In this blog, John Cropper introduces his new article in Environment and History, ‘Growing a World Wonder’: The Great Green Wall and the History of Environmental Decline in the Sahel, 1450–2022 (online first March 2023), which argues that the Great Green Wall Initiative gave new life to the ‘declinist’ narrative of the African environment and was based on fundamental misunderstandings, ‘fetishising narratives of environmental decline’; however, it has potential to become a hopeful force for improvement if the guiding narrative is modified and the knowledge of local populations is taken on board.
On June 4, 2008, the Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, addressed the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, introducing a multinational project to stop the southern encroachment of the Sahara Desert into the Sahel. The Sahel, which means ‘coast’ or ‘shore’ in Arabic, is a belt of arid and semi-arid lands that borders the southern edge of the desert and spans the entire width of the continent. Initially the brainchild of the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the project, known as ‘The Great Green Wall Initiative of the Sahara and the Sahel’, is an ambitious plan to construct a wall of trees from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, stretching nearly 8,000km across the continent and 15km wide. As the leading advocate for the Great Green Wall, Wade claimed that the initiative would not only stop the advancement of the desert, but also encourage biodiversity in the Sahel, giving ‘our planet a new “green lung” and thus contribute to the fight against climatic change’. The plan would also cater to the needs of local communities. The Great Green Wall, he noted, would enable villagers to ‘build water capture basins’ and ‘to grow food all year long, develop fish farming, and satisfy nutritional needs while also exporting the produce of local gardens’. In this way, Wade’s vision of the Great Green Wall also functioned as a blueprint for an unprecedented sustainability project, rescuing climate-vulnerable communities from the Sahel’s unpredictable environment.
Presented as a catch-all development programme, the Great Green Wall has resonated with a diverse group of international governance institutions, including the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a variety of NGOs and international development organizations, such as USAID and the United Nations Development Program. Estimated to cost $30 billion, this coalition has pledged $14 billion in funding from 2021 to 2026. According to the French President, Emmanuel Macron, the money will help secure the livelihoods of local populations, combat desertification and climate change, and create green jobs and build up the resilience of the Sahelian people.
Despite the widespread appeal of the proposal and the attractive outcomes it could potentially generate, climate scientists and ecologists have argued that the premise of the Great Green Wall Initiative – that the Sahara Desert is advancing southward – is based on a misguided understanding of the Sahel’s climatic and ecological history. The desert, they contend, is not actually expanding but retreating, and the widespread desertification noted in the project’s initial proposal is not a geo-climatic phenomenon, but rather a result of human-driven drought, overgrazing, and deforestation. In addition to climate scientists, forestry experts have criticised the audacity of the project, asserting that planting trees across the Sahel has little, if any, chance at succeeding.
In response to the criticism of the scientific community, the premise of the Great Green Wall – to build a massive belt of trees across the continent – has changed. The initiative is no longer an effort to stop desert encroachment, but one that hopes to restore desiccated lands to local African communities. According to the Great Green Wall website, the wall promises to be a compelling solution to the many urgent threats not only facing the African continent, but the global community as a whole. Together with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, advocates for the Great Green Wall have launched a public awareness campaign called ‘Growing a World Wonder’, which hopes to boost global awareness while also inspiring long-term public and private investment of the initiative. In this way, the initiative has become a symbol of hope in the face of climate change, food insecurity, migration, and resource-driven conflict.
This study, therefore, situates the Great Green Wall within the long durée of West Africa’s environmental history, and it demonstrates how the initiative has given new life to the ‘declinist narrative’ – the misguided belief that Africa’s environments are in a perpetual state of decline. From the moment European traders arrived in West Africa in the fifteenth century, they constructed stubborn narratives that Africans, whether they lived in an inexhaustible cornucopia of natural resources or in a forbidding and dangerous wilderness, lacked the technological ability and fortitude to exploit and capitalise on their lands. Over time, these narratives have not only buttressed European efforts to exploit Africa, extract its resources, and enslave and colonise its people, but have also obscured how African populations were sophisticated stewards of their local environments. The Great Green Wall, therefore, has resurrected these damaging narratives of Africans and their environments, using the trope of perpetual environmental crisis to attract development experts, performing artists and media, global corporations, government officials, NGOs and deep-pocketed donors. To that end, the initiative has propagated problematic interpretations of the Sahelian landscape, capitalised on the perceived suffering of Africans and effectively silenced local knowledge and the technological expertise of African communities.
To be clear, this article is not an attempt to dismiss all evidence of environmental decline as misguided or false, nor does it exonerate all African communities of environmental degradation. The continent has, of course, endured massive ecological and climatic changes that have wreaked havoc on local populations. What I am interested in, however, is how projects like the Great Green Wall have fetishised narratives of environmental decline, using a manufactured stereotype born out of the transatlantic slave trade, imperial and colonial rule, and the neoliberal policies of the postcolonial period to attract donors and create a new ‘natural wonder’ of the world. By overlooking the technical expertise of local farmers and pastoralists, who have successfully mitigated the environmental challenges of the Sahel for generations, the initiative has effectively silenced or obscured the innovative practices of local communities while amplifying the scientific knowledge of western trained experts and policymakers. As demonstrated in the article, the success or failure of the Great Green Wall depends on how closely western trained experts and African policymakers incorporate, and learn from, local farmers who have, in recent years, made promising headway on the Great Green Wall without the support of deep-pocketed donors and financiers.