Africa’s Great Green Wall: 8,000km of trees that could save millions of lives

The scheme is designed to stop the southward creep of the Sahara. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

If Boris Johnson cared for much outside of Westminster, he would probably love Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative. As a massive infrastructure project that will ultimately mean there are fewer migrants, it really does tick boxes for the former foreign secretary.

Launched in 2007, the scheme was originally “only” supposed to plant a massive, contiguous band of trees; 8,000km long and 15km wide – stretching from Senegal on Africa’s west coast to Dijbouti on its east. This was designed to stop the steady southward creep of the Sahara, which is threatening the livelihoods of millions.

But as the project developed it was realised that this alone would not be enough. And so the “Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative” was conceived: an integrated mosaic of initiatives to promote rural development – from micro-investment in local organisations to educational schemes.

The Sahel is the vast ecoclimate that stretches across the continent, marking where the Sahara meets the more lush equatorial climates. Climate change, among other human caused ecological damage, has led to this area becoming environmentally unstable, with droughts and dust storms ever more frequent. This has had disastrous impacts on the lives of its inhabitants.

Desertification occurs as an area becomes increasingly arid and surface vegetation is removed or dies off. The wind takes what little nutrients the soil has left and so the amount of arable land collapses. This is known as “soil death”.

Jobs and food supplies are threatened, and in this instability, violence breeds.

Last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on the violence around Lake Chad, specifically mentioning the “environmental challenges” faced by the area. The notorious terrorist group Boko Haram operates from within the Sahel, and a 2017 German report warned that chronic droughts are strengthening the group.

Much of the so-called “migrant crisis” has stemmed from the disappearance of liveable land in this region. As farming jobs become unviable, young men leave to try to find work in the cities and abroad. If they want to tackle migration, European governments should see this not as a problem to be dealt with by African countries, but as something they should also help with.

It is an African Union initiative – so, actually, on reflection maybe Boris Johnson wouldn’t like it, we know how he feels about unions – bringing together 20 African countries. Despite the positive work already completed, the goal of the Great Green Wall is still far off. Yet the planting is providing a huge source of employment, and parts of the land itself are recovering enough to support farming

Walls have entered the political discourse in the worst way possible in recent years, but the Great Green Wall Initiative is bucking this trend.

In the words of Niger’s minister for the environment; “It’s not a wall that separates. It’s a wall of hope, a wall of life”.


Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.

1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.