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Rome –   Africa’s Great Green Wall (GGW) programme to combat desertification in the Sahel region  is not only crucial to the battle against climate change but also makes commercial sense for investors, a new study led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and published in Nature Sustainability shows.

 For every US dollar put into the massive effort to halt land degradation across the African continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, investors can expect an average return of USD 1.2, with outcomes ranging between USD 1.1  and USD 4.4, the analysis finds.

Senegalese villagers working in a tree nursery forming part of the Great Green Wall. ©FAO/Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR

“We need to change the rhetoric about the Sahel region,” to reflect the fact that despite its harsh and dry environment, “investors can get a viable return on their investment in  efforts to restore the land”, says Moctar Sacande, International Projects Coordinator at FAO’s Forestry Division and one of the study’s lead authors.  

The analysis uses field and satellite data to track the land degradation over the period 2001-2018 and then compares the costs and benefits of restoring the land based on different scenarios adapted to the local contexts.

The results provide the final piece of economic transparency in a jigsaw, with the political will and technical know-how already in place and should encourage the private sector, which is showing increased interest, Sacande says..

The greening and land restoration along this belt stretching 8,000 km across the continent is alrey underway. Communities are planting resilient and hardy tree species such as the Acacia senegal, providing gum arabic, widely used as an emulsifier in food and drinks and the Gao tree or Faidherbia albida, which helps to fertilise soil for the cultivation of such staples as millet, and for animal fodder.

With technical support from FAO, more than 500 communities have seen improved food security and income generation opportunities. The total area the GGW programme encompasses remains limited, with only 4 million hectares out of a targeted 100 million, according to the study.

A total of some 20 billion dollars has been pledged internationally to support the scaling up of the Great Green Wall programme, including USD 14.3 billion at a One Planet summit for biodiversity held in Paris in January this year and USD 1 billion from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the just-concluded COP26 climate conference.

Concrete details of how these funds can be accessed are yet to be clearly mapped out, says Sacande, adding that unless some of the funding is delivered urgently, it could be too late for planting to catch the limited rainfall expected in June and July.

With its potential for carbon sequestration and restoring biodiversity and its emphasis on the socio-economic benefits to the impoverished communities inhabiting the region, the GGW straddles the key areas of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience.  It also addresses Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1 (No poverty), 2 (No hunger), 13 (Climate action), 15 (Life on land) and 17 (Partnerships)) in the UN’s Agenda 2030.

The armed conflicts pervading the region have long made some wary about its potential. And the study finds that about 50 per cent of the land area involved is currently inaccessible for security reasons. But even taking this into account, land restoration interventions still represent a viable business proposition, the authors say.

FAO’s contributions to the Great Green Wall

Support for the implementation of GGW forms a key part of FAO’s Action Against Desertification work, which is active in 10 GGW Sahel countries and involves establishing baselines and monitoring the GGW in North Africa, the Sahel and Southern Africa. The programme seeks to help restore degraded land at scale and sustainably manage fragile ecosystems.

It puts rural communities at the heart of restoration and upscaling  to meet the massive environmental and socio-economic needs. The use of the local biodiversity in restoration generates diverse non-timber forest products,  vital in supporting income generation, economic growth and sustainable management of natural resources. The programme works to strengthen local capacities and put in place monitoring and evaluation systems tracking progress and impact, while sharing information and promoting south-south cooperation to leverage lessons learned.