DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pulling away a black plastic pot, a forest guard holds up a short, wispy sapling before dozens of people.
He shows the crowd how to hold the tree without damaging it, then places it in a hole lining a forest path and covers the roots with soil before pressing them down gently. Soon all of the crowd are busy planting.
"If a tree is cut, one needs to be planted in its place. But people who cut trees in Senegal tend not to replace them as they lack the necessary skills," said Maimouna Seck, one young member of the planting crew, as she wiped away beads of sweat forming on her face.
A recent university graduate, she said she learned about the need for reforestation in school, and had come out to "fill the void others have created".
In Africa's Sahel, planting and protecting trees is crucial to maintaining rainfall patterns, providing cool places for people in a hot environment and helping curb climate change.
On the edge of Dakar, Lead Senegal, an environmental NGO, is planting acacia trees to restore the shrinking and degraded Mbao forest, seen as Dakar's "green lung".
Last month, 150 volunteers planted 1,000 trees in a day, on the opening day of the initiative.
Eight-year-old Katia Elouga was one of those taking part. "It is my first time in the forest," she said, kneeling in the soil. "Today I learned that trees shouldn't be cut and wasted, and that it's important to plant more."
Her mother, Christella Elouga, explained that she likes "this sort of initiative because nature belongs to all of us".
"Nobody owns it but we all need it and benefit from it – especially Mbao, as the 'lung of Dakar,'" she said.
Planted by the government in 1908 as part of a reforestation project to halt land erosion and replenish the soil, the forest is listed as "classified", a status that gives it some level of protection.
Activities such as cutting trees, or removing roots, leaves or fruit, require government permission – although that does not always prevent people entering the forest at night, said Moussa Fall, a consultant for the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.
Since being planted, the forested area has shrunk to 700 hectares today, from 815 hectares in 1940, as the government has dedicated some areas of land to new roads and other public works projects, Fall said.
Bad roads in the area in the early 2000s meant garbage trucks couldn't access some villages, leading to the forest becoming "an uncontrolled garbage dump" for waste from the area, Fall explained.
An 11-kilometre perimeter wall built around the forest in 2004 has reduced dumping and illegal logging. But Malick Geye, a spokesman for Lead Senegal, believes protection of the forest must go further.
"This is the only green space the city has left. We are raising the alarm for the population to maintain the forest, and the government to continue to protect it, as we don't want to see more parcels of land disappear," he said.
That is particularly important as real estate developers convince farmers and other landowners to sell their land to build apartment towers, turning Dakar into what he termed "a concrete jungle".
Urban expansion is a threat to the Mbao forest, he said, and without it being protected the capital faces worsening air quality and other problems.
PRESERVING THE FOREST
Despite those concerns, the government in 2013 cut 35 hectares of forest to allow a toll road to pass through the forest.
Fall, however, believes the highway has "helped create awareness" of the forest. "Now people drive through it so they get a sense of the size of the forest even if they have never been to it," he said.
In addition, part of the funding for the highway – from partners including the World Bank – has been used by the government and NGOs to reforest 140 hectares of land in Mbao forest with over 58,000 plants of 20 different species, such as eucalyptus, cashew and acacia.
Another of the government's strategies entails allowing local populations to cultivate parcels of land throughout the forest, which makes them accountable for its protection and prevents it from becoming a dumping ground, Fall said.
He estimates that about 700 people cultivate 180 hectares of forest land. A three-hectare vegetable plot leased to a 22-member women's collective generated more than 12 million CFA (about $20,000) in 2015 from sales of carrots, turnips, cabbage and tomatoes, Fall said.
(Reporting by Emmanuelle Landais; editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)