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”.


The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.

The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.