The Great Wall (No, not that one, and no, not that one either!)

An Inspirational Story

Compared to hope, it turns out, hopelessness is just no fun at all.

There’s so much doom and gloom and, well, probably a little more doom on top of that in the world these days, and it can all get to be a little overwhelming. Deforestation, rising seas, climate change, superbugs. Narcissistic red faced aliens attempting to build walls out of fabricated fears and misdirected discontent. All we ever seem to hear about is a demoralising ‘who’s who’ of the newest, fruitiest, most positively terrifying ways our world is about to come to an end, and I don’t know about you, but it can leave me feeling more than a little bit hopeless. And compared to hope, it turns out, hopelessness is just no fun at all.

It was in the midst of one of these cold, hopeless, ‘human beings don’t deserve this beautiful world we’re living in’ kind of moments that I stumbled across a story about a wall, and it’s not the one you’re used to hearing about. Not at all concerned with placing needless barriers between fellow human beings or acting as a springboard for political success, this was a wall intent on bringing people together. Twenty one countries and counting to be precise; now that takes some doing.

The story I’m referring to is that of Africa’s ‘Great Green Wall Project’, which officially launched in 2007 as a plan to combat desertification by planting an 8,000km long, 15km wide band of trees across the width of Africa in the ‘Sahel’ region just below the Sahara desert. (The image below represents the countries that make up the Sahel region, it is not in any way a representation of the wall in question, or any other wall for that matter; just a map of the countries involved. Okay? Cool! Just wanted to make sure that was clear. Nice map though isn’t it? I especially love the blue diagonal lines that represent the ocean. I mean what kind of funky looking, football shirt wearing ocean are we dealing with here? Looks like the oceans around Africa must support Real Sociedad! (Real Sociedad are a football team in Spain who wear blue and white stripy shirts.) (I don’t actually think the oceans around Africa, or any oceans for that matter, have any preference for which football team scores the most goals and therefore wins the most games; I’m just being silly.) (Okay now I’m typing brackety parts inside brackety parts, so I think it’s time to enjoy the image and get on with the rest of the story okay? Cheers.) (Go Sociedad!)

The project has since morphed into a much wider initiative for land regeneration, poverty eradication, and the tackling of other social and environmental issues that affect not only the millions of people across Africa currently living in the region, but the entire world. Not a bad story to stumble across when you’re run down with a dose of ‘the apocalypse blues’ right? Certainly got my hope flavoured juices flowing.

The fight against Climate Change

The catalyst for the Great Green Wall can largely be attributed to one of those terrifying monsters I mentioned above; climate change. We tend to think of climate change as being something that ‘might’ affect us in the future, but in so many regions of this great ‘green’ earth of ours, usually the poorest ones, the effects are already being felt. The Sahel, one of the most impoverished regions in the entire world, has been heavily affected by recurrent periods of drought since the 1970s, which has threatened the livelihoods and future of entire populations across the region. Livestock numbers have plummeted, crops have failed, and millions of people have been left facing an uncertain future. For me, and my insatiable appetite for hopeless pie, the conditions in the Sahel seem like a precursor for what our entire world may soon be facing. Land degradation, impending starvation, rapid population growth, outbursts of mass frustration leading to increased migration and conflict over a shrivelling resource base. Sounds like a pretty standard Guardian article right? Time to drop tools and start rioting; all hope is lost.

But the people of the Sahel didn’t drop tools. Instead, they searched for solutions, and the Great Green Wall project was born. What began as a simple plan to plant a line of trees across the width of Africa has since morphed into something even more extensive, and crucially, more sustainable. The vision for the Great Green Wall has shifted into that of a mosaic of interventions addressing the challenges facing the people in the Sahel and the Sahara region as a whole. As a programming tool for rural development, the goal is to strengthen the resilience of the region’s people and natural systems with sound ecosystem management, the protection of rural heritage, and the improvement of local living conditions. So basically the aim is to work together, love the land, treat nature with respect, and reap the rewards. The main reward here being a hospitable, liveable environment for everyone involved. Now that sounds like something I can get on board with, and maybe even something that could be scaled up a notch or two? Say, for the whole planet maybe? Maybe.

Niger leads the way

One of the very poorest countries, doing some of the most successful work. It’s not all about money you know. Seriously.

Speaking of scaling up, come have a look at what’s been going on in Niger! Niger, one of the countries in the Sahel to make the most progress so far, is one of the poorest places in the world. In 2011, it was ranked 186 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index devised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Life expectancy at birth is 53 years, and infant mortality is the second highest in the world. The country is 75% desert, and has suffered from widespread droughts and crop failures for years. A tough place to live; some might even stretch as far to say, hopeless. Yet despite all of this hardship and misery, hope has stood strong, and over the past 30 years or so farmers in Niger have been able to revive vast tracts of arid land with minimal investment. “Niger has seen the largest positive transformation in the whole of Africa,” says Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow of the World Resources Institute. One of the very poorest countries, doing some of the most successful work. It’s not all about money you know. Seriously.

The farmers in Niger have been practicing natural regeneration of the land using innovative practices such as reviving the roots of plants and trees, and digging “half-moon” pits to store water. Trees destroyed during droughts are allowed to recover over years, and then carefully maintained. These methods have succeeded in restoring 5 million hectares of land and around 200 million trees. Reij estimates that this delivers an additional 500,000 tons of cereal grain a year, which is enough to feed 2.5 million people. The investment amounted to less than $20 per hectare. Now that’s a whole lot of regenerated bang for your buck! Amazing what can be accomplished when we start working with nature instead of against it.

The farmers in Niger have succeeded in restoring 5 million hectares of land and around 200 million trees; enough to feed 2.5 million people. (With chilling time to spare!)

Chilling; just one of the many benefits brought about by this new abundance of trees

The amazing success that has been achieved in Niger is now acting as both an inspiration and an education for the rest of the Sahel region, and there are many lessons to be learned. Interestingly, one of the key factors that led to the success in Niger was the introduction of a new forestry code which transferred ownership of the countries trees from the government to the farmers who actually owned the land. Before this change in policy, under laws that remained from colonization, tampering with trees was something to be greatly feared and often resulted in hefty fines and even imprisonment. By returning ownership of the trees to the farmers, the trees were transformed from an alien entity, not to be tampered with, into a ‘treasure to look after in their fields’, and this played a pivotal role in the unprecedented restoration that was to follow. It just goes to show how effective a little personal responsibility, hope, and empowerment can be for achieving sustainable success; a concept not entirely restricted to the Sahel!

Lessons for the west?

Personal empowerment, when implemented correctly, has been found to create a whole host of advantages and efficiencies in the western business world as well. Gathering valuable input, increased productivity and employee engagement, attracting the right type of employee, and improved customer service to name but a few. And of course, the bread and butter of the whole operation; a more attractive bottom line. And that’s what it all comes down to in the end really isn’t it? Sigh. Increased personal responsibility in the workplace can also help companies embrace change, a truly essential capability for sustainable long term success in any industry. By tapping into the collective knowledge and expertise of a fully committed workforce, and empowering employees to think outside the box, a whole host of innovative strategies and ideas can be developed that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Such diverse, fast moving, flexible innovation and idea generation breeds adaptability, and adaptability breeds success. Sustainable success.

I’m sure we can all agree that when you feel a real connection with your work, the quality of the work you produce shoots up; like a tree that’s been properly looked after. (I couldn’t resist.)

I mean it does kind of make sense that a bunch of happy, engaged, committed individuals who care about what they’re doing and feel as if they can make a real difference are going to perform better than a bunch of miserable robots who do nothing but take orders and bitch about their jobs at the watercooler while taking as many extended breaks as they possibly can in a desperate effort to escape from their mundane, passionless, disconnected assignments doesn’t it? I think so. I’m sure we can all agree that when you feel a real connection with your work, the quality of the work you produce shoots up; like a tree that’s been properly looked after. (I couldn’t resist.) Personal empowerment it seems, is essential for achieving sustainable success no matter where you go, from forest to office. Business world take note. Aaaaaaannnnyyywaay, I digress.

Real Progress

Regenerated land in the Sahel

Personal empowerment also fosters personal pride in one’s achievements, and largely, it was this pride that motivated the successful farmers in Niger to provide training to other farmers, who in turn provided training for others, and it was this progressive effort of working together and the sharing of knowledge that allowed the initiative to truly prosper. It is these same virtues of cooperation and connection that can make it possible for the successes in Niger to be scaled up across the entire Sahel region, and hopefully, the whole wide wonderful world. Wait a second now, did I just say hopefully? My goodness me I must be getting inspired or something. Quick, turn on Fox News! I’ve been infected with hope and I’m in need of some urgent treatment! Lol.

The Great Green Wall project is already producing results across Africa. In Senegal, 12 million drought resistant trees have been planted in less than a decade. In Nigeria, 5 million hectares of degraded land has been restored. In Ethiopia, that number is closer to 15 million. There is a long long way to go if the relentless threats that climate change brings with it are to be defeated, but the progress that has been achieved already in a region that stands at the very front of the battle is truly inspiring. By 2030, the Wall aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon, and create 10 million jobs in rural areas, bringing 21 countries and over 200 million people together in an effort to significantly improve the world around them.

Some might say it’s ambitious, some might say it’s too little too late; but goodness gracious me, from the land that supports us to the top of the tree, it is certainly not hopeless.

About the Author

Adam Millett is a freelance writer, blogger, and published poet with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help sustainable businesses tell the world their stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.

One Comment on “The Great Wall (No, not that one, and no, not that one either!)

  1. Pingback: Can the desert save us? | A Wall of Hope

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