Director General, National Agency for the Great Green Wall (NAGGW), Dr Bukar Hassan, in this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI, draws a nexus between the depleting vegetation in the Sahelian belt of Nigeria, the daily migration of people to the South and insecurity in the country and the fact that reversing the impacts of climate change requires huge investment over a long period
In recent times, a lot of societal challenges, including indiscriminate migration, have been attributed to climate change. How true is this?
It is true. When somebody from the South sees a whole articulated vehicle full of youths who are moving to Lagos, they will just wonder: Why are all these people coming here? They are going to where they are going because where they used to live is no longer sustaining them.
Why is it not sustaining them? Before it wasn’t like that in this country. In fact, some 20 or 30 years ago, you hardly see people moving from the North to the South. But today, you see a whole articulated vehicle filled with people who are moving down to the South to settle. Sometimes, they sit down with the cows and goats just to find their way to the South.
So, I believe that it is everybody’s responsibility to make sure that these people remain in their local communities because if they move to Lagos, they stress the social services in Lagos. What happens?
The government gets more responsibilities. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that people stay where they are and be able to live their lives without necessarily migrating to other places.
Is there a relationship between climate change and the insecurity being experienced in parts of the country?
Let me give you an example of some things that could have contributed to the insecurity we have today in Nigeria. I’m not a security expert, but I think that the Boko Haram issue found a fertile ground because you had youths that were unemployed and had nothing to do. To them, there was no ray of hope that something meaningful could come their way.
About 20 years ago, the Federal Government invested heavily on irrigation farming in the Chad Basin after it realised that the water from the lake was receding, at least, on the Nigerian side and very soon, Nigeria will not have access to the water.
Now, that irrigation programme would have taken a lot of families and a lot of people out of poverty through dry season farming. But something happened along the way.
The investment had a technical issue because the irrigation model was designed on the basis of gradient flow.
The water was supposed to flow freely and naturally on its own. But because the lake receded at a faster rate than envisaged, there was a problem. The immediate result was that Nigeria fishermen followed the water and there was crisis between them and their counterparts from Chad and Cameroon.
The situation created a lot of unemployment in that area. So, when this unfortunate insecurity came, it found a lot of people who were ready to listen to those who came with the Boko Haram ideology.
I mean, these people were given some resources and some brainwashing. If these people were really having something to do and were involved in something meaningful, they wouldn’t have listened to them. Today, here we are with insecurity everywhere in that region.
What is your message to Nigerians on the challenges of desertification and climate change?
Our message has always been the same. Our land is our sustenance, if the land is fine, we are fine, but if the land is not fine, then we are in trouble as can be seen in some areas today.
So, all Nigerians should come together and treat the issue of land degradation as everybody’s responsibility. Whether you are in government, you’re a farmer, a private individual, businessman, come along and assist us in combating land degradation, particularly in the Sahelian area of the country.
Many Nigerians do not know about the Great Green Wall Programme. What exactly is it all about?
The Great Green Wall is a programme spearheaded by African countries with the ambition of creating an 8,000 kilometres of natural green vegetation across the width of the continent in a bid to combat desertification, climate change and biodiversity.
The wall is being constructed across the Sahel region of Africa, which is the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.
More than anywhere else on earth, the Sahel is on the frontline of climate change as millions of people living around it face persistent drought, poor soil, hunger and conflicts as they compete for the dwindling natural resources in their communities.
What is the relationship between this continental vision and the National Agency for Great Green Wall Programme, which you superintend over?
I’m sure that you’re aware that in 1992, there was this environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Nigeria actively participated in that conference.
Like any other world gathering, the developed countries were mainly concerned about combating climate change and biodiversity. At that time, the impact of climate change was really more on the developed countries, biodiversity and conservation were not very serious issues to us in Africa.
So, when our people from Africa got there, they came together to find out how our own issues can come on the agenda of the summit. They identified desertification as our key environmental challenge.
At the end of the deliberations, the summit agreed on three conventions or protocols on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. Nigeria became a signatory to these three conventions.
As time went on, the need to implement these protocols came to the fore. The conventions on biodiversity and desertification became an issue for those of us in sub- Saharan Africa because we are worse hit than anyone else.
So, they came together in 2009, during the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo, to chart the way forward. Obasanjo decided to mobilise his colleagues from other countries to work together on the implementation because one country cannot single handedly combat a natural phenomenon like desertification.
Following that realisation, everybody went back home to develop solutions and, today, we have agencies dedicated to combating desertification in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
You can count from Senegal at the extreme West to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and between these two points, there are 11 countries.
All these countries are members of the Pan African Agency for Combating Desertification, which has its headquarters in Mauritania. It is the agency that supervises national agencies in individual countries such as ours.
What are the key activities of the agency?
All our activities in the field are targeted at the livelihood of the people. We do different types of plantations.
We do shelter belts in which we plant lines of trees. We also do woodlots and orchards and encourage dry season farming in communities. We set up these activities, train the people on how to run them. When we are done, we hand over these projects to the people to manage and whatever comes out of it, they use it in providing for their families.
It is like an empowerment scheme, targeted at the youths and women, especially youths who like to migrate to the urban areas to do menial jobs. We want them to stay in their communities, live with their families. If you go to some of these places we work, especially during the dry season, you’ll find only women and children.
The men have all moved to the urban areas, but we prefer them staying in their local communities to take care of their families and send their children to school. In these places, our focus is to reverse the impacts of drought, desertification and climate change.
The vegetable garden provides some amelioration to drought because it doesn’t rely on rainfall; it relies on the water you apply from irrigation.
How does the shelter belt help in containing the impacts of desertification and climate change?
The process of desertification comes when either the wind or rain carries away the top soil and leaves the land infertile. You know, most of
most of the nutrients are on the top soil. What we do is to look at the nature of the soil, the direction of the wind, as well as the height of the wind, then provide appropriate tree seedlings to be planted in rows to break the speed of the wind.
So, when the wind comes, the shelter belt breaks the speed and prevents it from blowing away the top soil. It will not be strong enough to carry away the top soil. Similarly, whenever there is rainfall and there is flash flood, it washes away the top soil.
The goal of creating a shelter belt is to prevent the degradation of the soil by the wind or running water because if the soil is fertile, the farmers will remain there to farm and take care of their families. In some instances, we go to places where they have an oasis, which serves as a life line for the people.
The oasis is usually found at a depression on the land where the water table is very high. It is where they get their drinking water and they also farm around the area. But the problem that they have is that the sand blown by the wind goes into this depression and silts the whole area.
So, over time, it becomes another sand dune in the place and you find the people living around the oasis, moving down to other places. This is the life of these people; they are continuously on the move in search of a more conducive environment to settle.
But if you’re able to break the strength of the wind from the windward side of the oasis, you will find that the rate at which siltation takes place will be slower and the people will continue to explore the resources around the oasis.
How does the establishment of wood lot work?
In wood lot, you get a piece of land and plant several trees on it. It has three basic advantages because once you do that, you grow the biodiversity of the area. When you have trees, other plants and animals will be able to grow and survive there; it will provide fuel wood for the community and also reduce the speed at which the land is degraded.
Therefore, it will enable the people to farm in the area. Once you’re planting trees, you’re combating climate change, you’re conserving biodiversity and you’re also combating desertification.
How do you get the communities involved in these programmes?
In most of these areas where we work, the vegetation is very thin. There are some places you’ll go, believe me, you can’t see a tree as far as your eyes can go. But these people need the trees, not only as wind breakers but also for fuel wood.
So, we train them on how to find alternatives to fuel wood or alternatives in terms of finding something to do off the land. This is why we also train them in handicrafts and other skills that will enable them have something to do. For instance, if you train a house wife in tailoring, she will be compelled to stay at home to serve her customers.
She doesn’t have to go to the bush to cut down the few trees available there to sell as firewood. In that way, you have done two things – you have provided her an opportunity to make additional income for the family and you have also reduced the rate at which trees are cut down for fuel wood.
Normally, they cut down the few trees available in their surroundings, sell them as fuel wood and, by the time they have need for wood again, they will have to go farther into the bush and they will continue to go farther and farther until there will be no trees to cut down any longer.
What other challenge do you face in the course of working with the communities?
There is an attitude problem among some of these people. The place is dry because there is no water and whatever you want to do to improve lives, you have to provide water.
The irony is that you can provide water in a community and the same people in that community will vandalise it. So there is the need for not just sensitisation, but reorientation of these people. We need them to realise that they also have a responsibility to protect the investments government makes in their community.
How far has the agency gone in rolling back desertification in your mandate areas?
This is a very difficult question. What you can do as a human being in terms of desertification is to try, first and foremost, to slow the process down. Then, with time, you will be able to checkmate it, but you cannot eradicate desertification in your own country.
For instance, we share a common border with Niger Republic, but there are more desert areas in Niger Republic than here in Nigeria. Now, if Nigeria has the capacity to combat desertification but desertification continues in Niger Republic, it will still have impacts on us.
This is a natural phenomenon that does not recognise international boundaries. What do we do? The thing to do is to adopt an integrated approach to tackle desertification across contiguous countries.
We now have programmes on both sides of the border, so that whatever we do here and whatever they do on their side will be an advantage to us. Now, if, for instance, you want to know how far we have gone, you have to know that reversing the impact of degradation on an environment is a long term investment. It has a gestation period.
The Great Green Wall Programme is about five or six years old and in environmental protection, that’s a very short period. If you go to where we started work five years ago, there are trees growing there and many of the communities are still practicing what we taught in terns of adherence to the rules of environmental protection.
They still have some of the infrastructure we built for them, especially water infrastructure, for their use for irrigation farming and livestock rearing.
But if you compare it to the total area that needs this kind of investments, you’ll discover that we have not started. It takes time for anybody to stand up and say that xyz percentage of the identified desert area has been reclaimed. We can’t do that in five years.
You mean, the process of combating desertification is just beginning?
I wish that I could find a word, a little more than beginning because somebody who started something yesterday is beginning and if we that started five years ago is said to be beginning, you know there is something missing. But it is something that takes time and it is capital intensive.
How do you protect those investments you’ve made in those communities where you work?
Earlier today, we were discussing about the protection of what we’ve planted in some of these communities. How do you protect them? We try to use what we call the life method, whereby you employ human beings to protect what has been planted in a community.
There is also the mechanical method whereby you plant trees and fence the area to ensure that no sheep, goat or cattle goes in there to eat them up. But these measures don’t seem to provide all the solutions because the person you employ to protect the investment will be on guard during the day, but goes home to sleep at night.
On the other hand, the mechanical system you put in place, somebody will come one night while people are sleeping and pull it down, take it to the market and sell.
So when you come the following morning, the trees would have been eaten already. If the press now gets there and we say these trees were planted six months ago and all they could see is one or two trees, they will conclude that we are not doing anything. These are some of the difficulties we encounter on this job.
What level of cooperation are you getting from the front line states?
We’re working with the eleven front line states namely Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa, Yobe, Adamawa, Bauchi and Gombe. In each state, we have collaboration with two focal ministries – the Ministry of Environment and, to a certain extent, the Ministry of Agriculture.
Our next step is to convince the states to not only continue this technical collaboration, but to set aside some resources in their budget as co- financing fund. We want to work together both at the technical and financial levels because if a state has put in some money into the programme, it will want to see results. We were opportuned to meet with some of the state governors and we made a presentation to them on it.
They quickly asked us to give them a framework for the collaboration so that they will see what they can do with us. We’re currently trying to design a framework that will be acceptable to these state governments. Once we get them on board, it means we have also gotten the local governments because you know the relationship between these two tiers of government in Nigeria. However, this move to get them financially committed cannot be achieved over night.
Is there any move to also collaborate with neighbouring countries and development partners on this programme?
Of course, right from the conception stage, there has been collaboration between and among countries in the Sahel region of Africa. Recently, there was a Climate Change Conference in France and the Great Green Wall was part of the agenda of that meeting.
A lot of resources have been by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and other institutions to provide funding for combating desertification. I think the AfDB promised about $6million to support the Pan African Agency towards combating desertification and biodiversity.
This is a huge resource for this bloc. The World Bank has has also promised some resources towards the same cause. I think that the Pan African Agency is, right now, working with these organisations on how these pledges will materialise so that countries can have enough resources for members of this bloc.
There are good prospects for these organisations to be reasonably funded in order to combat desertification, climate change and biodiversity.