In Africa, scientists are hard at work restoring land once rich with biodiversity and vegetation. Eleven countries in the Sahel-Sahara region—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal—have joined to combat land degradation and restore native plant life to the landscape. 
 
In recent years, northern Africa has seen the quality of arable land decline significantly due to climate change and poor land management. Uniting under the banner of the “Great Green Wall” initiative, national and regional leaders hope to reverse this trend. The bulk of the work on the ground was originally slated to be concentrated along a stretch of land from Djibouti, Djibouti, in the east to Dakar, Senegal, in the west—an expanse 15 kilometers (9 miles) wide and 7,775 kilometers (4,831 miles) long. The project has since expanded to include countries in both northern and western Africa. 
 
Land degradation typically stems from both human-related and natural factors; overfarming, overgrazing, climate change, and extreme weather are the most common causes. Beyond affecting land and the natural environment, land degradation poses serious threats to agricultural productivity, food security, and quality of life. Nowhere is this issue more urgent than in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 500 million people live on land undergoing desertification, the most extreme form of land degradation. 
 
Jean-Marc Sinnassamy is a senior environmental specialist with the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He helps manage a program developed under the Great Green Wall initiative with countries in the Sahel and West Africa. The GEF has been with the initiative since the beginning, helping to convene country leaders at the headquarters of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Bonn, Germany, in February 2011. The World Bank and other organizations focused on global development and the environment provide financial and technical support.
 
For Sinnassamy, the partnership represents a unique opportunity to work across the region with a solid political base. 
 
“Here, we saw political leaders, heads of state, ministers in different countries wanting to work on common environmental issues and wanting to tackle land degradation issues together,” he says. “. . . For us, this is a political blessing. We have to respond to this demand, and we have to capitalize on that.”
 
Integrated Landscape Approach
 
Beyond the project’s strong political foundation, its carefully crafted approach brings environmental benefits both locally and globally. The initiative uses an “integrated landscape approach” that allows each country to address land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity, and forestry within its local context. 
 
“In this case, working to combat land degradation is the best way to address both very local issues and improve the global environment,” Sinnassamy says. “We are working with the land, which is the basis of livelihood in these communities. We are working with people to improve soil quality, which improves crop yield and in turn agricultural production and the overall quality of life in the community. These very local benefits are also a way to generate global benefits for water, land, and nature.”
 
In the end, Sinnassamy hopes the region as a whole will be composed of a “mosaic of landscapes” that increases biodiversity and maintains native flora as part of agricultural land. Each participating country has its own individual goals, which include reducing erosion, diversifying income, increasing crop yield, and improving soil fertility.
 
While trees and forests are only part of the focus of the Great Green Wall initiative, many in the media have cast the project as solely a tree-planting project and an attempt to halt the southward expansion of the Sahara Desert. 
 
Sinnassamy is quick to point out two faults in this perception. The first is that the Great Green Wall initiative is much more nuanced than simply planting a belt of trees across the continent.
 
“Behind the name or the brand ‘Great Green Wall,’ different people see different things. Some people saw just a stripe of trees from east to west, but that has never been our vision,” he says. “In Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso . . . natural regeneration managed by farmers has yielded great results. We want to replicate and scale up these achievements across the region. It’s very possible to restore trees to a landscape and to restore agroforestry practices without planting any trees. This is also a sustainable way of regenerating agroforestry and parkland.”
 
The second misperception Sinnassamy points to is that the Sahara Desert is not, in fact, expanding. 
 
“We are not fighting the desert,” he says. “In the majority of the areas we are working in these 11 countries, the desert is not advancing. The [Sahara] Desert is a very stable ecosystem. Of course, there are some areas on the margins—for instance in Senegal, Mauritania, and Nigeria—where there are some sand movements. But from a geographic perspective, over time the desert has been relatively stable in this area.”
 
What Will It Take to ‘Build the Wall’?
 
Having spent the better part of a year planning, strategizing, and building partnerships with agencies on the ground, the Great Green Wall initiative is beginning to report positive early results. The project’s $2 billion budget, stemming largely from World Bank co-financing and partnerships fostered by the African Union, ensures participating countries will have the means to see the project through to the end. 
 
Examples of success include more than 50,000 acres of trees planted in Senegal. Most of these are the acacia species Senegalia senegal, which has economic value for the commodity it produces, gum arabic. (Gum arabic is primarily used as a food additive.) A small portion of the trees are also fruit-bearing, which, when mature, will help combat the high levels of malnutrition in the country’s rural interior. 
 
Even more dramatic is the project’s potential social impact. The BBC reports that the improvements in land quality and economic opportunity in Mali may help curb terrorism in the country, where famine and poverty have exacerbated a spike in political and religious extremism
The Great Green Wall
The Great Green Wall is not actually a wall . . . or entirely green, but it does sound pretty great.
achievement
Noun

accomplishment or successful completion of a task.

agroforestry
Noun

system of land management combining the cultivation of both crops and trees.

arable
Adjective

land used for, or capable of, producing crops or raising livestock.

Noun

all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

budget
Noun

money, goods, and services set aside for a specific purpose.

capitalize
Verb

to take advantage of something.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

combat
Verb

to fight.

commodity
Noun

a good or service that can be sold or traded.

concentrated
Adjective

items gathered closely together in one place.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

convene
Verb

to assemble or come together.

crop yield
Noun

material produced by a farmer or farm, usually measured in weight per hectare.

decline
Verb

to reduce or go down in number.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

desertification
Noun

rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.

Noun

growth, or changing from one condition to another.

diversify
Verb

to select a variety of options.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

ensure
Verb

to guarantee.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

Noun

act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

exacerbate
Verb

to worsen, increase or intensify a problem or pain.

expand
Verb

to grow or get larger.

extreme weather
Noun

rare and severe events in the Earth's atmosphere, such as heat waves or powerful cyclones.

famine
Noun

an extreme shortage of food in one area during a long period of time.

farming
Noun

the art, science, and business of cultivating the land for growing crops.

Noun

capacity of soil to sustain plant growth; or the average number of children born to women in a given population.

financial
Adjective

having to do with money.

flora
Noun

plants associated with an area or time period.

food security
Noun

access a person, family, or community has to healthy foods.

forestry
Noun

management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.

foster
Verb

to promote the growth or development of something.

geographic perspective
Noun

a way to understand a topic or area using spatial features and relationships.

gum arabic
Noun

natural adhesive made from the sap of some acacia trees, used to stabilize and thicken items such as pharmaceuticals and manufactured foods.

income
Noun

wages, salary, or amount of money earned.

initiative
Noun

first step or move in a plan.

land degradation
Noun

natural or human activity that wears down landforms, making them less viable.

livelihood
Noun

ability to economically support oneself.

malnutrition
Noun

lack of a balanced diet.

margin
Noun

border or edge.

mitigation
Noun

process of becoming or making something milder and less severe.

mosaic
Noun

picture or design made from many tiny pieces of colored glass.

nuance
Noun

very slight difference in meaning or response.

overgrazing
Noun

process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.

poverty
Noun

status of having very little money or material goods.

regeneration
Noun

process of growth where material had been lost, removed, or injured.

religious extremism
Noun

beliefs and actions outside the accepted practices of an organized faith or religion.

replicate
Verb

to duplicate or reproduce.

restore
Verb

to return something to its former status or quality.

rural
Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

Sahel
Noun

transition zone in northern Africa between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savanna ecosystems in the south.

significant
Adjective

important or impressive.

slate
Verb

to schedule or plan something for a particular time and place.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

stable
Adjective

steady and reliable.

sub-Saharan Africa
Noun

geographic region located south of the Sahara Desert in Africa.

sustainable
Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

terrorism
Noun

use of violence and threats of violence to influence political decisions.

utilize
Verb

to use.

vegetation
Noun

all the plant life of a specific place.

World Bank
Noun

United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.