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Three years after it was first proposed, preparations for an African 'wall of trees' to slow down the southwards spread of the Sahara desert are finally getting underway.

The 'Great Green Wall' will involve several stretches of trees from Mauritania in the west to Djibouti in the east, to protect the semi-arid savannah region of the Sahel — and its agricultural land — from desertification.

A plan for the proposed US$3 million, two-year initial phase of the project — involving a belt of trees 7,000 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide — was formally adopted at the Community of Sahel–Saharan States (Cen-Sad) summit on rural development and food security in Cotonou, Benin, last month (17–18 June).

North African nations have been promoting the idea of a Green Belt since 2005 (see African nations agree to boost desert research). The project has been scaled down to reinforce and then expand on existing efforts, and will not be a continent-wide wall of trees, despite the name of the project.

The Green Wall will involve two planting projects on the east and west sides of Africa.

The Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel region (CILSS) is working with scientific consultants and representatives from the arid nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal to launch pilot planting projects planned for September.

Another planting programme, including Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, should be finalised within two months under the auspices of six states in the Horn of Africa, linked through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Mariam Aladji Boni Diallo, the Benin-based president of the Cen-Sad summit organising committee, says she hopes the Green Wall will consist of more than just trees.

Diallo told SciDev.Net that "reforestation, restoration of natural resources and the eventual development of fishing and livestock breeding" were priorities for the project. However, she said that funding for the project was still tentative.

The UNESCO-linked non-profit Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel has prepared a report on the project, saying the labour-intensive project should be used to create employment but advising that payments be partly withheld for two years until the trees were established, and that payment be based on plant growth.

The project will be monitored from Tripoli by Cen-Sad, and Senegal will provide 'close technical cooperation' because of its success in fighting desertification.

Joséa Dossou Bodjrènou, head of the Nature Tropicale environmental education organisation at the Museum of Natural Science in Benin, warned that the project can only be assessed once it stops being words on paper and becomes action.

"The population needs to be sensitised to the importance of planting trees and taking care of them. Otherwise, they would destroy them without knowing it's dangerous for the ecosystem. All this work would lead to nothing," Bodjrènou, told SciDev.Net.

"It's really important for the work to be done with local experts in each country because they know which species can grow on their soil. And we have to use local species, not imported ones."

Link to Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel Great Green Wall report [2.44MB]