At first the women weren’t sure they could do it. Or should do it. Many in the village agreed. Digging holes, planting trees, being leaders—weren’t these men’s jobs?
“Everyone said we were crazy,” recalls Nakho Fall, a stocky, vivacious woman in a red-and-white print dress. With a dozen women neighbors and their children, Fall is seated beneath a shade tree in Koutal, a village in western Senegal where goats and chickens amble across the sandy lanes that separate one household from the next. At 11 in the morning, it is already blazing hot, though in a month’s time the rains and humidity of summer will make today’s weather seem sublime.
The men of Koutal could not plant the trees, Fall explains, because they were already occupied. Some worked in the nearby salt factory, transported there by beat-up vans that did not return them home until dark. Others had migrated to Dakar, the distant capital, in search of whatever jobs they could find.
But something needed to be done. Trees were disappearing in Koutal, and with them much else. “We didn’t even hear birds singing anymore,” says Fall.
None of the women beneath the shade tree are familiar with the term “climate change,” but all affirm that Koutal’s weather has grown more forbidding in recent years. Persistent drought has turned the soil dry and hard. It has also grown salty.
Although Koutal is located fifty miles from the Atlantic Ocean, two “arms” of the sea extend inland all the way to the village. The Senegalese government lacks precise data on how much the sea has risen, says Adama Kone, an agricultural extension agent, but soil tests indicate that seawater has penetrated the underground freshwater table, increasing the soil’s salinity and making it harder to grow crops.
“Taste it,” says one woman, pressing her index finger into the chalky white earth. “You will see we are telling the truth.”
Defying local stereotypes, the women of Koutal decided to fight for their village. With seedlings and technical expertise supplied by the Senegalese government and foreign donors, the women spent six years transforming 290 hectares of land from bare, crusted soil into a thriving agro-forestry reserve. There, they harvest timber to sell in the local markets while also growing millet and other crops to eat. Incomes and food production have risen substantially, and the women look to the future with a new sense of confidence.
“We are very proud that our children will benefit from this land,” says Adam Ndiaye, a hearty grandmother. “And they will know this work was done by women.”
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Little did the women of Koutal know it, but by planting trees to save their village they were also building part of what advocates are calling the Great Green Wall of Africa. At the moment, this wall is more vision than reality. If it gets built, a Great Green Wall could be a game-changer for Africa—a solid advance in the fight against not only the emerging threat of climate change but the enduring scourges of poverty and hunger. Much depends, however, on which version of this wall gets built. Will it be, as some African heads of state have urged, a literal wall of trees stretching across the continent like a long and narrow plantation? Or will it be a more metaphorical wall that brings to scale such local successes as the achievements in Koutal?
These questions should be front and center when diplomats arrive in Durban, South Africa, this month for the next round of international climate negotiations. Two years ago, the Copenhagen climate negotiations ended in failure and recriminations, as the United States and other big polluter nations refused to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. But the success of grassroots initiatives like Koutal’s, and the prospect of establishing a Great Green Wall across Africa, suggest that there are practical solutions to the climate crisis, if one knows where to look.