Can terrorism in Europe be linked to desertification in Africa? A new report by the Berlin thinktank Adelphi seems to think so. According to its report, entitled Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming World, climate change creates an environment wherein terrorism can thrive, for as food security rises, people become susceptible to the economic incentives offered by terrorist groups and human traffickers.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the African continent, home to some of the world’s most economically at-risk nations. The Sahel region, which weaves from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East, has been ravaged by desertification. It has emerged as a battleground in the Global War on Terror, and the epicentre for African migration to Europe. With climate change taking an increasing toll on the region, what will the future hold for the coming generations?
A brief glance at statistics paints a bleak picture. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that over the next few decades, the population of the Sahel will increase by 250 percent, from 165 to 350 million. Of that number, sixty million Africans, predominantly young men, will migrate to North Africa and Europe in search of greater opportunities.
However, large-scale migration in the Sahel is already happening. Agadez, in Niger, is the launching post for many immigrants from the Sahel to Libya and onto the Mediterranean. It’s often referred to as “the smuggling capital of Africa.” According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 6,000 people arrive in Agadez every week. To make matters worse, Agadez is surrounded by a number of Boko Haram occupied territory. The vast economic uncertainty in the Sahel, combined with large-scale food insecurity, creates fertile ground for Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, who have exploited famines and droughts as recruitment tools, and used food and water as weapons of war.
An extraordinary initiative however intends to bring the Sahel back to life: the Great Green Wall. By planting an 8,000-kilometer wall of trees across the across the continent, the Great Green Wall aims to reverse the process of desertification. Directed by the African Union and owned by 21 countries, this $8 billion project seeks to restore fifty million hectares of degraded land, creating 500,000 jobs, and providing twenty million people with food security. Although its preoccupation is to reverse desertification, the Great Green Wall is part of a broader strategy to halt migration and the radicalisation of young men.
Alexander Asen, the communications lead for the Great Green Wall at the United Nations, sat down with Graphite to discuss how this initiative is designed to solve the colossal issues of terrorism and mass migration.
“People in the Sahel live on the frontline of climate change, not in some abstract reality,” he says. “80 percent of people rely on agriculture for their everyday survival; so you can imagine the impact when the land degrades, and what that means to people’s daily survival.”
Although far from completion, the Great Green Wall has gained considerable traction, with 15 percent of the wall having already been planted. Asen has visited the Sahel and seen first-hand the impact of the Great Green Wall on local communities: “Throughout the Sahel, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created. From a practical point of view, the Great Green Wall is not just about planting trees, it’s also about rebuilding communities. It connects local economies to international markets. We are working with companies who are purchasing Moringa, an emerging superfood, along the Great Green Wall with a view to creating long-term sustainable job creation.”
The creation of jobs has had a crucial effect in curtailing the pull of terrorist groups, Asen remarks: “Young men are given incentives to manage the trees and look after what has been planted. It has created a huge amount of jobs over the last ten years and reduced the grip on resources that terrorist groups have increasingly wielded.”
However, while some countries have pioneered the Great Green Wall, others have fallen behind. Mali, which has recently been rocked by political instability and terrorism, has failed to live up to the standards set by Senegal and Nigeria. Although the project is internationalist in scope, it relies on the cooperation of individual countries. Mali, in desperate need of land regeneration, lacks the political will to commit to the Great Green Wall.
But, Asen remains positive: “There is growing political momentum in the region. The African Union has embraced the initiative and there is a drive to realize this African dream. There may be pockets which are not restored, which may be the reality, but if it gets close to the goals laid out – 500,000 jobs – it will be considered a success, despite patchworks.”
Without clear initiatives to combat looming social and environmental adversities, the future of the region will remain bleak. It will be characterized by increasing environmental disasters, radicalization, and migration. But governments are taking note. That is why, despite their short-term interests, western governments are investing billions in the Great Green Wall. They have become increasingly aware of the linkages between the environment, and terrorism and migration. They have realized that desertification in the Sahel will have mounting consequences for Europe. Ultimately, however, this initiative is African-led; it is Africa taking control of its own destiny, of its future.