Salima Mahamoudou is a Research Associate for the Africa Forest team within the Food, Forest and Water programme of the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Photo: World Resources Institute

"More cohesion across existing frameworks is desperately needed"

It’s been nearly 15 years since a vanguard of African countries first committed to restore degraded farms, forests, grasslands and other ecosystems through the Great Green Wall movement. Salima Mahamoudou, a Research Associate at the World Resources Institute, gives an account of challenges facing restoration efforts, what has already been accomplished and strategies needed to still achieve the goals which have been set.

Ms Mahamoudou, given the scale of the challenge and country commitments, many are asking critical questions about progress made with the GGWI. Are locally led land restoration movements in the context of the GGWI on track to achieve their promise?

Mahamoudou: Answering this question is difficult because monitoring restoration – in Africa and elsewhere – is notoriously complicated. It will still be difficult to estimate the real state of restoration across GGW countries due to a lack of cohesion across tools and methodologies by partners and research centres. Furthermore, one has to bear in mind that it takes years for trees to grow to the point where they can be counted as part of a viable restoration project. We can’t expect to see positive restoration data in the early years of these projects – that’s just how nature works. 

Do you believe it is at all still possible to achieve the goals set by 2030?

Mahamoudou: Reaching GGW targets by 2030 is indeed going to be challenging, but it is far from being impossible. In fact, we have a clear roadmap consisting of six items for how to achieve this goal. First, accelerate the adaption and implementation by local communities of tree planting practices, farmer-managed natural regeneration – FMNR – and other soil/ water conservation methods. Second, establish strong tracking systems for measuring the biophysical and socioeconomic progress and impact of restoration.

Third, build local ownership of restoration efforts at the national and local level.  Fourth, create an enabling environment, with the right strategies, policies and local bylaws to incentivise land restoration at scale. Fifth, increase investment in grassroot restoration projects and businesses, including in agroforestry value chains. And sixth, investment in communication and knowledge sharing. Communication at the landscape, national and global level can shed light on innovative grassroot methods and champions. 

Do you see a policy failure in the countries participating in the GGWI? 

Mahamoudou: This isn’t really about policy failure. Every country has its own approach based on its contexts, including economic, cultural, social and so many other factors. In reality, the places where restoration efforts are faltering are those places where in some cases there are insufficient policies that could otherwise create incentives and a vision for smallholder farmers and landowners to restore degraded land at scale. 

You mentioned smallholders. How can they contribute to the success of the initiative?

Mahamoudou: One indeed has to admit that top-down reforestation efforts have failed. If we want to achieve GGW goals by restoring millions of degraded landscapes, we will need to further support bottom-up approaches by investing in smallholders to protect and restore their lands and ecosystems, while building resilience to climate change and ensuring food security. If we want to increase the contribution of smallholders in the restoration movement, we must first of all clarify land ownership: Land and resources rights can be challenging in many African countries, especially across the Sahel, where resources are scarce.

In addition, resource rights have to be secured. In many Sahelian countries, if a smallholder plants a tree, he automatically owns that tree. But if he naturally regenerates that tree, it is owned by the government. This is particularly problematic because one of the most promising restoration options for the Sahel is Assisted Natural Regeneration. As a result, if the smallholder does not have the right to harvest the trees he has protected, there will be little incentive to do so. But, by working with various government agencies and decision-makers, an enabling environment can be created, thus ensuring that farmers can be allowed to legally harvest and sell their tree products and thus benefit from their efforts.  

One further important aspect is extensive sharing of knowledge. Our experiences of large regreening efforts show that sharing knowledge, especially at the local level, is a key element of promoting the adoption of good practices and creating change at scale. And as a final issue, afforestation has to be made lucrative as a viable business enterprise. Today, restoration practices are still seen as humanitarian and development solutions, but not as business ventures. But if we want to reach our goals, we need to promote restoration as a business option, and grow commercially-viable products out of restored landscapes to further incentivise communities to invest in land restoration practices.  

Can you give an assessment of which countries have been particularly successful? 

Mahamoudou: It is hard to give a fair assessment because efforts across GGW countries are underreported. At the global and regional level, we often talk about the success of Niger, with more than five million hectares restored since 1985 using Assisted Natural Regeneration. But there are millions of other small-scale examples and successes across the Sahel. Unfortunately, these smaller successes are often hidden in project reports and as a result are barely known by the larger public. Communication is increasingly being recognised as a key element of a successful GGWI. 

Do you think “The Great Green Wall Accelerator” will help to make the initiative a success? 

Mahamoudou: The creation of the GGW Accelerator provided new momentum to the initiative. A multi-actor approach has the potential to create a shared vision and targeted actions across restoration actors. It involves learning from our past challenges and linking up dispersed efforts which may now be without a clear or shared pathway. But to increase its functionality, it needs to work closely with the Pan-African Agency of the GGW – if not transfer the accelerator responsibilities entirely to them – for greater ownership of the processes and durability of efforts.  

At the UNCCD COP 15 meeting, participants summarised that the biggest challenge is the scale of the project. How do you see this?

Mahamoudou: Building solid alliances and cohesion across monitoring systems is one of the biggest challenges for the GGW and other restoration initiatives. During COP 15, there was a recurring discussion around the existence of “Too many reporting frameworks and insufficient cohesion”. There are a lot of different monitoring or reporting frameworks, with various indicators and requirements, and as a result, definitions of success depend on which measure is used. Countries and some partners are concerned that we'll get to 2030, with 80 million reporting frameworks, but with no clarity on how much progress has been made. More cohesion across existing frameworks is desperately needed to reduce the burden on countries and make reporting user-friendly and achievable.  

How can this be accomplished?

To break that cycle, countries need to make their own assessment of what indicators and frameworks are most appropriate to their needs and ecosystems. With a shared understanding on what to measure, how to measure, the costs associated, the frequency of collection and the entities in charge of that, it becomes easier to build cohesion across various stakeholder and contributors. 

Interview: Patricia Summa


Salima Mahamoudou is a Research Associate for the Africa Forest team within the Food, Forest and Water programme of the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Contact: Salima.Mahamoudou(at)wri.org

The World Resources Institute is a global research organisation that works with governments, businesses, multilateral institutions and civil society groups to develop practical solutions that improve people’s lives and ensure nature can thrive. The Institute organises its work around seven global challenges: Food, Forests, Water, Energy, Climate, the Ocean and Cities.


More information

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), (2016). Building Africa’s Great Green Wall Restoring degraded drylands for stronger and more resilient communities.

Nick Pasiecznik and Chris Reij (eds.) (2020). ETFRN news 60: Restoring African Drylands.

The Land Accelerator

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