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A sustainability lesson from the Great Green Wall

Small seedlings
| Sustainable Investing

A sustainability lesson from the Great Green Wall

It would be reasonable to assume that tree growth depends on what the root system pulls from the earth. But if that were the case, large trees, having usurped the substantial material needed to construct themselves, would be found in craters.

Yes, water and nutrient-rich soil are key to the health of a tree. But its growth comes from the air. The leaves of a tree absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) via photosynthesis. The gas (inorganic) is transformed by the tree into organic material in the guise of thicker trunks, longer boughs, and greener canopies, a process known as biosynthesis.

Trees don’t strictly store carbon. They are carbon.

Planting hope

According the 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment, there are roughly 4 billion hectares of forest left worldwide. In the last decade, Africa has had the highest rate of deforestation globally, losing an average of 3.9 million hectares of forest each year.

And yet, it is our continent on which the most ambitious reforestation project ever conceived is taking place: It’s called the Great Green Wall of Africa.

Decades of unsustainable farming practices and the onset of climate change have left much of Africa’s Sahel region, a snaking corridor that runs cross continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, barren. The project’s mission is to plant millions of trees and shrubs to create an 8 000km ‘wall’ of greenery that serves several purposes. Among the most weighty are:

·         Extract 250 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere annually

·         Create 100 million hectares of arable land

·         Generate 10 million ‘green’ jobs

That’s enough carbon sequestration to offset 25% of global aviation emissions; enough agriculture to provide food security across the Sahel; and enough employment to give locals an alternative to dangerous and community-disabling migration.

In terms of impact, the $8 billion dollar project (committed funding now stands at $14 billion) addresses no less than six of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But with only 15% completed since soil was first turned in 2007, progress has been frustratingly slow.

Sustainability killers

“If all the trees planted in the Sahel since 1980 had survived, it would look like the Amazon by now.”

That was Chris Reij, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. He was among the many qualified skeptics of the Great Green Wall project in its original guise.

His cynicism can be distilled: The growth of a tree is a complex matter that demands not only the right topography, climate, and soil for the chosen tree, but also a deep understanding of the socioeconomic fabric that denuded the land of trees in the first place.

If farmers can’t feed their livestock, how safe are newly planted saplings? If wood is needed to cook, will slow-growing trees reach adulthood? Planting grasses for grazing, teaching regenerative farming practices, and showing locals how to harvest firewood sustainably are as important as ensuring a tree is hardy against drought.

In the early days of the Great Green Wall project, communities weren’t consulted about what kinds of trees they wanted; certain species were planted in the wrong places; little help or guidance was given to locals on how to keep saplings alive. Disillusionment followed. The wall faltered.

Reij and Gray Tappan, an African veteran and geographer, then discovered a phenomenon in Niger and Burkina Faso that would give the project new life and direction.

Farmers know best

Their satellite imagery from the two West African countries showed once desolate dust bowls transformed into forests. The catalyst? Hundreds of thousands of innovative farmers. Instead of clearing trees to plant crops – an approach taught to them under French colonial rule – they learnt to farm around them.

With more shade, the topsoil regained moisture, allowing rains to soak rather than run. Crop yields increased as a result. Trees, once seen as a liability by those tilling the land, had become an ally. That change in perception had dazzling consequences for landscape.

After giving a presentation at the US embassy in Niger, where he showed aerial photographs of the reforestation phenomenon, Tappan recalls hearing the following comment: “This can’t be Niger. It looks like Ireland.”

The lesson here is that creating sustainable impact demands more than goodwill and the simple allocation of resources. Consulting and collaborating with the communities into which any investment is made is necessary to create sustainable social and environmental impact, as well as to reap the long-term financial benefits that accompany such outcomes.

“If you want to regreen quickly, effectively and at a reasonable cost, the only way forward is natural regeneration on farms,” Reij said. “Put responsibility in the hands of the farmers. They know what their best interests are. Conventional projects will not make a difference here.”

Sustainable investing takeaways

Given that global agriculture is responsible for a large chunk of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that it knows a thing or two about how to grow our food in soil, the industry is positioned to make a significant contribution in the fight against climate change. Some of the bigger sustainability trends in agriculture to keep an eye on are as follows:

–        Regenerative agriculture practices

–        Improved water management to reduce waste

–        Drone technology used for precision agriculture

–        Indoor vertical farming in controlled environments

–        Plant-based food technology

In the quest for net zero emissions, many non-agri companies are turning to reforestation initiatives to help offset their carbon footprints. The act of planting trees is endowed with so many positive connotations that it seems fool proof, a no brainer.

However, only businesses that create genuine, lasting impact will be deemed fit by increasingly enlightened consumers hankering after sustainably produced products and services.

To do that, corporate efforts to create positive social and environmental impact must be cognisant of and integrated with the needs of their respective communities. As an investor who values sustainability, those are the types of businesses you want in your portfolio.

The Great Green Wall of Africa has some way to go. But the comprehension that local farmers are the key to its success is a giant leap forward.

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