A Tale of
Words by Jennifer O’Mahony
Photographs by Xaume Olleros
When state forestry agents showed up in Moussa Sy’s Senegalese village in 2012 and asked him to set aside land exclusively for growing new trees, he was skeptical.
“Everything revolves around our animals. Raising them, feeding them, selling them,” he said, sitting under a wooden canopy on a boiling June day in Senegal’s northern Linguère region.
A member of the semi-nomadic Fulani people, Sy had let his 1,800-strong herd of cows, sheep, and goats graze where they wanted, when they wanted. Fencing off territory did not appeal.
But the young forest rangers explained that parceling off some land would bring benefits for the animals, too. Left untouched, grass would grow under newly planted trees and could be given to the animals in the lean months of the year.
In the tiny village of Kilif Deck, Sy decided to give one of Earth’s largest conservation experiments a chance.
Discussed for several decades before finally being ratified by the African Union in 2007, the project known as the Great Green Wall aims to halt desertification in Africa’s Sahel region, stretching 4,000 miles from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Its name invites images of a thick band of trees stretching into the horizon, but the Great Green Wall has evolved into a patchwork of natural reserves, gardens, and forest enclosures.
While the president of the United States fixates on a wall to keep out the poor and destitute, 20 African nations with precious few resources have built a green bulwark that has transcended its origins, becoming a focal point for education, empowerment, and commerce.
What the UN agricultural agency describes as the Wall’s “core area” is home to 232 million people, many of them highly dependent on erratic precipitation patterns for raising cattle or cultivating crops.
Sy remembers the droughts of the 1970s and ’90s, when the rains never came. “There wasn’t enough for the cattle to eat, and so many of them died. We were so tired,” he recalled. In those years, many herders cut down trees in a desperate attempt to feed their animals, depriving the cracked land of water and minerals.
The impact of these droughts focused the attention of African governments and international donors, who began to coalesce around the idea of reforesting the Sahel, in the hope of reversing desertification. Former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade, one of the Wall’s most enthusiastic backers, called the idea “crazy,” but added that “a bit of madness isn’t unwelcome when you’re doing something that has never been thought of before.”
Each country has a national agency dedicated to delivering on the Wall’s goals, with progress cross-checked at summits of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD). Sharing expertise and results from trial and error has become an integral exercise for the Wall’s state backers. For example, in Mali, the Wall has become a focus for youth employment, while in Niger, farmers pioneered a technique in which animal manure and the roots of trees “regreen” the land, even if the trunk is cut down.
There is an urgency to their work: Temperature increases in the Sahel are around 1.5 times higher than the global average.
The months before the summer rains are unbearably hot in Senegal’s arid north. Before the dramatic shift in land use around the Wall zone, herders would spend most of the year on the move, searching high and low for pasture for their cattle further south.
“We would mount a cart and attach it to our donkeys, take all of our things, and go,” explained Maimouna Sene, head of the women’s association of the community of Mboula, which incorporates her village, Koyli Alpha, as well as Kilif Deck. “We would leave for nine months, until we heard that the rain had started falling.”
These days, Sene stays put year round, tending to a five-hectare garden with 200 other women. She is the boss: “I am in charge of something, and I’m needed here now,” she said, leading a tour of neat rows of vegetables.
These gardens are a signature of the Great Green Wall project in Senegal, providing income for the women who sell what they grow, while delivering better nutrition for their families. “Onions, beans, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots,” she ticked off on her fingers. “Over here is a mango tree. Then we have lemons and grapefruit.”
When Sy was a boy in the ’50s, Fulani herders barely ate solid food, subsisting almost entirely on fresh milk. Daily access to fresh vegetables was a rarity, even for those now in their twenties in Mboula. Sene mentioned that before she began work on the garden, getting hold of carrots might mean a 120-mile round trip on a donkey cart to the city of Richard Toll. With animals to tend to and a family to raise, the backbreaking effort was rarely worth it.
While the garden has rooted the women of Koyli Alpha to their land for the first time in centuries, there is an unexpected benefit—their children are staying in school.
By late afternoon in Koyli Alpha, when the sun is slightly less ferocious, Sene’s children sit in a semi-circle beneath a tree and read from chalkboards. A decade ago they would have been guiding sheep and goats to grazing lands, hundreds of miles away.
Nomadic children are among the least educated in the Sahel, and they are socially marginalized as a result. Long months spent roaming pastures with their animals fractures the school year and leave most illiterate.
Racine Diallo, technical director of Senegal’s Great Green Wall Agency, described the impact on education across the green belt: “In 2014, the school of Mbar Toubab reopened thanks to the Great Green Wall. They started a school garden and developed their skills in that area,” he told Atmos in his office in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. “Another community made enough money to provide the school with electricity, which they paid for through their garden.” Putting cash into the hands of women means income cycled directly back into their communities, he added. “They sell vegetables, settle debts, and everything else goes to the family for school fees and taking care of the children. They are the bedrock,” he emphasized.
Senegal is widely considered one of the Great Green Wall’s star pupils, with more than 18 million trees planted by 2017 and 42,452 hectares of dried land reforested. By contrast, Sudan, which is due to provide 20 percent of the landmass of the Wall compared to Senegal’s 7 percent, has restored just 2,000 hectares so far.
Senegal has also avoided the deadly farmer-herder clashes over land that have swept the Sahel and killed more people in Nigeria than Boko Haram. Fulani herdsmen there are accused of grazing cattle on land set aside for agriculture, as they are forced to find new pasture far from their dried-up home villages. These battles have displaced thousands of people.
“The crisis between the cattle herders and the farmers in West Africa is becoming a critical one, first of all because the climate conditions have changed massively and the way of life of the cattle herders has not changed in tandem. That’s creating a lot of tensions between the communities,” explained Liz Kpam Ahua, regional representative for the UN’s refugee agency in West Africa, which is working on the situation.
“The government of Senegal, which has taken the situation in hand to create a belt of green that allows the cattle herders to stay—we can only appreciate them for their foresight,” she added.
Activities began in earnest in the far west of Senegal in 2009, expanding eastwards to reach Mboula by 2012. Diallo emphasized the importance of extensive consultation with communities before a single tree is planted: “If we agree what is farmland, grazing land, and protected land from the beginning, there will be fewer problems,” he said. “Above all, we cannot decide in their place.”
In Senegal, tree species such as acacia and baobab have dominated the reforestation drive, concentrated in what are called parcelles in French (Senegal is a former French colony). These enclosures, the kind that had perturbed Sy at the start of the project, act like a reservoir of animal feed for the months when most vegetation is gone.
“We have reforested the area and fenced it off to animals. In these areas, the tree cover is much thicker, because more of them grow, and they grow high. There are five of these parcelles in our community,” said Gory Ba, mayor of Mboula. “The animals do not enter, and as a result, we can grow food for them undisturbed for 10 months a year. For the final two months, they go to the communal reserve,” he added.
The reserves are the third innovation of the Great Green Wall, beyond the gardens and parcelles, and only swing into action when all other options for feeding the animals have been exhausted.
Opening their doors right on the cusp of the rainy season, herders can gather all the straw they need to feed their animals, for a 2,000 CFA franc ($3.50) entry fee. The straw is also used by households for everything from roof repairs to filling mattresses. Sat atop a giant bundle of straw with his two sons, following a hard morning’s raking, herder Alassane Sambou explained its value: “Grass is extremely important. My horses would die without it. We hope God will bless us with more and that He helps all of those working in the reserve,” Sambou declared. Since the opening of the reserve, the herder no longer migrates down south in the lean months. “I live just two kilometers away. Every day that the reserve is open, I stop by,” he added, before heading home.
Some climate scientists are skeptical about the concept of the Sahara moving ever southwards and turning everything in its path to dust, describing it as an oversimplification. Others even argue that the Sahel will naturally get greener as global temperatures rise.
But in Senegal, the benefits of contributing to the Great Green Wall have gone far beyond the pursuit of holding back the desert, according to herders.
They describe a wall that people flock to, a wall that allows some of the world’s poorest people to thrive and innovate, and one that is preparing the next generation for a better life.
“If we had a lot of rain we wouldn’t need to take such steps,” said Diallo of Senegal’s Great Green Wall agency. “It’s a form of resilience.”
Words by Rachel Cassandra
Photographs by Richard Misrach
“I can’t think of anyone I’ve met recently who told me they weren’t afraid,” says Lisa Knox, managing attorney for immigration at the Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland. “[For] pretty much everyone, it’s ‘I can’t go back to my country because I believe somebody there is going to kill me.’” Knox has heard that story again and again: People flee to the US from gangs, political instability, and gender-based violence.
The US-Mexico border is currently a sparse patchwork of about 650 miles of walls and barriers, with the most inhospitable sections of land and water acting as their own type of border wall. Near Tijuana, where Knox recently spent time working with immigrants, chunks of the Mexican side of the border are protected by two layers of walls, one with razor wire spiraling on top, while on the US side is Customs and Border Protection (CPB). Despite this triple security, immigrants and immigrant families continue to cross over. Their goal is not to enter the US undetected—most know they will be immediately picked up by CPB and brought to a detention center.
But their alternative is wading through the bureaucracy at border checkpoints, where immigrants report that over the past year (and especially in the past six months), Border Patrol agents are reportedly metering out asylum seekers, limiting those applying for asylum to a certain number per day, something Knox says is illegal. She adds that asylum seekers may have to wait a few weeks before being let in. Another alternative for crossers is to seek out more remote areas without border walls, but aside from risk of death in inhospitable environments, they face the risk of kidnapping by cartels that control the areas. According to Knox, immigrants have reported being kidnapped and held against their will, the cartels extorting money from their families.
Once picked up by CPB, immigrants are brought to a holding center, nicknamed La Hielera, or “the ice box,” because of its frigid temperatures. There are no beds or showers, and detainees are only given mylar emergency “blankets” and fed frozen burritos, which are sometimes not fully cooked. The maximum hold time in these facilities is 72 hours, but Knox says immigrants report being detained there for up to a week or, for one person, 13 days. From there, immigrants are transferred to longer-term detention centers, which could be run privately, run by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), or could be contracted spaces in shelters, juvenile detention centers, or state and county jails. There, the ACLU says, “there are no regulations or enforceable standards regarding detention conditions.” But for many, the known quantity of imprisonment still means freedom from the risks and violence faced in their home countries. “People aren’t coming here because they love the US and everyone wants to be here,” Knox says. “People are coming here because they’re fleeing for their lives.”
Border walls are on the rise globally. Canadian researcher Elisabeth Vallet estimates that there are 70 in existence globally, up from 15 three decades ago. Americans are also building walls around their homes more. Walled developments are increasingly popular in suburban and urban areas and have increased steadily since the 1960s, housing about 6 to 9 million people in the US and exacerbating socioeconomic divides. Those 70 border walls noted by Vallet are mostly geared towards reducing immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorism—all aims of the existing and proposed border walls with Mexico, according to President Donald Trump, who made the barrier a pillar of his election campaign. Yet despite these stated concerns, according to a study by David B. Carter and Paul Poast in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the number one predictor of the existence of a border wall is economic inequality. They ostensibly protect the (comparatively) wealthy from the poor.
Along with the devastating impact border walls and enforcement have had on human migrants comes the impact on the animal kingdom. Far from the oft-imagined barren desert, the US-Mexico border region is a thriving belt of ecosystems—crossing mountain ranges, high deserts, and the Rio Grande. According to Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Project Coordinator for the Wildlands Network, “This is the meeting ground for major biomes in North America. And it’s been a crossroads for tens of thousands of years.”
The Sonoran Pronghorn, aka Desert Ghost, is the fastest land mammal in North America. (It can travel at speeds up to 60 mph.) Endemic to the Sonoran Desert in Southwest Arizona and Mexico, the Sonoran Pronghorn is endangered, with a population down to 200 animals in the US. Thin and nimble, with thick barbed antlers and striking black eyes, its speed is adaptive due to the need to travel long distances to forage. The area has monsoon weather, meaning that, as Traphagen explains, “in one place, it may not rain that entire year, but, you know, 20 miles up the valley, it did rain.” It could really be a “death blow” to the species he says, if they can’t cross the border freely.
US-Mexican border walls are likely to interfere with migration patterns and create habitat destruction for the 91 endangered and threatened species there, including jaguars, ocelots, Mexican gray wolves, and cactus ferruginous pygmy owls. The 2005 Real ID Act allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive federal laws and regulations (including those protecting endangered species, safe drinking water, and indigenous religious rights) to construct walls and roads along the border. That means that the government does not have to research how construction will impact species. “If you take a border wall and you slice that across a certain line of latitude in a very critical location where we are right now,” Traphagen says, “that has the potential for changing the evolutionary history of North America.”
Trump’s border wall is not feasible in its proposed, singular form (the models Trump commissioned are rife with engineering problems and can’t be implemented across an entire fluctuating and multifaceted terrain). Even if the wall could be constructed along such a wide area (ignoring the time-consuming lawsuits that would result with the seizure of the private and state land that makes up two thirds of the expanse), the initial expense has been estimated at $21.6 billion, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with a Senate Democrats’ report clocking it at a mind-blowing $70 billion. The wall will hardly make a dent in drug trafficking (as cartels mainly use legal—and thus predictable—ports of entry and underground networks of tunnels, which snake beneath the border at multiple points) and is unlikely to affect terrorism, the greatest threat being homegrown violent extremists, people already inside our borders. And existing borders haven’t significantly deterred crossers, merely made their journeys more deadly.
So, if the wall is only mildly impactful on human migration and doesn’t address the core causes of illegal immigration (such as economic, social, and political instability), then why build it?
Bryan Lee Jr., DJA (Design Justice Architect) says the power of the wall is in its symbolism and calls the wall the “largest monument to white supremacy ever constructed.” But if it’s just a symbol, does it have real power? “Symbolism in this country reigns supreme,” explains Lee Jr. The border wall as a monument symbolizes the values the US actually holds—which are “codified and reified in the physical environment”—and not the values that we claim to hold, like freedom or acceptance of those fleeing persecution. He says the wall “stands in opposition to everything we propose we are.” The symbol allows us to perpetuate violence and oppression against those who approach the wall. We send them back to the conditions they’re fleeing. We separate parents from children. We treat them as less than criminals, mowing down their human rights.
Trump has always insisted that his big, beautiful wall would have a “big, beautiful door,” so legal immigrants can enter. Supporters of the wall often urge immigrants to enter legally, but unless you have an immediate family member or an employer to sponsor you, there are virtually no paths to legal immigration. But the door has an essential purpose for the story: It allows us as a nation to claim that we welcome immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, even when the door is functionally locked.
What if the wall never gets built the way that Trump has promised, which in all likelihood it won’t? Lee Jr. says that because the project is so big and people have trouble wrapping their heads around it, Trump can point to existing or incomplete architecture that works almost as well in today’s media landscape. He’s already referred to walls that were previously built, tweeting videos of their construction and claiming success. Some of his supporters, too, have fully claimed this symbol, building a rogue wall on private land paid for with a $23 million GoFundMe campaign.
So, has Trump simply rewritten our story, appropriating symbols that were already there and claiming them for the nation and for himself? Is there any way for people who disagree with the values of such a symbol to resist? Lee Jr. says he imagines a long period during which the United States must recover from what he calls “a quantifiably destructive presidency.” Art and architecture, he indicates, have always been a way to construct possible futures. We need to begin to create architecture that reflects our true values, to create art and built environments that help us, as he says, “view what the next stage looks like for us”—to imagine and thus shape a new future.