bradbrownweb.gifNews from Africa is replete with descriptions of impending disasters. The advance of the Sahara Desert south into the Sahel is no exception.

Stretching across northern Africa, the Sahel divides the sands of the Sahara from Africa’s tropical forests.

Human interest stories often tell of efforts to help a small village maintain itself under trying  circumstances. These efforts are fine as pilot projects, but by themselves can do little to hold back the desert sand from the Sahel.

Former President Obas-anjo of Nigeria proposed a “green wall” to the African Union in 2005.   This would be a belt of trees, three miles wide, planted across northern Africa, that would protect this area from desertification.

Desertification is the rapid depletion of plant life and the loss of topsoil at desert boundaries. It is usually caused by a combination of drought and the overuse of vegetation by people.

To stop this process, the “green wall’’ will stretch 435 miles, from Djibouti in the east to Senegal and Mauritania in the west.  The structure is envisioned as more than trees; it is also an integrated development plan aimed at reducing poverty.

Catchment basins will be built for water on the south side of the belt.  Agriculture should expand both for food and for biofuels.  Plants such as jartropha, which is native to the region, would not detract from food production. 

Even fish farms are possible. Fruit trees will be used where possible to provide income and thus an incentive against destruction of the belt for firewood. The coordination across 11 countries calls for complex, international cooperation.

At a recent meeting of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (Cen Sad), the project was initiated. Speaking at that meeting, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade called for action, and Senegal stepped forward in leadership.

Senegal will provide  close technical cooperation with Cen Sad, the monitoring agency.  Beginning this year, Senegal will plant trees in the area bordering Mali and Mauritania.

President Wade’s vision is to turn the desert from a liability into an “opportunity, and develop its economic, energetic and tourist potential.”

Senegal has recently reduced the spread of the desert from 17,300 acres per year to 12,400. The European Union is supporting the project financially, and the two-year initial phase is expected to cost $3 million. It is being designed as a linked project built in components, with local community leadership.

Six countries began this September in the western section followed by five in the east soon afterward.  Local experts in each country will lead the work, because they know which are the best species to plant in the local conditions.

The project will be initiated in segments, which can later be linked together.  It is an important venture in the efforts to adjust to climate change. 

I have visited the green belt area stretching out of Dakar, Senegal, which is one of the prototypes for this effort.  While the closeness to a growing urban area has created difficulties for the original trees, it is amazing to see fresh garden vegetables being grown so near to very arid surroundings.

This ambitious environmental project does not fit with the images of Africa on our TV screens,  but it’s more reflective of reality in the total picture.

Brad Brown is the first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He is also a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he works on African coastal and marine projects.