On Whose Land?
The fight for survival around the Great Green Wall in Niger.
“I am now the richest man in the village,” boasts Nomao Alkali, a 65-year old farmer who lives with his two wives and 20 children in the village of Fada, in the southwest region of Dosso, just a few steps from one of the sites that make up the Great Green Wall in Niger.
He owns more than half of the new 26-hectare site, which in just nine years has been transformed from red rock desert to fertile land shaded by hundreds of newly planted acacia trees. It’s a new world for Nomao: “I always believed in this project.”
Many of Nomao’s 800 neighbors are not so happy. This site, like most other areas of regenerated land comprising the Great Green Wall across Niger, is the result of a land agreement between a few local proprietors who donated their barren plots for communal use for a minimum of five years, often longer.
These agreements are legally binding but unenforceable, in a country where the state is invisible, poverty is high, and land is the most contested asset. As a result, Nomao uses his 15 hectares of greened community land to farm his own millet and peanuts. His neighbors, who were paid a year’s wage for regenerating the land, feel somewhat cheated.
The Great Green Wall is an ambitious land regeneration project that has already consumed more than one billion dollars, mostly in foreign finance by multilateral organizations. The project, currently involving 21 African nations, aims to plant millions of trees from Senegal to Djibouti.
The environmental benefits of the rehabilitated sites are self-evident and visible in Niger, where the Great Green Wall efforts started two decades ago. The trees increase soil fertility and water capture while reducing run-off. As the trees mature, they also help to counter desertification and restore ecosystems.
However, tree planting in this semi-arid climate has not met the international community’s expectations for global climate change mitigation. Great Green Wall carbon finance projects in Niger have generated 78,666 metric tons of stored carbon. But that amount accounts for only 0.06 percent of the world’s total CO2 emission reduction from afforestation and reforestation.
On average, New York City alone produces more than this amount of CO2 in less than 24 hours – the time needed to exhaust all carbon captured by the Great Green Wall in Niger.
The Great Green Wall is not only focused on environmental regeneration, but on reducing the vulnerability of Sahelian communities, where farmers and herders desperately compete to make a living and survive off of a swath of land that is severely degraded.
For the West, it is an attempt to reduce the exodus of young men who risk deadly migrations to escape poverty.
“I think I am about 100 years old”, says Aïssa Moussa. Aïssa still goes out to the field in her small village in the southeastern region of Maradi, adjacent to a Great Green Wall site. “The land has been divided so many times by generations of bigger and bigger families. It’s increasingly difficult to make a living. Anytime I need food, I sell a bit of my land too.”
Not far from her, Salle Ibrahim, an 18-year old herder, complains that farming has eaten up the grazing space. Nearby, sitting among a group of fellow recently returned young migrants, Kabiru Salisu, 35, concludes: “There is nothing for us here.”
When world leaders and politicians think of planting billions of trees to help reverse the effects of climate change, they mostly think of Africa. Some still wonder how to justify the cost of tree planting in countries like Niger, where the daily fight for shrinking land and resources seems the only opportunity for survival. But very few think about who owns the land on which they intend to start a climate revolution or consider the conflicts that may arise.
It’s easy to re-appropriate degraded land that is accessed by the most vulnerable –for grazing or collecting plants– but that holds little to no value for farming. But when its restoration brings water and fertile soil, the game changes. And good intentions to restore land for the benefit of a community are easily thrown out the window when a private offer is made, and the price is right.
The work is based on 45 in-depth interviews, conducted in Hausa, Fulfulde, Zarma, and French, during three weeks in July 2019 in over 10 communities across four regions in Niger. In our report you can hear the voices and see the faces of those who struggle daily to make a living around the Great Green Wall, explaining in their own words one of the most complex challenges of our time.
You can download the full report below.
This research project was produced by DAWNING in partnership with the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank. This collaborative effort is rooted in social science research methods and ethics. DAWNING adheres to its independent editorial team policy.
This is a non-partisan and non-ideological report, in the tradition of social science in the public interest.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Director of Photography: Nick Parisse
Creative Producer: Rafe H Andrews
Research Lead: Christian Freymeyer
Research Assistants (Niger): Abdoul-Razak Idrissa, Chamaouna Issa, Dumou Moumouni, Manzo Rio-Rio Aminou & Omar Moumouni
Research Assistants (USA): Mees van der Werf & Chau Hoang
Illustrations: Eric Andriantsialonina
From the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG):
IEG Team Lead & Research Advisor: Lauren Kelly
IEG Evaluator: Joy Kaarina Butscher
Research Convener: Jozef Vaessen
Photographs, Interviews, and Transcripts:
Abdoul-Razak Idrissa, Chamaouna Issa, Omar Moumouni, Nick Parisse, Rafe H Andrews, Christian Freymeyer, and Raul Roman