Rethinking the Great Green Wall

Published on 13 July 2023

Priscilla Duboz

Ingenieur de recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

Detlef Muller-Mahn

Professor of Development Geography, University of Bonn

Jeremy Allouche

Professorial Fellow

Since the One Planet Summit in July 2021 and COP26 in October 2021, the Great Green Wall (GGW) is becoming the centre of media attention.

Outdoor panoramic view of fields and water beside Niger river, located in Niamey city, Niger, West Africa. November, 10, 2019. Wetlands, trees, palms and vegetation visible. Blue sky in background.
Panoramic view of the Niger River. Image credit: Xavier Boulenger / Shutterstock.

The GGW accelerator, the funding vehicle for which many donors have contributed – France, the United Nations, the World Bank, and certain philanthropists such as billionaire Jeff Bezos – has attracted considerable funding: more than US$19 billion has been committed since COP26. The renewed media attention on the GGW is reproducing an old colonial myth – of a wall of forest trees stopping the expansion of the desert.

Indeed, between the 18th and 19th century, the idea of desertification as a result of poor land use by local populations – pointing to the overgrazing, bush fires, felling of trees for firewood, etc. – was used to legitimise the colonial hold on the territories previously managed by the local populations. Out of this narrative, E. P. Stebbing, professor of forestry at the University of Edinburgh, created in the 1930s the idea of forest belts surrounding the French and British colonies – a project very similar to the way the GGW is currently imagined and portrayed in western media.

So what is the Great Green Wall?

Until the One Planet Summit and COP26, the GGW was essentially a pan-African initiative that was launched in June 2005 during the 7th Summit of Leaders and Heads of State of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN SAD) by the Nigerian President at the time, Olusegun Obasango. Subsequently, the GGW was then entrusted to the Senegalese President at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, then responsible for the environmental component of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

A pan-African project designed, initiated and implemented by the Sahelian States, the GGW is developing around a double objective: to fight against desertification by promoting biodiversity for its ecological part; and develop the resources of the populations and fight against poverty for its social aspect.

Its objectives are deeply linked to the idea of sustainable development. The problem here is that this has many meanings and tensions.

Seeing the GGW beyond a socio-ecological system

There is the tendency to see the GGW as a socio-ecosystem: a socio-ecosystem where we observe a multiplicity of interactions between different compartments (biotope, fauna, flora, human populations, etc).

Seeing the GGW as a system has of course certain limits: on the one hand, a tendency to favour the system – and sometimes the environment more simply – over the human, as pointed out by many academic studies in political ecology; on the other hand, a too often ahistorical and apolitical system that needs to be efficiently managed around synergistic decisions.

The latest call to accelerate the GGW also relies on assumptions of seeing the GGW as an ecosystem that often contains and produces value that can be quantified. The development of ecosystems, or more simply their economic value, also poses certain fundamental problems on the links between valuing and pricing the environment, human behaviour and its better use.

Seeing the GGW beyond a boundary object

The multiplicity of actors and programmes affiliated with the GGW and their various objectives means that it has become a boundary object, basically an object that has a shared meaning but where each actor differs as to the precise meaning of the object in question. The GGW then becomes an object that makes it possible to manage climate change through reforestation, regional development through poverty alleviation, or conflict resolution in the Sahel.

Thus, the World Bank views the projects funded by the Sahel and West Africa Program (SAWAP) under the GGW as large-scale green corridors to promote African growth.

For African Union leaders, the GGW reflects an ambitious long-term political vision of a green, fertile and prosperous Africa, free of famine and images of malnourished children and livestock.

Security specialists are beginning to talk about the GGW as an alternative to the militarised and secure approach to radicalism that is growing in the Sahel, a form of hearts and minds counter-insurgency approach to curb radicalisation through alternatives of development.

For ecologists, the GGW is in some ways an open laboratory to understand biodiversity and social dynamics.

Seeing the GGW as a socio-technical imaginary

In our new research project, we conceive the idea of the Great Green Wall as a sociotechnical imaginary, taking into account vernacular knowledges, local practices, and various temporalities and the extent to which these imaginaries allow the formulation of alternative governance strategies. This approach makes it possible to consider the Great Green Wall initiative through a new reading prism, placing the local populations, presented as actors and beneficiaries, at the centre of the project.

For more information, see the launch of our project at the European Conference of African Studies in June 2023:

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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