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Africa’s Great Green Wall is economically worthwhile

The Sahel region, extending south of the Sahara desert from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east of Africa, used to be a fertile region in the past, but is now largely uncultivated due to increased droughts, poor agricultural methods, and overuse. The Great Green Wall initiative aims to compensate for and reverse this loss by mass planting 100 million hectares of land. According to a new study, implementing this project could bring significant economic benefits.

The Great Green Wall program was initiated in 2007 in order to restore degraded ecosystems across 11 countries in the Sahel region. Until now, this highly ambitious project is far from being achieved, due to lack of financial resources. However, earlier this year, several donor countries have pledged nearly $15 billion to this project at the One Planet Summit for Biodiversity

“In order to use these funds efficiently, we now have to ask ourselves where and for which measures they should be used most sensibly,” said study lead author Dr. Alisher Mirzabaev, a senior researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.

By dividing the Sahel region into 40 million plots of 25 hectares each, Dr. Mirzabaev and his colleagues analyzed which restoration measures were possible and how much they would cost, and compared the results with the possible economic benefits that could be achieved.

“On the one hand, these include the so-called provisioning services,” explained Mirzabaev. “These are the things that are produced by the ecosystems: Food and drinking water, raw materials such as wood or medicinal plants.” Other benefits include a better climate, less wind erosion, and pollinator services.

According to the scientists, reforestation would be the most advantageous method, both ecologically and economically. However, since growing seedlings into trees takes decades, such investment would be fruitful only in the long term. In the short-term, a better option is to convert degraded areas into farmland, which would pay for itself rather quickly, although the profits will be lower. 

“In our analysis, we work with different scenarios, some of which are aimed more at short-term benefits, while others are more long-term,” said Mirzabaev. The baseline scenario, including both short- and long-term benefits, would yield an average net return of 20 cents for each dollar spent.

However, a significant problem with implementing such initiatives are the violent conflicts affecting many of the targeted areas. “This shows how much such disputes not only cause direct human suffering, but also prevent positive development of the affected regions,” concluded Mirzabaev.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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