Growing up in a village in Burkina Faso, Georges Bazongo remembers his parents and neighbours cutting down trees each year to expand their farmland so they could “grow enough food for our families to eat”.
He also noticed some trees becoming drier in the drought-prone region, an indication too that the soil was deteriorating as heavy rains washed away its fertile layer.
Some of his relatives moved to Ivory Coast in search of a better life.
But things started improving a decade ago when the government and environmental groups helped villagers understand the causes and risks of their degraded land, said Bazongo, director of operations at international charity Tree Aid.
About a quarter of the Earth’s land area is in a bad condition due to natural processes such as erosion and human practices like deforestation and overgrasing, scientists say.
Degraded land is less productive, and releases climate-warming carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from the soil.
At Bazongo’s village, more than 160km (99.4 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou, local people have identified forest areas where tree-cutting is forbidden, developed soil and water conservation methods, and diversified crops, he said.
Now, even though his family there has swelled from 16 members to 36, and climate shocks continue, they get adequate food from agriculture, livestock and forest produce - and no longer need to expand their farmland, he added.
The village is part of the Great Green Wall initiative, a regional programme that aims to rein in climate change impacts, cut hunger, create jobs and reduce conflict by restoring land across the width of Africa in a belt below the Sahara desert.
“We’re lucky to learn these new skills,” said Bazongo, whose organisation supports the initiative in five countries.
“But what about the other millions of families living in poverty? That means they still continue to expand (farm) land, cut trees, and destroy plant and animal habitats because they can’t see any alternatives,” he said.
Getting funding to change that behaviour has been a challenge, he noted, adding he was “very happy” to hear France’s announcement that development banks and governments had pledged $14.3 billion to speed up Great Green Wall work.
At the One Planet Summit in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed donors for beating an initial $10-billion target and said France would ensure commitments were upheld.
“We are now standing shoulder to shoulder with ... the entire African continent,” he said.
Niger-born Salima Mahamoudou, a research associate with the US-based World Resources Institute who has seen firsthand the benefits of land restoration in the Sahel, said the promised funding must be turned into “concrete actions on the ground”.
To do that, donor governments should help strengthen local leaders and entrepreneurs’ capacity to use the money well and bring about change at the community level, she said.
The initial idea for the Great Green Wall, launched in 2007, was to plant an 8,000-kilometre band of trees spanning 11 key nations from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Its aim was to halt the march of desertification in a region already hit by rising temperatures, flooding and conflict.
After early criticism of aspects such as its narrow focus on reforestation, the scheme widened to include other approaches, like creating multi-purpose gardens and stabilising sand dunes to support vegetation, and also expanded to 20 countries.
This week’s new funding is a much-needed shot in the arm for the initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of degraded land, sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million green jobs by 2030.
The Great Green Wall has so far covered only 4 per cent of its target area - 4 million hectares - despite being more than halfway towards its final deadline. A UN status report last year said restoration work needed to speed up to cover 8 million hectares a year, at an annual cost of $3.6 billion to $4.3 billion.
Projects had not been well monitored nor integrated with national environmental priorities, it added.