If The Desert Was Green

During the winter and spring, Mohamed Ben Ammar Ben Ammar often lets his camels go for a wander in the desert away from this village on Tunisia’s western edge. He doesn’t go with them. They know their way. They eat their fill of salty desert shrubs — zita, traganum, ephedra — and they always come back before nightfall. 

Ben Ammar, who is 78 now, used to name each of the camels. It was a way to identify them in a herd mixed with animals belonging to others. “When I call the name, she comes,” he told me when I visited him recently. But that was before the government provided fodder, initially for free, as part of an elaborate project to turn the dusty dunes into a green oasis.

Though people had long lived here between the shifting sand dunes of the Great Eastern Erg and a vast but mostly dry salt lake called the Chott El-Jerid, Rjim Maatoug didn’t really exist as a village until around 1980, when the Tunisian government came in and built a school, a police station and a headquarters for the local section of the ruling political party. They also planted a plantation of more than 6,000 acres of palm trees. The project was set up by the ministry of defense, which describes it first and foremost as a “fight against desertification” by creating a green barrier between the sands and Tunisia’s expanding modern civilization.

By some estimates, desertification — when land in dry climates becomes barren — threatens some 70% of arid places around the world. The desert in these areas is said to be “expanding,” the land “damaged” and in need of improvement. These fears have justified policies to retaliate against the “encroaching” sand, often by planting non-native species, as well as to settle nomadic families and enclose communities within green walls of trees and plants. 

Governments and multinational companies and organizations have long backed tree-planting campaigns to combat climate change by increasing global forest cover to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and to combat local problems like erosion and dust storms. Many claim to have successfully sowed billions of seeds and saplings. 

At COP26 last November, 141 world leaders reaffirmed their commitments to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, and earlier in the year a new round of funding was granted to the Great Green Wall project, an effort to construct a cordon of trees and plants nine miles wide and 5,000 miles long across the African continent from Senegal to Djibouti. The project aims to sequester around 275 million tons of carbon by 2030. Jeff Bezos has pledged $1 billion for it. 

But a new generation of researchers is arguing that the old ideas about desertification are flawed — that they don’t encapsulate the challenges that drylands face due to climate change and environmental deterioration. They also point out that the “solutions” that are often implemented in arid areas, like multi-year tree-planting campaigns or intensive agriculture projects, are often incongruous with local ecologies and economies. “I am skeptical about the benefits of mass tree-planting schemes, especially in dryland areas where pastoralists live,” said Ian Scoones, a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. “These are not ‘empty’ or ‘unused’ areas in need of ‘restoration.’” 

One problem, as Diana Davis, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, told me, is “that there is no agreed-upon definition of desertification.” Davis tracks the evolution of what she describes as “arboreal centrism.” “There are parts of the world that have been deforested and truly degraded,” she said. “And then there are other parts of the world where ecosystems exist perfectly healthily and in harmony without really any trees at all.” 

Today, tree-planting projects have been bolstered by carbon offset markets, where polluting companies and governments go to buy into green schemes that balance their large carbon footprints. Energy companies like Shell and Total have made massive pledges to plant forests. But there are serious doubts that pollution is being lowered as much as the polluters claim; sometimes, the forests “preserved” were never threatened in the first place, other times they don’t exist at all. Studies and investigations have found that a significant percentage of carbon offsets are unlikely to have a genuine impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Some scientists also estimate that the maximum increase in vegetation that the Earth could manage would only sequester enough carbon to offset a decade’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates due to limits on light, water or nutrients needed by plants to grow. Meanwhile, polluting companies and governments go on polluting. 

“When you combine arboreal centrism with the crisis narrative of climate change,” Davis went on, “then it seems a quick, wonderful fix for companies and corporations. ‘Oh well, we’ll just fund an afforestation program’ … even if there was no forest there before.”

The land around Rjim Maatoug was always known to Ben Ammar and other village elders and camel herders as rich forage territory; when it rained, people would come with their animals from other parts of Tunisia’s desert regions, and from Algeria, to graze.

Starting in the early 1900s, French colonists planted monoculture plantations of deglet nour palm trees all throughout southwest Tunisia, with the dates intended for export to Europe. Nomadic families were given plots of land so that they would put down roots, too. “The French were very strict,” Hamza Hammadi, a scientist at the Tunisian Institute of Arid Regions, told me. Hammadi’s grandfather, who lived then in the oasis of Jemna, was given 40 palms. “[He] told me about the colonel who would walk around, and the person who didn’t cut the parasitic weeds would be taken to prison,” he said. In a bid to keep people there, soldiers would monitor water use and take the land if they found the owner wasn’t using enough.

After Tunisia’s independence in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba carried on with the same policy; his goal was eliminating tribalism and nomadism to make way for a modernist dictatorship. In less than 20 years, from 1966 to 1984, the number of nomadic families in the south of Tunisia went from almost 3,000 to only 200. At the same time, alongside the “green” drive, the country’s south was being opened up to petroleum companies; many villages and plantations were built around wells accidentally unearthed as part of explorations looking for oil.

Abd El Majid Abess, the director of the regional office of the national forestry directorate, told me the original goal in the southwest was to plant trees to safeguard the new towns: If the state was going to build villages and put people in them, it needed to do something to protect the new infrastructure from being buried under sand. When I met him in Kebili, one of Tunisia’s oldest oases not far east of Rjim Maatoug, he looked visibly exasperated by efforts to hold back the sand. “The desert is not advancing,” he said, “we came and put ourselves in the desert!” Recently, he went on, the regional governor spent 400,000 dinars ($141,000) to remove three piles of sand from three different villages, only for them to come right back again.

An important part of establishing a sedentary culture was to break up and privatize land that had been collectively used for generations. Land management councils were set up to oversee the process, but even today, conflicts remain over land use and ownership between families, villages and tribes. In Rjim Maatoug, the state paid the Ghrib tribe a symbolic dinar — basically nothing — for each hectare of land that would become the date palm plantation, and each member of the tribe was given 2.5 acres and 100 palm trees. “We didn’t need it at the time,” Ben Ammar said of the land. What money was raised was used to build a village mosque.

Settling nomads and holding back the desert weren’t the only goals of the Rjim Maatoug project. “Bourguiba had the idea of making human borders — dig a well, make a village,” said Fathi Ben Haj Yahia, a writer and dissident who was imprisoned under Bourguiba from 1975 to 1980 for his activities with a leftist student union. Some of Ben Haj Yahia’s comrades were imprisoned in the Rjim Maatoug prison in the 60s and 70s. At the time, the political situation was worsening in Libya, and Bourguiba felt vulnerable. Borders needed to be secured, and people needed to be given a reason to be loyal. They “were sorted and chosen to be the eyes of the state, to work with the police and the military,” Ben Haj Yahia said.

Indeed, Ben Ammar described himself as “a Bourguibist today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.” The prospective inhabitants of Rjim Maatoug were required to enroll as cardholding members of Bourguiba’s party. Inmates in the prison, which was run by the army until 2010, were forced to plant palm trees and build houses.

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The Rjim Maatoug mega-plantation was made possible by millions of dollars in funding from Europe. Back in the 1990s, European governments, especially Italy, became concerned with North African migrants sailing across the Mediterranean and landing on European shores. In 2002, Italy passed a law tying development aid (for projects like date palm plantations) to cooperation on preventing illegal migration.

Today, Italy still funds projects for “sustainable development” in the Rjim Maatoug area. Since 2015, the Italian development agency AICS (Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo) has given €2 million to Rjim Maatoug for urban infrastructure and micro-credit loans. The goal of such aid is “stopping irregular immigration to Europe, but via supporting economic activities in the area to stop them from leaving,” said Remo Zulli, a technical assistant with AICS. He said he isn’t sure how effective this is, adding that migration is inevitable as droughts increase and heat rises. “People quit the rural areas because there are very few ways to be resilient to climate change,” he said. “Agriculture is a very vulnerable sector.”

Habib Ayeb, a geographer and the founder of the Tunisian Observatory of Food Sovereignty and the Environment, told me that today, decades after the plantation project began, it is ironically the date palms themselves, which require intensive and extensive care, that are among the main causes of land degradation. The new villages for nomads were generally built in the steppe, the arid zone before the sand dunes begin, where grazing animals long played an important role in the ecosystem. “The steppe is wonderful,” Ayeb said. “The structure of the soil is a rocky surface, where little things grow that keep the soil in place and feed the animals. But the animals don’t eat the roots of this vegetation.” Overgrazing, he went on, is only a problem when too many animals graze in a certain area.

Moreover, the influx of people meant that vegetation important for stabilizing the desert sands around the village was cut for charcoal. And the irrigated farms and date palm plantations use a lot of water, which destroys natural oases. One of the Italian projects encourages micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation to conserve water, but this can cause palm tree roots to stay close to the surface, and the insecure trees will often topple over in time. (Zulli said “it is too soon to tell” how effective this method is.) As Ayeb framed it, intensive plantation projects do the exact opposite of their intended goals: “Desert greening,” he said, “is desertification.

When managed well, tree-planting in arid places can bring numerous environmental and economic benefits. In Tunisian oases, planting some species of trees, like figs, alongside palms, or ground-level plants like vegetables or forage for camels, can protect soil and create a humid microclimate that increases local resilience against climate change. 

“The whole question of tree-planting is how you need to have the right tree in the right place in the right time with the right politics,” Camilla Toulmin, a senior associate with the International Institute for Environment and Development, told me. Tree-planting, she said, is visible and thus useful for governments and organizations trying to show off how green they are, but natural regeneration, like “light-touch livestock management and selective pruning” can have better results. “It’s a mixture of things: It’s partly farming, it’s partly grazing.”

In Niger in 2020, the president passed a decree to promote “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” a technique that involves encouraging the growth of tree saplings that naturally sprout in a field, instead of pulling them out like weeds. Locally, farmers noticed that although leaving trees standing meant less space for crops, yields of sorghum and millet grown beside certain trees were higher than those grown in the open air. Trees like the gao and the baobab provide shelter from the rays of the harsh sun and stabilize and fertilize soil; their leaves also make good forage for animals. The idea is that the choice of trees is left to the farmer, said Hamed Tchibozo, a project manager with the Christian NGO World Vision, who helped draft the decree. “The producer knows what he needs in his field — does he need wood for his house, does he need feed for his animals or does he need to make his field more productive?”

Sometimes, the way to protect soil in the desert has nothing to do with trees. Grasslands might not look as lush as a forest, but they can store just as much carbon and be more resilient to drought, heat and wildfires. Geert Sterk, a professor of land degradation and hydrology at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, told me that “greening” is relative. “Maintaining shrub cover is important, but you don’t need trees in a narrow band,” he said. After the harsh drought of the 80s, the Sahel saw an increase in vegetation as rainfall returned, but “we should not forget the Sahelian zone is a semi-arid region with sandy and rocky soils. Some people might expect that if you improve conditions, you can have a bumper harvest. But I don’t believe that.”

Many of the Great Green Wall projects in northern Senegal fell flat, and the country still struggles with soil degradation and long periods of drought since 2010. Land restoration projects don’t work when they are top-down, said Serigne Segnane, a coordinator with the Senegalese government’s council for rural cooperation. The decision-making process has become more balanced: Reform to the forest code in 2018 explicitly recognized local conventions, where people using the land decide, for example, which part should be left to rest and which should be used for pasture. “They are better than technicians,” he said of local communities and organizations. “They know the reality.”

“The whole question of tree-planting is how you need to have the right tree in the right place in the right time with the right politics.”— Camilla Toulmin

In Burkina Faso, after years of drought, the parched soil was revitalized by innovating on an old technique called zaï, which involves digging holes in the land and filling them with organic compost during the dry season before planting seeds. This attracts termites that burrow into the soil and create crevices that can retain water. The pioneer of this method, Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer from Ouahigouya in the north of the country, won an international award for this work and has been able to plant more than 60 types of trees, including baobabs, acacias and fruit trees. In the Sahel, as well as in the Maghreb and elsewhere, the traditional method of digging half-moon-shaped ditches successfully captures water and prevents runaway flooding during the rainy season.   

Pastoralism is a major feature of the wider Sahelian economy: 80% of rural households rely partly on animals, and seasonal pastoralists contribute significantly to both agricultural GDP and the milk and meat consumed across the region. But moving from pasture to pasture, sometimes across national borders, has become more difficult due to conflicts in the region, which in turn has put more pressure on natural resources as people are forced to stay in one place. Efforts to help sometimes have the same effect. As Scoones put it: “Too many projects notionally in support of pastoralists, such as settlement schemes or fixed water points, in fact cause degradation, as they concentrate animals in one spot.”

In Rjim Maatoug, the local economy has become almost totally reliant on dates. According to official data from 2020, the village produced more than 22,000 tons of dates and just 21 tons of all other types of fruit and produce. Date farmers can earn a living, but much of their potential profit is skimmed away by middlemen who sometimes insist on making deals in June when it is difficult to estimate the quantity and quality of the future harvest. The going rate for dates in the area is lower than other parts of the region, unless you are well-connected. 

Families still keep camels, goats and sheep, but a few years ago, the municipality banned animals from grazing close to the village to protect the vegetation. Khadija Ben Messaoud, a poet who settled in Rjim Maatoug with her parents as a child, says her land has become tired; she is trying to get a loan from the government to buy some animals to fertilize it. One of her poems goes: “The hectare laments its fate / The palm tree complains about the imminent trouble.”

Despite being from the Ghrib tribe, Tayeb Ferjallah wasn’t granted a plot in Rjim Maatoug when the land there was broken up and distributed in the 1980s. He said that depended on who you knew — a relative close to someone at the ministry of agriculture was very useful. They call this a “shoulder” in the local dialect. 

Instead, Ferjallah got a hectare in Derjine, 40 miles east of Rjim Maatoug. I sat with Ferjallah in his courtyard recently, and he recited a lilting verse written by his brother a few years after they were settled in the village in 1983:

Today they pumped the nearby well 
Take a share, even if you have nothing 
We came here and settled in front of the well. 

The poem is one of hope and gratitude to God, who gave them the land, and to the local governor, “who will not forget about us.” It is also one of bitterness, because it takes at least five years for a deglet nour tree to bear fruit.

It’s been five years settled in the land of the rough lips
We are patient; I’ve been bitterly waiting since then.

The hectare Ferjallah received was “white” — empty — and he had to buy and plant the date saplings himself. To raise the capital, he sold his camels and half the hectare, and he worked regular jobs in agriculture and construction. 

Now he has 25 palm trees, 18 of which are fully grown and give fruit. But last year, instead of a crop of soft and luminous deglet nour, many of the dates fell off the tree before reaching maturity — a stage known as “blahh,” when the fruit is so tart it dries your mouth out. Whole bunches of dates were “majbouda” — dried and shriveled. He sold them for a dinar (35 cents) per kilo, a quarter of what he would get for top quality. “If there is water, the deglaya will start giving to you,” he said. 

Farmers need to dig deeper and deeper to find water these days. In 1976, date palm plantations stretched across just over 42,000 acres in the south of Tunisia; by 2020, the acreage under cultivation had more than tripled. The region of Kebili, to which Rjim Maatoug belongs, saw a particularly dramatic increase in this period: from around 12,300 acres to nearly 94,000. This has put immense pressure on the area’s two major underground aquifers — the Tunisian Economics Observatory estimates the water levels are dropping at a rate of between three and 12 feet per year, and they are being replenished at a very slow rate.

In Derjine, the ministry of agriculture’s only authorized water source costs farmers 500 dinars ($173) per hectare per year to access. But 11 years ago, Ferjallah and his cousins got together and dug a private well 750 feet deep, even though it was illegal. “Pumping wells was banned during Ben Ali’s regime,” he told me. “Even if you spent a lot of money, they will close it.” They only irrigated at night to avoid being caught, and they hid the red pumping machine during the day. Technically it is still illegal, but since the revolution in 2011, wells are tolerated and the “red machines” can be seen all over the plantation, even in broad daylight. Farmers who are better-off have solar panels to power the motor to pump the water. Ferjallah uses gas from his kitchen. 

The most recent harvest wasn’t any better than the one before it. When I was there in early October, Derjine’s pump was broken. Summer lingered and temperatures stayed stubbornly high, right when what the date palms needed was cooler climes. The deglet nour is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, which have fed the spread of the voracious date palm spider mite. 

Ferjallah recited another poem, passed to him from his grandfather, who was unenthusiastic about their new life in the village. One part goes: 

The world has changed for the worse
Oh sons of Ferjallah
We left it behind. 

The poem is mournful, a different tone than the one his brother had written, and reflects the older generation’s attitude to being settled in villages. “If you would suggest giving him one of the palm trees,” Ferjallah said of his grandfather, “he would say no and start cursing you!” 

I asked him which poem he identified with more. He said he has come to relate to his grandfather’s lyrics. He has started to go for long walks in the desert — he likes the vast open land, the serenity, especially in springtime. “I was happy, but I changed my mind because of the water!” he said. “There is no more water! I started to hate the palm tree.” Going from village market to village market selling charcoal — his family’s main source of income previously — was tiring, and the desert was harsh with them; springs would dry out, and they would have to move and look for another. Yet he went on reminiscing about his grandfather’s time: “There was good-heartedness. People were better. If someone had bread, everyone ate.”

The forestry directorate has two nurseries in Kebili; the main one is lined with tall cypress trees, browning in the harsh desert sun, which are planted along roads and town perimeters to block sand. They used to plant eucalyptus trees for the same purpose, but that stopped a few years ago because eucalyptus is a much thirstier species. The second nursery was set up in 2000 for desert and pastoral plants. There was an idea to try and restore local species like the spartidium saharae, which is good forage and stabilizes sand but has become rarer due to drought and firewood harvesting, not to mention being cut down to make way for date palm plantations. The nursery for the local plants is mostly empty now; its well is old and empty due to years of drought.

Since the revolution in 2011, Abess, the regional director, has been faced with another obstacle to tree-planting: an empowered citizenry with different ideas about land use. Thousands of acres of land were planted in years past without the state needing permission from private landowners. “We used to plant wherever we wanted; the state was strong,” Abess said. “This was before. Now people refuse.” In 2019, the government tried to acquire land east of Rjim Maatoug to plant a “green belt” that would stop sand blowing over the village. The land management council disagreed with the plan and instead distributed hundreds of new two-hectare plots among the eldest sons of every Ghrib family in the village. 

Ben Ammar doesn’t have enough water to fully irrigate his palm trees these days, and the dates in Rjim Maatoug are known to be dry. But exporters have creatively turned that into an asset: Dried-out dates travel well over long distances — to markets in Asia, for example. The plantation is still expanding. Ben Ammar’s nephew, Eid, is among those with one of the new plots of bare land. Planting a crop of deglet nour is his only option, he said. “And I’ll need a well, otherwise I can do nothing but watch it.”


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