Green against the desert

Published in the dossier of November 2017

Backing onto the Sahara, the Sahel is a fragile place. Under the effect of drought and the degradation of the natural environment, this extremely poor rural setting has been giving ground to desertification for many years. It is coming back to life thanks to the Great Green Wall. Launched on the initiative of eleven African states, this vast forest regeneration program is destined to stretch over more than 7,600 km, like an immense shrublike mosaic linking Dakar to Djibouti. A “crazy project” but sensible enough to be closely studied by researchers from the OHMI Téssékéré*, supported by the Veolia foundation. In the north of Senegal, a pilot area where the plantations began in 2008, botanists, anthropologists, geographers and doctors are analyzing the impacts of reforestation on the environment, the local economy and health. Little by little, efforts to regreen the Senegalese steppe are helping improve the everyday life of Fula communities. Arnaud Späni’s images bear witness to these changes: hope is being reborn, in the shade of the acacias and desert date palms.


Born in Bangui (Central African Republic), Arnaud Späni grew up on the African continent. A formative experience that gave him a thirst for travel and a desire for engagement. After getting involved in the international aid sector and setting up hydroelectric power plants around the world, he took up editorial photography. A globetrotting allrounder, his lens sweeps from environmental conservation through aeronautics history to the appreciation of lands and cultures.

Arnaud Späni, close focus

Arnaud Späni is a discreet observer, attentive to detail and concerned with authenticity. Camera in hand, he remains true to this stance, which runs through his reports, especially those on Africa, of which he has an in-depth knowledge. Assigned to do a piece on the Great Green Wall, the photographer was keen to follow the beginnings of this extraordinary project in Senegal. It took him more than one stay in the Ferlo region to capture the slow rhythm of the plantation campaigns, from preparing the seedlings to planting them in the rainy season.

“I was fortunate to also be able to follow the scientific investigations and the activities of the Senegalese army, in charge of protecting the planted plots,” explains Arnaud.

It was also an opportunity for him to be part of the everyday life of the Fula, farming people with whom he is familiar, who live throughout the Sahel.

“I was interested in the social and family organization of these communities and the hierarchical structures in their villages. Speaking a few words of their language allowed me to meet lots of people.”

Arnaud has shot an intimate portrait of the pastoral lifestyle of these tribes. His images also suggest the unexpected vitality of this environment. For in a semiarid environment, “often just a little water and a little shade are all that’s needed for nature to reassert itself,” he states.


* A human-environment observatory (OHM) is an interdisciplinary structure focused on studying the effects of strong human action on an environment. The OHMI (I for international) Téssékéré is run jointly by the CNRS and the University of Dakar, in synergy with the National Senegalese Agency for the Great Green Wall.