Can the ‘Great Green Wall’ carry out Sankara’s ecological, pan-African dream?

Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s folk-hero president, once marshalled a nation to halt the spread of the Sahara. Decades after his brutal death, a pan-African project of epic scale and ambition is aiming to reverse the creeping desertification that threatens to engulf a vast region, accelerating climate change, migration and conflict.

Women build dikes to hold water in a drought-prone area of eastern Burkina Faso.
Women build dikes to hold water in a drought-prone area of eastern Burkina Faso. © Raphaël de Bengy, AFP

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country lashed by the hot and dusty winds of the Sahara, was once a land of lush forests, high grass and impetuous rivers, Captain Thomas Sankara, its revolutionary leader, was fond of saying.

“Back then, it was the roots of our trees and grass that bound together the soil’s fertiles humus, withstanding the force of torrents and floods,” said the “African Che Guevara” in a landmark speech detailing his plans to reforest the country. 

“Today, all the rain that falls on Burkina Faso runs away to other countries, to the sea,” Sankara added in his 1985 address. “We will hold it back through our struggle.”

The man who renamed the former French colony of Haute-Volta as Burkina Faso – meaning the “Land of the Honest”, or “Upright” – was ahead of his time in recognising climate change and desertification as the single biggest threat to the wellbeing of its people. “The desert is at our gates, it’s already upon us, ready to engulf us,” he warned.

A baobab tree pictured at Nedogo village, near Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
A baobab tree pictured at Nedogo village, near Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. © Luc Gnago, REUTERS

In order to turn back the tide, Sankara launched a massive tree-planting drive to “regreen” the country, halt soil erosion and foster sustainable agriculture. His “fight against the desert” was both “ideological” and “existential”, a means to empower the impoverished nation and guarantee its survival.

“Step by step, tree by tree, we will create this great park of 10 million trees,” he promised. “Even if it takes 10 million years.”

Just two years later, aged 37, Sankara was mowed down by soldiers in a military coup. But his vision of a “wall of trees” holding back the encroaching desert has taken root in a pan-African project of breathtaking scale, a cross-continental barrier stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Halting the desert

An African-led project, the Great Green Wall aims to buttress the fragile ecosystems of countries in the Sahel region south of the Sahara. Its advocates say it will restore huge swathes of degraded land, capture carbon emissions, create millions of green jobs, stem mass migration and reduce conflict in a hotbed of jihadist militancy.

This week, the ambitious but underfunded initiative received a much-needed shot in the arm with donors at a conference in Paris pledging more than $14 billion to speed up the Wall. 

“We are now standing shoulder to shoulder with the entire African continent,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the One Planet Summit on Monday. "The future of the Sahel region depends on the Great Green Wall," added Akinwumi Adesina, the head of the African Bank for Development. "Without it, the Sahel region as we know it may disappear." 

A train station swallowed by the encroaching desert in Sudan.
A train station swallowed by the encroaching desert in Sudan. © Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah, Reuters

Sankara was long dead when the Great Green Wall was launched in 2007, but the project is in many ways his brainchild, argues Sylvestre Bangré Ouédraogo, a former environment minister who grew up in the same town as the revolutionary leader.

“Sankara began building Burkina Faso’s own barrier against the desert and worked hard to inspire other countries,” he says. “He would warn them, ‘Today the desert is creeping into Burkina Faso, but tomorrow it will be Ivory Coast’s turn and then Liberia’s'.”

The centrepiece of Sankara’s barrier was a vast reforestation drive that required every household, village, school and business to plant saplings and tend to tree nurseries. Both Burkinabes and foreigners were expected to plant trees on special occasions, such as weddings. At times the president would personally roll up in his trademark Renault 5 – the cheapest car of the day (he famously banned ministers from using luxury cars) – to make sure they did.

Ouédraogo, who served as head of environmental affairs in the Ouagadougou area during Sankara’s time, recalls frantic preparations to ensure venues were always decked in green whenever the president was due: “When he arrived and saw plants on the stage he was happy; when there were none he frowned and summoned us to do better.” 

Sankara declared drastic curbs to tree-felling and livestock grazing, the main drivers of deforestation. He even considered marshalling the air force to “bomb” the country with tree seeds in the hope some would sprout. “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness,” he would say when challenged over his unorthodox practices.

Thomas Sankara celebrates the second anniversary of Burkina Faso's revolution on August 4, 1985, with a suitably green backdrop.
Thomas Sankara celebrates the second anniversary of Burkina Faso's revolution on August 4, 1985, with a suitably green backdrop. © Daniel Laine, AFP

“Some of his methods were, let’s say, ‘empirical’, but there is no disputing the vision and ambition,” Ouédraogo says. “He never missed an opportunity to stress that however poor Burkina Faso may be, it had a purpose and a mission. Sadly, he did not have a chance to carry it out.”

Sankara’s pioneering environmentalism was not entirely abandoned after his death, but the impetus and urgency vanished.

“He would ride his bicycle incognito to visit people’s homes and discuss trees,” Ouédraogo recalls. “It’s that kind of enthusiasm that went missing after he was gone.”

No to prêt-à-porter, yes to bespoke

Sankara was perhaps most insightful in his belief that the “fight against the desert'' would only bear fruit if local communities were empowered and invested with the responsibility to improve their lot and that of their children. For this reason, he argued, development of the Sahel region must necessarily be African-led and community-led.

“No to ready-to-wear aid, yes to bespoke aid,” was one of the many slogans coined by the staunch anti-imperialist, whose antics irked the former colonial power, France.

Ouédraogo, a 20-year veteran of the UN Development Programme, says the same concern underpins the Great Green Wall, a vastly ambitious but unsung project led by the African Union with support from international donors.

“When I joined the UNPD, donor countries would say, ‘You’re only getting the money if you do so and so’. They did not get the communities involved and interested, and rode roughshod over local specificities,” he says. “Fortunately, that’s changed now. Investments are focused on local needs and expertise.”

When the Great Green Wall was launched, Ouédraogo worked with international charity Tree Aid to help restore degraded land in some of the poorest parts of the country. This involved fostering new techniques to improve water conservation, increase yields in a sustainable way, and find alternative fuels to wood.

Of course, it also involved planting, nursing and protecting trees, from the mighty baobab to the supple moringa, a drought-resistant plant sometimes referred to as a “miracle tree” because of its nutritious and pharmacological properties.

“Every action is based on local needs, assessments and expertise,” Ouédraogo explains. “Local actors are responsible for its implementation – otherwise, it just doesn’t work.”

Healing ecosystems

Tree Aid was set up in 1987, the year of Sankara’s assassination, in response to famine in Ethiopia. It now operates in several countries of the Sahel, including Burkina Faso’s neighbours Mali and Niger. Its chief executive, Tom Skirrow, says the charity has long found it difficult to push its work up the agenda of international leaders and donors.

“It’s important that the Great Green Wall is African-led and inspiring a grassroots movement across the continent. But, as a result, international leaders and donors tend to take a back-seat and to date haven't engaged in a meaningful way,” he says. “In this respect, we’re delighted to see growing momentum for support and investment in this epic movement,” he adds, referring to the pledges made at the Paris summit. 

Tree Aid’s CEO is also thrilled by the start of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-30), a global initiative aimed at strengthening cooperation to restore damaged ecosystems and thereby safeguard biodiversity, food security and water supplies. The 10-year project has opened with the world in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic – a timely and ominous reminder of the direct link between biodiversity loss and vital threats to humanity.

>> ‘Humanity is bullying nature – and we will pay the price,’ WWF chief says

The UN says around two billion hectares of degraded lands worldwide have potential for ecosystem restoration. Most of the rehabilitation work could take the form of “mosaic restoration”, in which forests are combined with protected areas, sustainable agriculture, water bodies and human settlements. 

That is precisely the model envisioned for the Great Green Wall, but progress has been frustratingly slow. 

According to a status report published last September, the scheme has covered only 4 percent of its initial target area despite being more than halfway towards its 2030 completion date. The figure rises to 15 percent when including other initiatives, including a vast reforestation programme in Ethiopia, which are now part of an expanded Great Green Wall.

“Either way, it’s clearly not enough to ensure the Great Green Wall fulfils its ambition for the millions of people living on the frontline of the climate crisis,” says Skirrow. “But it was always going to take time to get started. The skills and tools are in place to scale up, now we need the funds to drive it forward.”

Tree Aid's chief executive says the Great Green Wall has already had a huge impact on communities that are part of the programme, restoring their land, securing food supplies, and nurturing activities that are both sustainable and profitable. 

“Obviously, we still need to reach many more people who are living with the devastating effects of desertification,” he adds. “The Wall will only work if it’s undertaken by, literally, millions of people on the ground. It won’t work if the money gets stuck in conferences and bureaucracies. As Macron put it, ‘we need to make things simpler’, to streamline the process so the funds arrive more quickly where they are urgently needed.”

‘The roar of women’s silence’

The UK-based charity says experience has shown that people will get behind the Great Green Wall if they can identify a tangible benefit. That is especially the case for women who bear a disproportionate share of the burden in a country that is still 80 percent rural.

Women “carry the other half of the sky”, Sankara would say – on top of the wood that fuels stoves and cookers and the water that feeds their families, their crops and their livestock. 

Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's largest city. Thomas Sankara said every household should plant a tree, including in urban areas.
Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's largest city. Thomas Sankara said every household should plant a tree, including in urban areas. © Luc Gnago, REUTERS

Clémence Ouédraogo, Tree Aid’s head of gender equality and inclusion, says women’s empowerment is a core driver of the green wall project, “in the spirit championed by Sankara”. It rests on three pillars: giving women leadership roles, restoring their environment and allowing them to profit from it too.

“When women have a voice, it is easier to identify and address problems,” she says. “We can then help them to reduce their dependence on unsustainable practices that hurt both them and the environment, like the wood burning that breaks their backs and damages their lungs. This, in turn, frees up time to grow nutritious foods and process other products, like shea butter, for an income.”

Clémence Ouédraogo says she must tread delicately to ensure women’s empowerment does not lead to social rifts of the kind Sankara encountered when he promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society.

“We must do so with agility, adapting our efforts to local frameworks that are sometimes very rigid,” she explains. The benefits, she adds, are soon obvious: “We can see from experience that when women are involved from the decision-making stage to the project’s accomplishment, you end up with the added blessing that the project is looked after in time.”

Desert and jihad

There can be no social revolution without the liberation of women, Sankara would stress in his fiery speeches up and down the country. “May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence,” he once said. “I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.”

Another storm has been rumbling in the arid drylands of the Sahel, this one sowing chaos and death – and threatening to stop the wall in its tracks. 

More than six years after a popular uprising chased away strongman Blaise Compaoré, a worsening jihadist insurgency has blighted Burkina Faso’s hopes of freedom and prosperity, and wreaked havoc in rural areas worst affected by desertification.

“We think carefully before sending teams into some areas, which are often the worst affected by desertification,” says Sylvestre Bangré Ouédraogo. “Some places we have stopped going to altogether, including areas where we were successfully experimenting new technologies to foster tree growth. It’s tragic, because they are the people most in need.”

A pregnant woman carries a jerrycan of water at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Kaya, Burkina Faso.
A pregnant woman carries a jerrycan of water at a camp for people displaced by conflict in Kaya, Burkina Faso. © Zohra Bensemra, REUTERS

Youths with no hope or job prospects are easy prey to jihadist recruiters, which is why aid workers are touting the Great Green Wall as crucial to conflict prevention. More trees on the ground today, they argue, means fewer peacekeeping troops in future. Conversely, rising instability results in population displacement, increased demographic pressure, more land degradation and mass emigration.

Ouédraogo is hoping the violence will not end a UN-funded programme designed to improve the livelihoods of women and youths in some of Burkina Faso’s poorest provinces, which is now up for renewal. 

“The programme has already had a significant impact,” he says. “We’ve seen some militants lay down their weapons and this give us hope for the struggle against the jihadist scourge. We cannot abandon these people.”


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app