectares of land had been restored, 350 000 new jobs created and around USD$90 million in revenue generated. But after over $200 million invested and significant losses incurred, these achievements are somewhat underwhelming.

The few success stories of the Great Green Wall have been scattered, symptomatic of the project’s largely disjointed and fragmented oversight, but these instances may be decisive in informing how the initiative could ultimately yield tremendous economic, social and environmental benefits in the Sahel and beyond. The decision to shift the GGW’s priorities from a simple regreening project to a network of locally sourced sustainable land management practices has proved to be a game-changer, and forming a more cohesive overseeing body to drive grassroots movements across the region could be what finally sees the project and other like it come to fruition.

Evolving Strategies of the Great Green Wall

Persistent periods of drought in the Sahel began as early as the 1970s, prompting calls from community leaders and politicians to pursue greening and reforestation strategies. At the time, observers feared that the Sahara was expanding, and would soon destroy the critical ecological services in the Sahel. In reality, the reduction of vegetation and desertification was mostly due to the overuse and mismanagement of arable land. Poor land management, rampant deforestation and increasingly frequent droughts have left millions in the region mired in food insecurity.

The GGW’s original reforestation project was a byproduct of those earlier concerns over droughts and an expanding Sahara. However, replanting trees and shrubbery was not an appropriate strategy to fix the issue of poor land management. Dennis Garrity, a senior fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre, was unapologetic in his criticism of the original project, saying: “This was a stupid way of restoring land in the Sahel.” 

A major issue with the initiative’s development was that many trees had been planted in areas with few or no inhabitants to care for them. In the early days of reforestation, as many as 80% of trees died within two months of being planted, due to lack of water, protection and appropriate care. 

“If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” says Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.

As a response to criticism and unsatisfying results, the focus of the Great Green Wall shifted towards productivity, optimising yields and making land use more efficient. Instead of reforesting, land management policies would be implemented. These include water harvesting techniques, agroforestry and regenerative agriculture. “We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakarr, lead environmental specialist for the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility. 

A major component of the initiative’s new agenda is to uncover and encourage indigenous farming techniques, which are specifically suited to their area and local geology. In Burkina Faso, an agricultural technique unique to the Western Sahel known as zai has been used for generations. The method involves digging shallow pits in the ground during preseason to capture scarce rainfall and concentrate it in crop roots. Some farmers have placed manure in these pits to attract termites, whose tunnels help further break up the soil and improve subterranean irrigation.When employed correctly, this rehabilitative practice noticeably increases the yields of crops such as millet and sorghum, as well as preserving soil vitality.

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Image 1: Zai being dug in Burkina Faso.

In Niger, farmers often leave a species of tree, Faidherbia albida, to grow in moderate numbers among crop fields. Unlike most trees, this species goes dormant during the wet season, defoliating and fertilising soil when rains begin. Because these trees are without leaves during the regular growing season, they do not shade crops during the period of year that they require sunlight. If intermingled with crops correctly, the tree’s roots are non-invasive and can even help strengthen soil conditions.

Legal frameworks rooted in the continent’s colonial history have actively discouraged techniques such as this. Agriculture and forestry laws in Niger, a former French colony, are in many ways a holdover of the country’s colonial past. A forestry law meant to preserve wood for fuel in large cities made all trees official property of the state, even those located on private property. Farmers who chopped down wood from a tree for personal fuel use were threatened with jail, and so it became a negative incentive to have any sort of tree on private land. Remaining trees were chopped down recklessly and without concern for environmental costs to supply urban fuel demand, relegating the regenerative agriculture method to redundancy. Even after the colonial period ended, the law persisted, but was finally changed in 2000, giving farmers more control over their trees.

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Image 2: Faidherbia trees lining a maize field in Zambia.

Techniques such as building zai pits and intermingling tree species such as Faidherbia with crops are examples of farmer-managed natural regeneration, low-cost and sustainable agroforestry practices that help subsistence farmers become more resilient to climate change and food insecurity. These techniques are clearly not monolithic, since they are entirely dependent on local geology, climate and resources. Despite its initial shortcomings, the Great Green Wall has helped uncover previously unknown or nearly forgotten traditional land management techniques, and now represents a unique opportunity to fulfil developmental and environmental preservation goals simultaneously. 

Who Owns the Land?

Indigenous land management techniques are generally capable of providing the most efficient yield possible, with minimal environmental degradation. These traditions often involve an intergenerational approach to land tenure, in that future generations are considered to have as equal a right to healthy land as current inhabitants. 

The conservation results speak for themselves. Despite having vastly more limited budgets and reduced access to latest technologies, indigenous groups can achieve conservation results equal or better than those of government-run protected areas. Indigenous communities are often at the frontline of movements against deforestation, agroindustry plantations, rampant resource extraction and harmful infrastructure development. A 2016 study in Bolivia found that deforestation rates in the Bolivian Amazon were up to three times lower in tenured indigenous areas than they were elsewhere.

 

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Figure 2: Deforestation rates inside and outside tenure-secure indigenous lands between 2000 and 2012; World Resources Institute; 2016.

Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs, ethnic groups who are descended from and identify with the original inhabitants of a given region) own, manage, use or inhabit up to 65% of the world’s land. And despite their limited numbers, IPLCs manage a quarter of all land, most of which remains in a natural state. As much as 80% of the world’s biodiversity is located on indigenous land, making the roles of these peerless environmental stewards critical to global conservation efforts. Indigenous land management yields significant economic benefits as well. Carbon sequestration, biological pest control and regulating water and air quality are critical ecological services which provide an aggregate value of USD$1.16 trillion each year to the global economy, all of which is derived from indigenous-managed land.

Despite the enormous benefits and critical ecological functions that indigenous land tenure serves, these sustainable systems of conservation and resource management are at an increasingly high risk of extinction. IPLCs worldwide have historically been in a perennially uphill fight to retain their land titles, finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a hypercompetitive global economy where resource extraction and development interests often outweigh claims to indigenous land rights. Despite IPLCs managing or otherwise utilising well over half of the world’s land, governments recognise these groups to legally own only 10% of these spaces. 

The process for IPLCs to receive a land title is costly and complex, often delayed by bureaucratic and legislative roadblocks. And while it can take decades for these groups to obtain land titles, lenient policies towards foreign investors, plantation and logging industries allow most corporations to advance through quickly or even skip steps entirely in the process of becoming legal holders of the same land. 

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Figure 3: Table detailing differences between land formalisation and acquisition timelines for ICLPs and business entities by country; World Resources Institute; 2018.

The indigenous Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in Peru has for generations inhabited and managed around 80 km² of land, although legally owned less than 3% of this space. In 2014, when a palm oil company took interest, the community had little to no legal recourse to stop developers from stripping bare swathes of ancestral forests to create fresh farmland for palm oil plantations. The Shipibo community collaborated with local and international NGOs, indigenous representation groups, environmental and legal aid organisations to eventually bring the issue to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which ordered the company to cease operations. 

Despite the order, however, it was unclear if the resolution could be enforced given the lack of legal rights extended to IPLCs in Peru, or if other companies would be barred from exploiting the land in future. It also does little to mitigate similar legal challenges emerging elsewhere, given that 1.4 million hectares of land in Peru have been earmarked for future development of palm oil plantations.

For this non-binding resolution, the Shipibo required the financial support, connections and industry expertise of several transnational organisations. The community received no support, monetary or legal, from the Peruvian government. Like the Shipibo, most IPLCs worldwide have precious little in the way of official legal rights and titles. Governments do the bare minimum to protect them, and instead provide incentives to foreign investors, corporations and developers. This is despite the fact that indigenous groups are by far the best equipped to tend to their land. 

These issues are embedded in the failures of modern market and legal systems. Many IPLCs have inhabited and lived off their land for generations, but centuries-old land tenures mean little in the eyes of policymakers and legal frameworks designed to guarantee more rights to those who are willing to pay the most for them. Shifting these priorities will require a reevaluation of government incentives, facilitating IPLCs’ access to land titles and emphasising better representation of indigenous groups in government and decision-making spheres. 

In the case of the Great Green Wall, advocates for indigenous rights have been bolstered by the high degree of publicity their traditional and local farming techniques have received. The duality in the Sahel is striking. The first incarnation of the initiative was an over-generalised and poorly executed plan to uniformly blanket the region with trees. This plan, which received no significant input from indigenous groups, became an abject failure and a waste of money and time. 

The second take, however, has focused on fostering regenerative practices and local knowledge. There is no generic and vague notion of ‘tree replanting.’ Specific trees are being planted in strategic locations to benefit the soil and increase crop efficiency. Local leaders and farmers are being given more agency to decide what to do with their land, and their opinions are becoming priorities for decision-makers. In the Sahel, there is an opportunity to put to bed the concerns from developers and politicians that corporations and industry are more deserving of land rights because they can produce more goods, and that supporting IPLCs and scaling indigenous agroforestry techniques can provide for consumption demand through sustainable means.

Indigenous land rights is a contentious issue, with ramifications that go well beyond sustainable agriculture and land management, involving politics, unfair legal advantages based on race, culture wars and even postcolonial legacies. Generational land tenures are not considered legally equivalent to those that can be bought at an auction, and in the case of land management and agricultural planning, this is leading to direct capital losses, lost efficiency, land degradation and worsened social conditions. Involving indigenous groups in decision-making and expanding these groups’ access to land rights are remarkably easy fixes, which have the potential to accomplish multiple environmental and social development goals simultaneously.

Featured image by: Flickr