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News 1 Oct 07
Climate solutions need the local touch
As governments ponder how to protect communities from the impacts of climate change, they should think small, argues Camilla Toulmin. Africa's "green wall" of trees is an example, she says, of centralised planning which may just be the wrong thing to do.
The worry about deserts advancing into fertile land has a long history, dating back at least to the early 1920s, when a joint French-British expedition set off to assess the dangers to their respective colonial assets in West Africa.
After several weeks of enjoyable travel across the Sahel, spiced by French cuisine and excellent Scotch whisky, they came to the conclusion that the evidence for desert advance was patchy and there was no need for panic.
The ebb and flow of human impact and ecological damage, they decided, meant that a more cautious, location specific approach made most sense.
In the 1980s, a similar set of preoccupations led to proposals for a green barrier to stem the desert's advance all along the southern edge of the Sahara.
The projects were drawn up by consultants in capital cities and parachuted onto Sahelian villages.
These plans stressed the participatory nature of the projects designed by the experts. It was a question of "I tell you what to do, and you participate".
Bricks in the wall
Today, there is a new plan to construct a "green wall" to stop the advance of the Sahara desert.
The African Union is seeking support to fund a range of actions aimed at protecting fertile lands from the advance of the desert, largely through planting trees.
It's a laudable aim, but needs to learn from past mistakes. Previous attempts at planting trees have been costly mistakes, with high tree losses.
A green wall needs to be built of diverse blocks, a medley of bricks in every shade of green.
It mustn't be a concrete screen that gets shipped in from outside, takes no notice of context and imposes itself universally.
The "bricks" need to be drawn from local materials, knowledge and skills. Instead of planting trees, such a wall needs to grow from natural regeneration of local seedlings.
The West African Sahel is likely to face major impacts from global warming, leading in the long term to higher temperatures, bigger storms and heavier rains leading to greater soil erosion and runoff.
Is there a universal solution to this which will work across the region? Are there universal solutions for any environmental problems? Do experts have all the answers? Will a big slug of money generate the desired outcomes?
For me, the answers to all these questions are "no, no, no and no".
Working it out
Following the great droughts of the 70s and 80s, a lot of effort has been invested by local people, non-governmental organisations and other agencies in developing more resilient crop and livestock systems in the Sahel.
A mosaic of success stories is now visible across many parts of the region, where better local management of soils, trees and water is generating better harvests and improved water availability.
Changes to government legislation have been very important in confirming local people's rights to manage their land and woodlands.
Examples include the natural regeneration of trees on farmers' fields in central Niger, and widespread adoption of simple terraces for soil and water conservation in Burkina Faso.
So there is a substantial, proven body of expertise and activity which can be drawn upon in addressing future challenges raised by climate change.
Rights of passage
At the International Institute for Environment and Development, we held a meeting just last week bringing together a group of people and organisations working in the Sahel on a combination of natural resource management and community-based development activities.
We explored ideas for creating an alliance of groups promoting more resilient livelihoods, building on the solid foundations laid down over the last 20-30 years.
The new constituencies interested in climate change adaptation need to learn from this approach; starting with what exists, letting local groups find solutions that work technically and socially, and supporting them, rather than controlling them.
If members of the Franco-British expedition of 80 years ago were to re-tread their steps, they would see much promising activity across the Sahelian zone.
It involves a mosaic of local innovations generated by providing secure rights to land, trees and water, along with simple techniques for making best use of what rain actually falls.
Let's hope the new plan for a "green wall" is able to use such experience to help build more resilient systems of production across the region.
Camilla Toulmin is director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a research and advocacy organisation working for equitable and sustainable development
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
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