How to build the next natural Wonder of the World

By Nyaguthii Chege, Executive Director, The Green Belt Movement | March 31, 2021

The Sahel is at the frontline of our global efforts to combat climate change. It stretches across the entire width of the African continent: from Senegal in the west, crossing 8,000km to Djibouti in the east. It may not yet have global name recognition like the Amazon, but what happens here is absolutely vital to climate change efforts everywhere.

Unless we begin to seriously address the effects of land degradation in this region, we will only be scratching the surface of the deep challenges that the whole world faces from the environmental impacts of climate change and its related socio-economic consequences, including drought, famine, conflict over scarce resources and migration.

Unless we successfully restore the degraded Sahel region, we won’t attain many of the global goals that we have set, whether under the rubric of AFR100, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration or the 1 trillion trees platform. But make no mistake: restoring the Sahel is about much more than mitigating climate change. Land restoration combats poverty and hunger, builds local resilience to climate change, improves health and well-being, creates jobs, boosts economic opportunities, and much more.

To put it simply: restoration of the Sahel is a matter of life and death for the whole world. We need bold, ecopreneurial ideas to help contribute to this effort, which is why Uplink and 1t.org are launching the Trillion Trees Challenge: the Sahel and the Great Green Wall.

What are the challenges and opportunities?

There are many challenges associated with the restoration of the Sahel. First and foremost is the region’s endemic insecurity and political instability. Given the region’s porous borders, a political or security crisis in one country often spills over into neighbouring territories. These include armed conflicts as well terrorist attacks by extremist groups, including those by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin. In turn, this escalating violence and insecurity has sparked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in countries across the region, including Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Togo.

Climate change is another major challenge for the region. According to the UN, temperatures there are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, resulting in recurrent famine episodes. The impacts of climate change, caused by actors many thousands of miles away, are felt acutely by the communities in this region; those who have done the least to contribute to climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions are the often the most harmed by climate change and least able to protect themselves or avoid its effects.

Yet, at the same time, the Sahel offers great opportunities for those willing to engage with this region. Its greatest asset is, undoubtedly, its 135 million people. And it is these people who call the Sahel home that will lead its restoration. We know that a community which understands the root causes of the challenges it faces is empowered to take action to address them. Supported by their governments, vested with climate smart policies and programmes, and receiving adequate financial and technical resources, these communities will be able to make the changes we all want to see.

The Sahel sits atop some of the largest aquifers on the continent, according to the UN. Groundwater systems are the region’s main source of fresh water and forests recharge groundwater. Water is life and trees are life. We must remember, however, that to be sustainable, approaches to landscape restoration must be holistic and integrated to include biodiversity protection and restoration. This means that landscape restoration should include and equitably represent all stakeholders and interests, including agricultural practices that incorporate traditional farming, herding and hunting practices. Traditional and cultural knowledge, practices and values are not inherently antithetical to reforestation; in fact, enabling and empowering communities to use their knowledge can be a powerful way to build resilience in the Sahel.

The Sahel region is also home to a vast array of natural resources that can be harnessed for sustainable economic and social development, including tourism and culture, and there is tremendous potential for solar and wind energy development.

The Sahel offers great opportunities for those willing to engage with this region. Its greatest asset is, undoubtedly, its 135 million people. Photo by Great Green Wall

What is the importance of women and local communities in bringing about change?

The African Union Agenda 2063 recognizes that inclusive growth and sustainable development must be people-driven and rely on the potential of Africans, especially women and youth. But what does this mean in practice?

Political stability, peace and security and reforms in governance have changed the political landscape, and these are an absolute precursor to sustainable development. In the absence of such conditions, the most vulnerable members of communities – those without a safety net that protects them from sudden income loss, drastic changes in weather or an outbreak in conflict – are the ones who have very limited capacity to protect themselves from such risks. And as we know, when we talk about the most vulnerable members of the community, it is women and youth who are the majority.

That means we must encourage women and youth entrepreneurship, and provide training in skills that allow them to successfully innovate. Nature-based businesses and the creation of circular economies will help restore the ecosystem while also generating income for communities. The creation of opportunities in agroforestry are particularly vital for women, empowering them to earn incomes while also helping to address food insecurity.

The Sahel is one of the world’s most youthful regions, with 64.5% of the population aged under 25. Strengthening existing youth movements makes a huge contribution toward conflict prevention and peacebuilding. By integrating women and youth into the national labour market, we can help improve living conditions in the Sahel.

What we can learn from the Green Belt Movement to advance the Great Green Wall

The Green Belt Movement was founded in 1977 by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai. Since then, we’ve planted over 55 million trees in Kenya by working at the grassroots, national and international levels to promote environmental conservation, to build climate resilience and empower communities – especially women and youth – and to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods.

We use tree planting as the entry point for mobilising community consciousness toward self-determination, equity, improved livelihood, food security and, ultimately, environmental conservation, reforestation and climate change mitigation. As the world gears up for building the Great Green Wall, there are several lessons we can learn from our efforts in this space.

Lesson #1. Successful and sustainable reforestation and rehabilitation cannot happen without community empowerment and livelihood improvement. You must have buy-in from the community; and by that I mean rural women who are most directly connected to the land, without which gains made in the short run are unlikely to last. Community ownership is also critical from the very beginning, because, ultimately, local communities are the ones who are most directly engaged in restoring degraded landscapes, and protecting and ensuring the long-term survival of our forests

Lesson #2. Unless and until communities are able to see the linkage between the environment and their livelihoods, and unless they can benefit both directly and immediately from rehabilitation efforts, landscape restoration and reforestation successes will be short-lived. The communities we engage with to restore, protect and conserve the forests are the same ones whose capacity we need to build to ensure that they can earn an income to support themselves and their families.

We engage community volunteers, made up of young people we call Green Agents of Change, whom we train to conduct extension work to engage with their neighbours, and to monitor the long-term survival and growth of the forests. We also mobilise and train these Green Agents of Change in sustainable livelihood options for adaption and replication at the household and community levels. These nature-based enterprises include beekeeping, urban organic farming, fish farming, cut-and-carry grass for livestock farming, bamboo biomass and value-added production of bamboo by-products, and innovating clean energy solutions for sustainable fuel wood utilisation. The net result is training in transformative leadership, primarily of women and youth, at the grassroots level.

Lesson #3. At the Green Belt Movement, we understand that we cannot do this work alone, and over the years we have developed very strong partnerships with government agencies at the national, county and local levels. At the same time, we continue to be very strong and vocal advocates for good governance policies, and for holding leaders accountable to ensure integrity, transparency and accountability. These two go hand-in-hand. Civic society organizations and private institutions cannot do this work alone. But then neither can government, so we must find ways to work together to achieve our goals.

How can innovation and ecopreneurship help make this happen?

It’s clear that such an ambitious and monumental undertaking like the Great Green Wall cannot be done alone, and a vibrant ecopreneurial ecosystem can help tackle two of the Sahel’s biggest challenges: climate change and youth unemployment.

Nature-based solutions, especially those that encourage climate resilience, mitigation and adaptation, as well as those that incorporate biodiversity and ecosystem restoration as essential goals, are absolutely vital to this effort. Innovation can help farmers in the Sahel to adapt and change farming practices to increase yields and decrease work inputs. Such innovations could include economic innovations (for example, credit access and savings schemes).

We have a long journey ahead of us and we need bold ideas to help get us there. If you have an idea and a vision for how ecopreneurship can re-green the Sahel, we encourage you to participate in the Trillion Trees Challenge: the Sahel and the Great Green Wall.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum

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