Agroforestry / July 1, 2016

As the Desert threatens Agriculture, African Nations try to stop the Sahara

The Sahara Desert was once rich and fertile farmland with crops of grain and millet. However, over the last 8,000 years, desertification has taken over. During the last 60 years alone, the Sahara has expanded some 3.5 million miles. This climatological phenomenon affects the livelihoods of millions of citizens from different African nations whose main source of subsistence is agriculture. The Sahel, a semi-arid region that divides the Sahara from the sub-Saharan plains and savannah, has historically been productive in the domains of river fishing, cattle raising, and the cultivation of certain crops. For example, one of the Senegambia region’s most important export commodity, peanuts, grows well in this semi-arid climate. However, as the Sahara expands and the Sahel moves southward, productive agricultural regions across Central and West Africa, as well as the local economies, are under threat.

The Great Green Wall Initiative

Climatic vulnerability has led to substantial land degradation in the Sahel region, including the drying up of rivers and lakes. Such climatological challenges and degradations have prompted social crisis and political instability in the region. These dynamics underline the importance of food and agriculture, not only for economic prosperity, but also for political and social stability. Therefore, governments and organizations along the region are trying to act quickly. Because of this climatological threat, the governments of a dozen countries along the 7,100km Sahel band created the Great Green Wall (GGW) Agency in 2010. The goal of this ambitious project is to create a carbon sink using extensive agroforestry and reforestation techniques along the Sahel region in order to halt the Sahara’s southward expansion.

Thus far, the Great Green Wall initiative has successfully planted hundreds of thousands of trees along an east to west axis stretching from Djibouti to Senegal. However, it will take years for the Great Green Wall project to be fully implemented and the expected benefits are long term. Nevertheless, there are already some positive results. Amongst the diversity of trees being planted throughout the Great Green Wall, some countries have included the Gum Arabic tree. The natural by-product of these trees, which can be sold as a commodity for manufacture, is already serving to diversify and boost the income of local goat and sheepherders. Likewise, the Great Green Wall initiative is being reproduced in other regions of the world that suffer from similar drought and land degradation issues. Such is the case of northern China, where the government is leading a similar initiative in order to contain the Gobi Desert.

Given the global nature of the food market, Sahelian agriculture is not only important to the regional economies, but also to European nations. For example, countries like France rely heavily on agricultural production in West Africa in order to maintain year round supplies of goods such as peanuts and beans. The case of the Sahel region represents some of the challenges that the food and agriculture industry will face into the 21st century. Furthermore, it demonstrates that food and agriculture production worldwide must be intensified in order to better deal with potential climate risks. Nevertheless, creative initiatives, such as the Great Green Wall project, demonstrate that innovation and technological advances represent a solution to such challenges. The coming years will be critical to research, development, investment, and implementation in the agribusiness sector because it will determine the industry’s outlook for decades to come.