Olympic Forest planted across Senegal and Mali to offset more than IOC’s unavoidable emissions and accelerate agroforestry projects across the region
The Great Green Wall. An 8,000km belt of biodiversity across the width of Africa, soaking up the carbon in the atmosphere that’s accelerating catastrophic climate change, while servicing the needs of the people on the ground with economic opportunity and increased wellbeing.
It’s a very clear image in the mind’s eye; a sweeping patchwork of greenery wrapped around the vast continent, providing solutions to local and macro problems, such as climate change, lack of food security and scarce economic opportunities.
However, since the project was launched by a coalition of actors (including the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the World Bank, the Global Environment Agency, the EU and IUCN, among others) in 2007, it hasn’t yet proved to be a silver bullet for any of those issues.
Indeed, a status report published in September 2020 found that the initiative was facing significant problems in terms of governance, monitoring and reporting, funding, and technical requirements. A lack of high-level political support and coordination, an absence of monitoring and evaluation, an “insufficient, unpredictable and insecure funding predicament”, and a low plantation survival rate had severely hampered the project’s progress.
According to reports, the 11-nation project has only vegetated 16% of its 150 million hectare goal thus far.
But, at the turn of 2021, the Great Green Wall received a shot in the arm. To be more precise, a €14bn funding boost over the next five years from a consortium of national governments and banks, led by French president Emmanuel Macron.
Dubbed the ‘Great Green Wall Accelerator’, the funding and supporting initiatives will attempt to address the major barriers to progress by investing in small and medium farms in the area, prioritising land restoration and climate resilience, putting in place an effective governance framework, and capacity building.
After announcing its intention to become climate positive last spring, the International Olympic Committee has decided to realise its vision by contributing to the Great Green Wall by planting an ‘Olympic Forest’ to offset its unavoidable organisational emissions for the 2021-24 period.
The Olympic Forest will be planted across Senegal (where the Dakar 2026 Youth Olympic Games will take place) and neighbouring Mali with the support of Tree Aid, a UK- and Burkina Faso-based nonprofit with whom the IOC has an initial four-year partnership.
Around 355,000 trees will be planted across the two nations, covering 2,120 hectares and 90 villages.
“We needed a reliable organisation on the ground capable of delivering the Olympic Forest and who understood the Great Green Wall and the people who had been already working on this amazing initiative for so many years,” Michelle Lemaitre, the IOC’s head of sustainability, tells The Sustainability Report.
Lemaitre explains that the primary aim of the Olympic Forest is to sequester carbon through trees and soil used to restore degraded forest and farmland. The land is expected to sequester 200,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (carbon and other greenhouse gases), which is close to the IOC’s organisational emissions between 2016-19 and more than its 2024 emissions target, which will be 30% lower due to carbon reduction initiatives, giving the IOC a climate positive status.
The IOC has pledged to reduce its emissions further (by 45%) by 2030 in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, and will do so through reducing travel and optimising its owned buildings, such as its HQ in Lausanne, Switzerland, its warehouses and Olympic Museum.
As part of its climate positive strategy, the IOC has made it obligatory for host cities to deliver a climate positive legacy by reducing emissions as much as possible and offsetting more than their unavoidable emissions. The organisation expects to open up the Olympic Forest project to other actors within the Olympic Movement (host cities, international federations and National Olympic Committees) in the future, but the exact nature of these plans have not been decided yet.
Aside from the climate aspect of the Olympic Forest, Lemaitre explains that the project was selected for its “strong social component”.
“Land degradation is the biggest crisis for people in this part of the drylands of Africa,” Tom Skirrow, chief executive of Tree Aid, says. “It has really just got to the point where they are no longer able to support themselves or their families through farming. There are more droughts, more floods and their resilience is being reduced.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, four in five people depend directly on land for survival. In an effort to maximise their crop yield, many farm so intensively that the soil fertility and quality decreases significantly, impeding their future agricultural opportunities. This impacts the farmer economically, and reduces food security in the region.
“This is a mixed forest project,” Skirrow adds, “and what they call ‘parkland region’. What we’re not trying to do is get farmers off their land and plant trees. It’s about getting those communities to bring trees into their farmland and get the benefits through agroforestry.”
Agroforestry is a type of farming in which food or other important crops can be cultivated under a forest canopy, increasing opportunities for food production and decreasing the need for farmers to deforest to make ends meet.
Skirrow acknowledges that the name ‘Great Green Wall’ can be a “double-edged sword” as many people will expect a “blanket line of trees” when, in actual fact, “it’s a mosaic of different land systems, including denser forests, but also agroforestry parklands with maybe 150 trees per hectare”.
But the most important thing, both Lemaitre and Skirrow agree, is the tangible impact the Olympic Forest will make. Tree Aid will put in place a “solid and robust” monitoring and evaluation system and talk to the farmers to “understand what their current socio-economic situation” is.
Tree Aid will measure farmers’ crop yields and analyse their income from non-timber forest products through a tool designed to “demonstrate quantifiable changes” at the social level, but also the environmental level in terms of species diversity.
“What we want to have achieved is that the people on the ground have received the social benefits that the Great Green Wall itself is advancing,” Lemaitre explains. “And through our collaboration we’ve drawn attention to climate change, the impacts of climate change, and that people can see and make the connection that we can build a better world through sport.”
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Image credit: Tree Aid