Fighting back against climate change, communities in Mali and Senegal rally around Olympic Forest

March 22, 2023

To mark the International Day of Forests, we visit the Olympic Forest project in Senegal. Members of the local communities, who have been hit hard by climate change, tell us how the Olympic Forest can help rebuild their lives.

In remote, rural areas across Mali and Senegal, where in 2021 the IOC began its project to plant the Olympic Forest, local communities have been suffering the effects of deforestation and rising temperatures.

Drought, flash floods and the slow degradation of land have all made farming harder, putting pressure on the local population, and pushing many into poverty. Deforestation has deprived communities of vital protection and sources of income.

Two years later, with 72,505 trees now planted, community members in the villages talk hopefully about the future. Trying to rebuild their livelihoods, hit hard by climate change, they are rallying behind the Olympic Forest.

Aiming to restore the land and open up sustainable income opportunities, the Olympic Forest project will see some 600,000 native trees grown across 90 villages in the two countries.

We’ve been farming since I was a little girl,” says Rouguiyatou Diallo, who lives in the village of Sinthiou, an area impacted by climate change and deforestation. “At that time, we had so much water and it rained a lot. But I have noticed that from 2006 up to now there is no subsistence in the forest. There is no grass, trees are being cut down and there are frequent fires. In the last few years, even if you were to farm, you wouldn’t produce enough.

We hope, God willing, that in the future the new trees will stand for a long time so that our children and grandchildren can benefit from them.

The project has been working with local communities right from the start, making sure they are willing to be part of it, involving them in the species selection process, and equipping them with knowledge to ensure they can maintain the trees in the future.

There used to be many trees here such as eucalyptus, jujube, baobab, and fruits used to be available in the forest,” said Seydou Olel Kah, Mayor of Beele in the Tambacounda region. “The forest also used to be dense and full of animals. Trees were very tall. None of that can be seen today.

The Olympic Forest project has come to the villages, bringing trees, managing people, helping them until they are able to plant trees to develop and restore the forest to the best it can be.

The indigenous species selected provide fruits, nuts and seeds, which can be eaten directly, but also sold at the market.

They [The Olympic Forest team] plant trees and restore the forest to prevent fires, so that when the trees grow, we can benefit from them,” says Diamilatou Guiro, who lives in the village of Arigabo, where she chairs the agroforestry grantees group. “When the mango trees grow, you can pick some and eat them. You can also take the fruits home or sell them to have an income,” she adds.

Spread over a combined area of about 2,000 hectares, the planted trees will absorb carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, but also improve soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, and provide shade for people, animals and plants.

Women have limited access to healthcare, education and jobs in Mali and Senegal, and they are often excluded from managing the land and its crops. The project puts emphasis on involving female members of the community in the process. It is mostly women who are involved in creating non-timber forest products, collecting fruits and nuts that they can use to grow additional income.

The project promotes the representation of women in management committees, in order to provide them with income opportunities and increase their presence and say in managing communal resources. This has helped improve their standing in both the home and the community.

Almost all the women are part of the project because they know its importance now and in the future,” says Samba Traoré, who grew up in Diyabougou Mossi, where he is now the head of the village and an agroforestry grantee.

They know that if they take good care of the trees, it will only benefit them and their children.

Malado Thiam, a woman who lives in the village of Sinthiou Fissa, where she chairs the agroforestry grantees group, says she is determined to make the project work for her community and her children.

You brought us something useful and you taught us wisdom,” she said. “If God allows us to live long enough, we will benefit because there will be baobab fruits, tamarind, jujubes, mangos and guava.

Tree Aid and La Lumiere, a local NGO, are implementing partners, frequently assessing the project to monitor progress and the health of the trees.

The buy-in of local communities is the most important factor contributing to the success of a project, and in the case of the Olympic Forest, the community involvement so far has been tremendous,” says Tree Aid Project Officer Joseph Diassana.

The local communities are participating in the process of identifying suitable land and tree species, and agreeing on how the land will be managed in order for it to benefit the community and the environment. We also conduct regular training sessions to ensure they know how to care for the trees themselves, long after the project itself is over.”

Africa has done little to provoke the climate crisis in terms of emitting greenhouse gases, but is one of the regions that is the hardest hit by its impacts. Across the Sahel region, average temperatures have risen by nearly 1°C in the last 30 years, almost twice the global average.

The Olympic Forest is part of a much bigger initiative – the Great Green Wall – which restores degraded landscapes across Africa’s Sahel region. It is also an important element of the IOC’s climate strategy, which includes reducing the organisation’s carbon footprint in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

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