Re­claim­ing the Sa­hara

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Sci­en­tists from Lon­don’s Kew Gar­dens are help­ing plant an 8000km wall of trees across Africa.

Ex­perts be­lieve the project, known as the Great Green Wall, will halt the degra­da­tion of land in the Sa­hel, which is push­ing the re­gion’s in­hab­i­tants deeper into poverty, and stem the ris­ing tide of Is­lamic mil­i­tancy in the re­gion.

North­east Nige­ria is be­ing terrorised by Boko Haram in­sur­gents who in April seized more than 200 school­girls, while al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, which aims to over­throw the Al­ge­rian govern­ment, con­tin­ues to ex­pand its kid­nap-for-ran­som op­er­a­tions.

France has an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a 3,000-strong coun­tert­er­ror­ism force in Chad, while the UK House of Com­mons for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee has warned that Is­lamic ex­trem­ism in the Sa­hel, if left unchecked, ‘‘may well spread, with its ef­fects be­ing felt more widely across the world’’.

Such groups feed on poverty. Farm­land in the Sa­hel is di­min­ish­ing fast. The re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion is set to triple by 2050. As de­mands for food and wa­ter soar, cli­mate change will make it far harder for its in­hab­i­tants to sur­vive .

‘‘If you look at where cli­mate change will have its great­est ef­fect it is in that belt that runs north and south of the equa­tor, so the Sa­hel is part of that,’’ said Neil Morisetti, a re­tired ad­mi­ral who served as Wil­liam Hague’s spe­cial ad­viser on cli­mate change.

‘‘There are al­ready food short­ages, wa­ter is­sues, land is­sues. Cli­mate change will only in­crease the risk of con­flict in the re­gion.’’

En­ter the Great Green Wall and Kew’s ex­pert team of botanists and seedol­o­gists. If com­pleted, the near 15km-wide belt of for­est will be the largest feat of hor­ti­cul­ture in hu­man his­tory. Cost­ing $140 mil­lion (NZ$161m), the wall will pass through 13 coun­tries from Sene­gal’s At­lantic coast in the west to Dji­bouti’s Red Sea in the east.

The idea was orig­i­nally con­ceived by the Bri­tish ex­plorer Richard St Barbe Baker dur­ing his 40,000km ex­pe­di­tion to the Sa­hara in the 1950s. Baker be­lieved that tree-plant­ing could re­claim the desert. Now, ex­perts from Kew are work­ing along­side vil­lagers in Mali, Niger and Burk­ina Faso to plant the trees and her­ba­ceous plants that will form a bar­rier against the Sa­hel’s ad­vance south.

‘‘It’s not ev­ery species that will grow in the Sa­hel,’’ said Moc­tar Sa­cande, 51, a seedol­o­gist who grew up in Burk­ina Faso be­fore join­ing Kew 10 years ago.

‘‘But the main chal­lenge is get­ting the vil­lagers to main­tain their in­volve­ment. We’re try­ing to show them that they don’t need to wait for four or five years to see the ben­e­fit.’’

Sa­cande hopes that by the end of next year his team will be work­ing in 120 vil­lages, hav­ing planted more than two mil­lion seedlings on 16,000ha. Kew’s ex­per­tise is recog­nised as es­sen­tial to the suc­cess of the en­tire en­deav­our.

The se­cret lies in its ef­forts to con­serve the world’s flora. So far, Kew sci­en­tists have tracked down and stored 10 per cent of the world’s seeds. By 2020, Kew plans to hold a fur­ther 15 per cent in its Mil­len­nium Seed Bank in Sus­sex – a quar­ter of the world’s flora.

The knowl­edge gleaned on the way has made Kew’s sci­en­tists among the world’s best at prop­a­gat­ing ex­tremely trou­ble­some na­tive species – some, for ex­am­ple, need smoke so­lu­tions or sul­phuric acid to trig­ger their ger­mi­na­tion.

The vil­lagers’ co-op­er­a­tion is key to the suc­cess of the project. To en­list their help, Sa­cande en­cour­ages them to plant faster­grow­ing her­ba­ceous grasses that can be used in cook­ing and also grazed by live­stock.

There are also longer-term eco­nomic ben­e­fits. One type of aca­cia tree that Sa­cande helps plant pro­duces the gum used in chew­ing gum, stamps and in the man­u­fac­ture of Coca-Cola, giv­ing vil­lagers an ex­tra source of in­come.

The desert date’s fruit can be turned into jam, its leaves eaten by camels and its ed­i­ble ker­nel used to make soap while the flow­ers from the cot­ton tree pro­vide a base for sauces in west African cui­sine. It is an ap­proach that other African na­tions have asked Kew to help them mimic in an at­tempt to stop the spread of the desert.

As the United Na­tions bluntly puts it: ‘‘The ef­fects of de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion are in­creas­ingly felt glob­ally as vic­tims turn into refugees . . . or they turn to rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, ex­trem­ism or re­source-driven wars for sur­vival.’’ Lake Chad, which pro­vides a life­line to 30 mil­lion peo­ple in Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nige­ria, has shrunk to one­fifth of its orig­i­nal size over the past 50 years, de­stroy­ing liveli­hoods in the process.

‘‘Most of the guys who are into ter­ror­ism in that re­gion used to be farm­ers, fish­er­men and herders who de­pended on the lakes,’’ said Uche Ok­para, an ex­pert on agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics from Leeds Univer­sity who re­cently re­turned from the lake.

He said the men be­came easy prey for in­sur­gents. ‘‘These peo­ple are so an­gry with the govern­ment be­cause it has done noth­ing to help them re­cover. So they take up arms.’’ Sa­cande agrees but in­sists that it is not too late to re­verse the trend.

‘‘When the land goes and the trees go, peo­ple be­come im­pov­er­ished. They be­come poorer and poorer and find it harder to sur­vive,’’ he said. ‘‘But they won’t be rush­ing to lis­ten to the Is­lamists if you can show them there’s hope and that there’s a fu­ture for them and that it’s sus­tain­able.’’

Pho­tos: REUTERS

Green shoots: A desert road marks the border be­tween Libya (front) and Al­ge­ria (back).

Food source: Crops are grown on land where Lake Chad has re­ceded due to re­duced rain­fall .

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