Researchers push for new advances despite conflicts and funding challenges

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African and European researchers are meeting in France to give new impetus to Africa’s ambitious Great Green Wall project, aimed at combating climate change and supporting communities across the Sahel region. Much of the region is plagued by conflict and hunger, but scientists are exploring new ways to move forward.

The construction of the so-called Great Green Wall of trees and bushes of Africa, intended to stretch almost 8,000 kilometers from Mauritania in the west to little Djibouti in the east, has been slow. Fifteen years after the start of the project, which should be completed in 2030, only a fraction of the reforestation has been carried out. Eight of the 11 countries concerned are struggling with unrest. Funding has not matched the development challenge.

However, environment professor Aliou Guissé points to tangible successes. In the Sahelian zone of his native Senegal, reforested areas are gaining ground. He said they harbor larger and more diverse populations of animals, birds and insects than areas where trees have not been planted. Scientists find that local plants like desert date palms, which are valued by communities, could be marketed and generate income.

Guissé is co-director of the Tessekere Observatory in northern Senegal, which seeks a holistic approach to green wall development covering areas such as health, agriculture, the economy – and of course, the environment.

A doctor examines a child in Widou Thiengoly, Senegal, as part of the Tessekere Observatory’s holistic approach to health. (Priscilla Duboz/Great Green Wall Researchers)

He and other experts gathered this week in Poitiers, western France, want to expand their collaboration, currently underway in Burkina Faso and Senegal, to include researchers from other Sahelian countries such as Niger, Chad and possibly Mali. Despite unrest in those countries, they say progress — like building baseline data — can happen.

The other co-director of the Tessekere Observatory, French anthropologist Gilles Boëtsch, said another aim was to create partnerships between researchers and government agencies managing the development of the green wall. The group is diving into new areas, such as exploring the impact of diseases transmitted from animals to humans, such as Ebola and COVID-19.

Boetsch says their research not only benefits the African Sahel, but also countries like France, which are already dealing with the fallout from global warming and climate change.

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