How an ‘Olympic Forest’ can help speed up Africa’s Great Green Wall

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tom Skirrow, CEO, TreeAid & Marie Sallois, Director of Corporate and Sustainable Development, International Olympic Committee


  • The Great Green Wall is an African-led initiative which aims to grow a mosaic of trees, vegetation and fertile land across the Sahel by 2030.
  • The Olympic Forest project, a partnership between the IOC and charity Tree Aid, is working with local communities to regenerate and sustainably manage forests.
  • The Olympic Forest might represent a model of responsible carbon-offsetting, which could be replicated across the entirety of the Great Green Wall.

When the Olympic Games officially opened in Tokyo on 23 July, after a one-year delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, many saw them as a symbol of hope, unity and solidarity. And proof that we are stronger together.

That same unity and solidarity will now be key in responding to the intertwined global crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty. And 2021 is certainly a critical year for tackling these challenges, with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the signing of the G7 Nature Compact and the 26th COP to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCFFF) all on the horizon. https://www.youtube.com/embed/NCT8UdVS78Q?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

Partnerships based on strong international collaboration and guided by local expertise will be at the heart of these global efforts. The Olympic Forest, a new initiative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – in collaboration with charity Tree Aid – is an example of this approach.

Launched in June 2021, the project draws on Tree Aid’s experience tackling poverty and climate change in Africa’s drylands, and is inspired by the Olympic vision of “building a better world through sport”. The Olympic Forest will also contribute to one of the biggest and boldest climate solutions: Africa’s Great Green Wall.

The Great Green Wall is an African-led initiative with an epic ambition; to grow a mosaic of trees, vegetation and fertile land across the Sahel by 2030. Originally envisaged as an 8,000 km band of trees, this ambitious project is now so much more.

The Great Green Wall has become a beacon of hope for the whole Sahel region. But to achieve its goal by 2030, it needs ongoing sustainable investment, visibility and strong, multi-sector partnerships.

This is where the Olympic Forest can help. Working with local communities and particularly women, the project will build local capacity to regenerate and sustainably manage forests and land. Using a community-led, holistic nature-based approach, the initiative aims to protect ecosystems, tackle structural inequalities and raise income to strengthen climate resilience.

Map of Senegal and Mali showing the regions where the Olympic Forest project will take place.
Map of Senegal and Mali showing the regions where the Olympic Forest project will take place. Image: Tree Aid

The Olympic Forest will work in 90 villages across Mali and Senegal, an area most acutely hit by the climate crisis, but least able to adapt to it. Temperatures across the Sahel have risen by nearly 1°C in the last 30 years, almost twice the global average. For communities living around the Olympic Forest sites, erratic weather patterns with increased droughts and flash floods are causing the steady degradation of ecosystems and food sources. This exacerbates the poverty cycle, increasing the vulnerability of rural populations.

Land and ecosystem restoration – a powerful climate solution

The Olympic Forest is part of the IOC’s broader strategy to become climate positive by 2024. It complements an organisational commitment to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement, compensate more than 100% of residual emissions and use influence to create and inspire climate action. It also adds to the IOC’s decision in March 2020 for all Olympic Games to be climate positive from 2030 onwards.

The project will involve the planting of approximately 355,000 native and diverse trees to sequester 200,000 tonnes of CO2 across 2,120 ha in Mali and Senegal – more than 100% of IOC’s estimated residual emissions for the period 2021-2024.

But it is not about planting trees and walking away.

Delivering the project on the ground, Tree Aid will use proven agroforestry techniques, land and resource governance, restoration and conservation to make the Olympic Forest a high-impact project which lasts. Crucially, the work is designed to support communities to manage their own land, so they are better able to reap the benefits of the environment around them in the most sustainable way. Robust monitoring is central to the project, and we will work closely with local communities, using GPS tracking and industry standard tree survival rate systems. The entire project will be certified by Plan Vivo.

Neither Tree Aid nor the IOC believe tree-planting is the only answer to the climate crisis. However we do believe it can be a powerful part of the solution, offering ways to fight poverty, store carbon, protect soil and agricultural land and build resilience to climate shocks.

Nature based solutions: Investing for innovation

The ‘innovation’ buzzword will be familiar to anyone working in net-zero transitions throughout the world. When politicians or business leaders speak of ‘climate innovations’, we might think of solar panels, tech start-ups or laboratory creations.

But perhaps climate innovations are too often associated with technology, science or engineering alone. Nature Based Solutions to the climate crisis rely on the power and ingenuity of our planet’s ecosystems and resources; the oceans, wetlands, forests, rivers and soil. Importantly, they also rely on the creativity, knowledge and commitment of global communities working with and around them. And this requires new investment and partnerships which reach across borders.

Elvis Paul Tangem of the African Union Commission recently wrote that the future of the Great Green Wall will rely on capacity for innovation. We couldn’t agree more. While what this looks like on the ground should be shaped and managed by the communities living along its path, as global supporters and beneficiaries of a promising Nature-based Solution (NbS), we all have a role in helping it grow.

To tackle the interlinked crises of climate change, nature loss and rising poverty still faster, we need urgent, integrated solutions. High-quality NbS, which build on the protection and restoration of ecosystems, can do just that. The Olympic Forest is a real opportunity to show the potential of ‘responsible offsetting’ to support these efforts.

It is quickly becoming clear to governments, businesses and civil society alike that initiatives which recognise, protect and fund the restoration of fragile ecosystems are protecting all of our futures, wherever we live in the world.

Above all, the Great Green Wall is an African movement for change in which we all can play a part. Contributions to deliver its aims come from all sections of global society – from the farmer choosing agroforestry to improve his or her crops, to partnerships like the Olympic Forest or national government efforts to reforest across entire regions. This is where the scope of carbon credits to help deliver the Great Green Wall’s goals by 2030 becomes very promising.

With the right evaluation and learning in place, the Olympic Forest might represent a model of responsible carbon-offsetting, which could be replicated across the entirety of the Great Green Wall. This could be a game-changer for large-scale NbS, where carbon sequestration through community land restoration can offer genuinely mutual gains for local people and global off-setters alike.

Most countries in the Global North are still relatively sheltered from the shocks and effects of climate change. For communities living in the drylands of Africa, the climate crisis is an everyday reality – but it is all of our shared future. New partnerships like the Olympic Forest realise this, and can hopefully provide inspiration to others as we work towards a shared vision of a greener, more secure planet.

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