A centre founded by an Irish priest has been proposed as a partner in Africa’s Great Green Wall project, writes Susan Gately
Fifteen kilometres wide and 8,000 km long, the Great Green Wall is a band of indigenous trees and vegetation planted across Africa which aims to halt the desertification of the Sahel and the migration of displaced Africans throughout Europe.
And an Irish-founded Kenya-based conflict resolution centre could turn out to play a key role in the initiative.
Founded by Irish SMA priest Fr Patrick Devine in 2008, the Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution trains local community leaders in conflict transformation to enable them to analyse and overcome conflict in their own areas.
Since its foundation it has trained over 10,000 “key community opinion shapers” in northern Kenya “traversing the borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and among the Somalian community”, Fr Devine says. They have hosted over 340 workshops among 16 tribes in conflict zones and completed over 300 schools projects, many of which are inter-ethnic and inter-religious.
At its educational level, Shalom runs inter-ethnic schools using solar energy for consistent power. In this way they have been able to provide electricity to 150,000 students, in particular in areas of entrenched violent conflict.
“The provision of solar panels to schools enabled children to study each evening, rather than just relying on fire outside their grass huts,” according to Fr Devine.
Established in 2008, the centre works by conducting empirical research on the causes of conflict, which are “too often ignored when ‘quick-fixes’ are applied to problems”, Fr Devine says.
Speaking in Maynooth in November at the Fourth Annual Lt. Gen. Dermot Earley Memorial Lecture, the SMA priest told a packed meeting that communities in Africa had difficulty experiencing “sustained development” because periodically schools, hospitals and other institutions become inoperable or totally destroyed. “We will be forever rebuilding and rehabilitating institutions if we do not address the root causes of conflict,” he said.
As well as training community leaders and working on school projects, the organisation tries to influence government policies and strengthen religious and civic NGOs, which are often “best placed to provide conflict early warning when tension and crisis are brewing”.
As BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane said when visiting the centre: “What they do here matters to all of Africa.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the centre has been proposed as a strategic partner for Africa’s Great Green Wall, traversing as it does a range of nations and giving rise to a host of issues.
As Society of African Missions (SMA) communications officer Don Mullan, who is liaising with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, says, the centre could be a “very good partner” in the project.
“It can be difficult when you are dealing with land and territory issues across many countries,” Fr Devine explained to The Irish Catholic.
“The Great Green Wall is an African initiative that deserves the support of the international community,” he continued. “When completed it will be an environmental ‘Wonder of the World’ spanning 11 countries from Senegal in the west, to Djibouti in the east, and benefiting tens of millions of people.”
Still years from completion, the project began in 2007 and is expected to cost nearly seven billion euro in total. It is supported by the World Bank, the UN, the African Union and many NGOs.
Of the 11 countries involved in the project, Senegal is believed to have made the most progress so far, planting 11 million trees. According to one Senegalese village chief, Absaman Moudouba, the project is having a real impact in halting desertification.
“When there were no trees the wind used to dig up and erode the soil. But it is more protected now. The leaves provide compost and the canopy increases the humidity of the environment and offers some shade so there is less need for a lot of watering” he said.
The wall is made of drought resistant Acacia trees which retain water in their roots. This is causing formerly dry wells to fill up again. Mr Moudouba says the wall has generated a whole new economy. “Before there was widespread drought and hunger here, then the tree planting took place, and then a garden for the women to grow crops.” Currently 200 women are working on the wall and, he says, “paid well”.
Nomads who had previously migrated simply follow the line of the Green Wall for jobs and no longer have to leave the country, he says. Attendance at local schools has increased and people are hopeful the children will be able to make a future for themselves.
The benefits of the wall, then, should seem obvious, and so the Shalom Centre is working closely with the Society of African Missions through projects like the ‘Laudato Tree’ Project, to spur on support in Ireland for the Great Green Wall and reforestation in general.
Already backed by President Michael D. Higgins, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and Irish biodiversity groups, the Laudato Tree project, which will be launched in parishes and schools early this year, encourages people to nurture and protect trees both in Ireland and in Africa in order to reduce and heal the effects of climate change.
Developed to coincide with the World Meeting of Families, being held in Dublin this August, it – according to the Society of African Missions – “presents an opportunity to promote family engagement both locally and globally”.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis tries to rouse us to care for our common home: through Laudato Tree, the Shalom Centre and others help every single one of us, wherever we are in Ireland, to try to reverse the desertification of Africa and to tackle the refugee crisis at the roots.