Africa’s Great Green Wall to Add 5,000-Acre ‘Olympic Forest’

The International Olympic Committee will plant more than 355,000 native trees across 90 villages in Mali and Senegal.

Women walking through a forest-like area.

Tree Aid

In an effort to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement and create a “climate positive” organization, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is spearheading a new four-year initiative to plant 355,000 native trees across dozens of villages in the countries of Mali and Senegal. The effort, in partnership with the non-profit Tree Aid, will cover more than 5,238 acres of land presently under threat from forces such as soil degradation, drought, and extreme flooding. 

“The Olympic Forest will support communities in Mali and Senegal by increasing their climate resilience, food security and income opportunities, and will help the IOC become climate positive already by 2024,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a release. “The Olympic Movement is about building a better world through sport, and the Olympic Forest is an example of that.”

More than just an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, the IOC sees its new “Olympic Forest” as an opportunity to both educate and provide long-term sustainable benefits to more than 90 villages through agroforestry and commercial use of non-timber products such as nuts, fruits, and fibers. In Senegal, host of the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2026, the mass planting is seen as a reflection of how the country and its citizens will need to work together to fight climate change. 

“With Dakar 2026, our goal is to go beyond sport and use the Games as an opportunity to raise young people's awareness, and beyond them that of the various stakeholders, about today's sustainability challenges and ways in which we can help address them,” said IOC Member Mamadou Diagna Ndiaye, President of the Dakar 2026 Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee, said. “This approach is in line with the country's priorities and reflected in the Dakar 2026 Edition Plan. The Olympic Forest paves the way in this direction."

Adding to Africa’s Great Green Wall

Great Green Wall

Great Green Wall

The Olympic Forest, in addition to improving food and economic security of local communities, will also join Africa’s “Great Green Wall,” a nearly 5,000-mile man-made wonder stretching across the continent. A decade in development, the $2 billion project aims to restore over 247 million acres of degraded land while also sequestering 250 million tonnes of carbon and creating 10 million jobs in rural areas.

“It aims to halt soil loss across Africa, and to help a wide variety of organizations to manage natural resources in the Sahel region. Using science and research to develop its policies, it puts an emphasis on building the resilience of communities in the area,” writes Elvis Tangem, Coordinator of the Great Green Wall Initiative. “The initiative promotes nature-based solutions to encourage sustainable land management in its member states, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, and Niger. These protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, using agroforestry, improved cropland management, agricultural diversification, integrated water management and forest management.”

Despite being launched in 2007, the project as of September 2020 has managed to cover just under 10 million acres, equivalent to about 15-18% of the final total expected to be completed by 2030. According to Tangem, setbacks have ranged from political instability to insufficient human and financial resources and a dearth of markets for tree-based businesses. 

“The Great Green Wall aims to encourage ;ecopreneurship;, fostering businesses that use trees sustainably, and encouraging farmers to use sustainable methods,” he adds. Tree products such as gum arabic, shea butter, baobab and tamarind are the mainstay of many families and communities, providing off-farm income and subsistence especially during the lean seasons. They have huge potential to generate more income and create decent jobs.”

To set a strong foundation for the Olympic Forest, the IOC is working with organizations like Tree Aid and the UN Environment Programme to spend the first 12 months engaging with local communities to determine needs, establishing monitoring and evaluation plans, and setting up plant nurseries. Planting of the first native trees is expected to start in the second or third quarter of 2022 and continue through 2024. 

“The Olympic Forest will be an inspirational contribution to Africa’s Great Green Wall and shows how conserving and restoring nature can address climate change while generating sustainable livelihoods,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Through this initiative, the IOC is showing climate leadership within the sports world and beyond, and highlighting that we all have a role to play in preserving a healthy planet for future generations.”