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.
Effective tree-planting can reclaim once degraded land
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.
Plans stressed the participatory nature of the projects; 'I tell you what to do, and you participate'
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.
There is a substantial, proven body of expertise and activity which can be drawn upon in addressing future challenges raised by climate change
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.
Parliaments may not be the best places for writing climate plans
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.
These young baobab trees in Niger regenerated spontaneously
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
Do you agree with Camilla Toulmin? Are responses to cllimate change and other environmental threats best organised by the communities likely to be affected? If so, why do governments often seek centrally-controlled approaches?
Of course many solutions need to be locally derived. The problems are local, for the most part, and the solutions must answer those. The idea that science can provide answers in a vaccuum is an ignorant view. The best science uses the input of all information available, which is largely local, in compounding solutions. Without local data, any global solutions will likely miss the mark, and even cause more harm than good in the long run. The value of traditional knowledge is apparent. What is already known should never be scorned. Truth is in the details, and details ARE local. mz
Marie Zarankevich, Ithaca, NY, USA
The advance of the sahara desert southward into the sahal has in part been caused by local action--called overgrazing!. Because a commision was wrong many years ago does not change the fact that it is local people by constantly pushing the resource destroy it.
Living as I do in a dry area I do feel that the she is correct in the use of direct seeding methods rather bagged stock. Dryland seed does very well sitting in the soil till the right condition for germination occurs. This may occur only every couple of years or even longer, hence has no immediate visual impact.
However in many degraded areas seed sources have been obliterated and even when the rains come nothing grows.
In any case unless some control of human overpopulation is brought in every thing will be swept away. Example: Kenya in 1900had approximently 1 million people, it now has 35 million and may double in less than 25 years.
The economists who say the problem can be outgrown are fools.
Peter Hubbell, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.
During warm periods, deserts shrink as there is more evaporation from the seas. That's why the Sahara is currently shrinking and not growing, and why treelines and grasslands are expanding in the Sahel.
All of which is natural in origin. I applaud the idea of improving access to water for life and for irrigation, but on the big scale it is the natural variation of climate that makes the substantive changes.
During the Holocene Optimum 6-8000 years ago, Northern Africa was covered in trees, swamps and large rivers infested with crocodiles and hippos. Since then, the earth has cooled (by about 2-3 degrees overall) and the Sahara desert expanded by and large to its present extent.
If you look at high resolution satellite photographs of the Sahara on Google Earth, you can see lots of dried river beds and lakes that were teeming with life a few thousand years ago.
John A, Reading, UK
While last weeks climate change conference at the United Nations was a political triumph, the Bush Administration was able to hold a climate change summit late last week. In the latter, the Bush Administration and those coporate lobbyists had manage to declare a kind of executive action on the United Nations groundbreaking summit held earlier last week. Once again, those scientists, environmentalists and political groups who care about the environment were right about the latter conference, who say that the Washington DC-based conference is just another excuse to undermine the United Nations' conference on global warming.
The motivation has to be corporate greed and the U.S.'s ever-decadent level of corruption within the ranks of the Republican Party and the ranks of the dark side of Corporate America and there corporate lobbyists. It's true everybody, and it is high time that the world takes serious legal action against the current state of US interests and the ever-disgraced Bush Administration, and the legal action starts right now.
Richard Hendricks, Webster, United States
Ridiculous suggestion from John that the only reason Ms Toulmin is advocating these methods is that is supports her livleihood. It is exactly this type of sceptical nonsense that holds back real action. Anyone who has ever heard of the mantra 'Think Globally, Act Locally' should immeadiately see this approach as just the sort of thing that should be happening. Yes, plans need to be thought out at global and national scales, but they need to be implemented locally, so that local communities embrace and understand them.
Daniel Marshall, Bristol, England
Should a country provide the 'right' thinking and framework, then working locally is effective and can be seen as a pilot for larger projects. However, the loss of skills, the demise of villages and the dispersal of communities call into question the very notion of 'local'. But even reclaiming a few lost skills is not enough. We need a new learning and education centred on the land. The land, or the environment, is simply the ground we stand on, the soil that feeds us. This education can provide working solutions to many of our problems.
mario molinari, maidstone
I don't think we have time to argue small or large projects. Both are necessary. Small projects where there is the local knowledge and wherewithall, bigger projects (which probably have to be 'flown in') and an all round increase in awareness and sound information. The Sahara fringes are just one problem. Big, important, but just one. We all need to get on with it - protecting, helping ours and every creatures' life-support system - in every way we can.
Local responses, alive to differences of soil type and the best species of tree, are of course best - this is a no-brainer. But this also needs to be matched by a breadth of vision: lots of communities need to be combating desertification everywhere, simultaneously. Where should this uniting vision come from but some sort of central organisation? This piece reminded me of the work of Richard St Barbe Baker, a British forester active across the world between the 1920s-70s, and Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt movement in Kenya. Neither of these imposed their reforesting schemes on locals, but both had the grand breadth of vision that saw their efforts have real impact. It's said that St Barbe Baker planted, or helped plant, more trees than any other human being in history.
Guy S, London
There is an treasure trove of knowledge that has been lost, or simply ignored, this has to be regenerated. Everything Western may not be good for local conditions. The green wall can also be built with local labor, local materials, local participation, local economic growth. The true success of the program will be in limiting the population growth in the Muslim dominated countries. In the end of the day the only factor for large scale exploitation of natural resources is the over population.
Chandru Narayan, USA
Hi Camilla, interesting article but you did not mention anything particularly specific by name. My initial expectation was you might talk of the successes that have been won through techniques such as Permaculture which have been instrumental in rehabilitating land throughout Australia, Africa, my home country of New Zealand, and many parts of the world both 1st and 3rd.
Peter Willis, Lund, Sweden
Working with local knowledge in African Nations where you are working with people who know and understand the land and ecosystem is undoubtedly the best way forward. Unfortunately in economically developed nations people on the whole have lost that connection and what will work technically may not work socially, because it might just inconvenience us in our comfortable little bubble. I am not saying working locally won't work, but it will be much more challenging in our short sighted society.
Abby Jackson, N. Ireland
I'd like to see some evidence that small scale, local projects can have a serious effect on the expansion of something as vast as the Sahara. Meanwhile, we might want to ask how Ms Toulmin earns her living: organising small local projects perhaps?