African and European researchers are meeting in France to give fresh impetus to Africa’s ambitious Great Green Wall project, intended to fight climate change and support communities across the Sahel region. Much of the area is plagued by conflict and hunger, but scientists are looking at new ways to move ahead.

It’s been slow-going building Africa’s so-called Great Green Wall of trees and bushes intended to stretch nearly 8,000 kilometers from Mauritania in the west to tiny Djibouti in the east. Fifteen years into the project set to be complete in 2030, only a fraction of the reforestation has been realized. Eight of the 11 countries involved are grappling with unrest. Funding hasn’t matched the development challenge.

Still, environment professor Aliou Guissé points to tangible successes. In the Sahel area of his native Senegal, reforested areas are gaining ground. He said they’re home to larger and more diverse populations of animals, birds and insects than areas where trees haven’t been planted. Scientists are finding health and other benefits of local plants like desert date palms, which are valued by communities, might be commercialized and generate revenue.  

Guissé is co-director of the Tessekere Observatory in northern Senegal, which seeks a holistic approach to Green Wall development spanning areas like health, agriculture, the economy — and of course, the environment.

He and other experts meeting this week in the western French city of Poitiers want to widen their collaboration, currently happening in Burkina Faso and Senegal, to include researchers from other Sahel countries like Niger, Chad and possibly Mali. Despite unrest in those countries, they say progress — like building baseline data — can happen.  

The Tessekere Observatory’s other co-director, French anthropologist Gilles Boëtsch, said another goal is building partnerships between researchers and government agencies managing Green Wall development. The group is diving into new areas, like exploring the impact of animal-to-human-transmitted diseases, such as Ebola and COVID-19.  

Boetsch says their research doesn’t just benefit Africa’s Sahel, but also countries like France — already facing the fallout of a warming and changing climate.

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