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Making the desert green

The Great Green Wall
Regissør: Jared P. Scott

CLIMATE CHANGES / Musician Inna Modja travels along the 8000 kilometer long route for Africa's ambitious Great Green Wall project, where a wall of trees will extend across the continent.


"Our hope comes with the rain," says a farmer The Great Green Wall. He has been a farmer in Senegal for 27 years, but due to more frequent periods of drought and increased desertification, the crops are becoming smaller. The semi-arid Sahel region borders the Sahara in the north and extends like a belt across the African continent. The region is among the areas that have so far been hit hardest by climate change; the consequences are resource scarcity, mass migration and conflicts. The young have been given a new mantra: "Go to Europe or die in the trial." Many risk the very dangerous journey via Libya rather than a future without food on the table for neither themselves nor the family.

The documentary, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September, outlines a third alternative to hunger or exile – an alternative that requires collective action: Great Green Wall is a pan-national tree planting project initiated by the African Union (AU). The idea is that a green mosaic of reclaimed agricultural land will combat the consequences of the climate crisis.

The director of the film is Jared P. Scott, but it is the musician and activist Inna Modja from Mali who is her face. We follow her on an 8000-kilometer journey through the Sahel, from Senegal to Ethiopia. Along the way, she is looking for collaboration with musicians, with the goal of creating a record that incorporates the region's diverse cultural traditions and that can help raise money for Great Green Wall projects. The film is supported by the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD), and Fernando Meirelles (the director of City of God) is the responsible manufacturer. The Great Green Wall is in other words a nicely wrapped multimedia stunt to illuminate the case, with the power in the back.

The Great Green Wall Director Jared P. Scott

The African Dream

"How do we create an African dream?" Modja asks this question early in the film. What she wants is to spread a more optimistic picture of the continent as well as to improve the future. This can help stop mass emigration from a region where over 80 percent of the population feeds through some form of agriculture. Thomas Sankara – a Marxist revolutionary who became president of Burkina Faso in 1983, but who was killed by coup makers four years later, just 34 years old – has emerged as the leader of the Great Green Wall project. Sankara had visions of pan-African independence, and a plan to re-plant over ten million trees to stem the Sahel eclipse. "We dare to invent the future," he said – a quote the film opens with.

The Great Green Wall is a pan-national tree planting project initiated by the African Union (AU).

The film's idealistic rhetoric aims to inspire the people living in the Sahel region, so that they begin to believe that self-help can actually defeat the exploitation of the self-perceived global elite's colonial businesses. But The Great Green Wall estimates by no means the regional contradictions that stick in the wheels for the implementation of the green wall (many reject the new planting plan and think it is too ambitious); on the contrary, the film insists that a change of attitude is absolutely crucial for the plan to be implemented.

Modja meets and talks to people who are severely affected by regional instability in every country she stops. The fact that the Chad Sea is shrinking has had enormous humanitarian consequences, including increased vulnerability to radicalization of the area's inhabitants. In Nigeria, Boko Haram abducted teenage girls, subjected them to forced marriage and suicide attack training. Girls who have escaped tell about their experiences. So do young men, formerly trained by militant groups, to kill. The young people are struggling with society's stigma as they try to stack their legs again.

In Niger, which has the highest birth rate in the world, seven children per woman, we meet new-born mothers at a women's clinic. With the baby on their arm they talk about the hope they also carry – that the children should not grow up in poverty. In a place where refugees cross the border, we meet men on their way back, either from prison in Libya or from boats docked. A better life is still just a fleeting dream: "The only thing we found was the ocean," says one. Some have experienced terrible things in the hands of corrupt traffickers. They are in limbo, ashamed of having to come back even poorer than they were when they left.

The desert is coming

An advocate for the Great Green Wall quotes in passing what he once heard: "The forest comes before man, the desert comes after." He doesn't say it, but the quote comes from Chateaubriand – a French aristocrat born in 1768, a politician and romantic, who liked to write exotic novels and revel in roasts. It may be easy to come up with short, cynical phrases, devoid of solutions, when served with roast – and not sand – for dinner.

When Modja arrives in Ethiopia, she discovers that the 80s nightmare hunger catastrophe, known worldwide through television, is still a trauma to the population; nobody wants to talk about it. But the country has undergone a transformation over the last thirty years: A farmer in Tigray remembers how, through hard work, they succeeded in making the earth green and fertile again. Modja points this out as "a perfect role model for the rest of the Sahel region" – proof that if you just mobilize your forces, people will stand up.

It is said that 60 million sub-Saharan Africans may be forced to migrate by 2045 if no drastic measures are taken to stop desertification. And regardless of whether we buy the film's optimistic belief that the prayer of action will be accepted or not, at least it is crystal clear what is at stake.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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