Friday, February 13, 2009

Environmental Degradation in My Community

I’ve been in my community for nearly nine months now, learning about the comings and goings. My focus as directed by Peace Corps is to learn about health problems and to educate the community about solutions. So far my health education here has gone all right. I’ve done some small projects and some larger ones, with varying success. I’m going to continue with that, however I’ve recently decided that the greatest threat to my community is not health related, but environmental.

Probably a better way to put it is that my community is a threat to the environment. I wrote a post about this topic several months ago, but I think I understand the situation a little better now.

The problem as identified by the community is the deterioration of soil quality. It’s easy to see what’s happening when you look at a river or stream: the water runs brown here. Topsoil is flowing off the earth, leaving rocks behind. Poorer soil quality has a number of deleterious effects on people’s lives here. As sheepherding is the primary source of income here, people need grass for the sheep to eat. Since the soil is in such bad shape, less grass grows. Agriculture is also key to people’s lives here and poorer soil means that output from the land decreases. Poorer soil also means that trees are less likely to sprout, making it harder for people to collect wood. Finally, less water is absorbed by the earth, meaning that reservoir fed springs go dry quicker.

I recently visited one of my outer douars. It is 28km from my village along a terrible road. On a truck it took us nearly five hours to get from this village to souq, which gives you a sense of how isolated these people are. They hardly have any trees to cut down for wood. They have exhausted their supply. People buy wood from a nearby village (which is more expensive than they can afford) or they burn little bushes and sticks. 10 years ago this village had wood and now they have none. I worry that the entire region could become like this if the resources are not better managed. No wood for burning, no grass for sheep, no soil for farming. The region would become uninhabitable.

What’s the cause of all this? One major issue is woodcutting. Trees and their roots hold the soil together, so when they’re cut down, the soil can be washed away by rain or snow melt. Everyone in my community has a wood stove in their house (or two or three). The stoves are running nearly all day during the winter, keeping the house warm. The stoves are used in the summer as well for cooking. So that has a big impact on trees. Individuals aren’t the only ones at fault, however. The Commune (local government) sells licenses to woodcutting companies who come back into our mountains with big trucks and chainsaws. Everyday I see truckloads of wood leaving the community.

Another cause is overgrazing. It’s hard to get a straight answer on the question, but I believe that the number of sheep has grown in recent years as people’s standard of living has improved. More sheep puts a greater strain on the existing resources, depleting them quicker. Trees are less likely to make it from seedling to adult.

So what’s the solution? Earlier I wrote that changing stoves in people’s houses to more efficient models was the best solution, but I’m not so sure now. The savings on wood would be marginal and convincing people to make the switch would be difficult or impossible. Furthermore, that wouldn’t really get to the root of the problem.

Another solution is reforestation. The Ministry of Forests and Water will give trees away to communities for free. They have millions of dollars budgeted for reforestation. If the sheepherders of a community join together and agree to not herd their sheep on the area that has been reforested, the Ministry will compensate the herders. This doesn’t solve the issue of rapid deforestation on the part of companies and individuals, but it is a start. Any successful reforestation would require the community to think about resource management, which would be greatly beneficial.

One problem with this solution is that the money will probably not be distributed fairly or equitably throughout the community. People with power will probably be better compensated than those without.

Another problem is the lack of alternative income generating sources in the region. There really aren’t many options for work. So if people give up herding, how are they going to feed their family? It’s a legitimate issue.

But for me, the biggest obstacle is how ingrained sheepherding is in the culture here. Herding has been here for hundreds of years. Flocks of sheep have been explained to me as bank accounts. When a family has extra money, they buy some sheep and add to their flock. When a family is short on money, they sell sheep. This mentality suggests that even if an alternative income-generating source were found, it would not displace sheepherding. In fact, it’s conceivable that with more money coming in, people would simply deposit their extra money in their bank accounts (by buying more sheep).

This issue is fascinating because it’s similar to the issue facing the planet and its inhabitants at the moment. The population is facing a long-term threat (but size and time of the treat are vague) due to excesses. Any worthwhile solution will require collective sacrifice. Compounding the issue, the benefits and sacrifices of fixing the problem are disproportionately distributed throughout the population. And just like the planet, my Commune faces a lack of central government to take control of the problem and strategic rivalries that further complicate it.

So what to do? Not sure. The threat is an existential one and I think people understand that. I haven’t sat down with anyone and tried to figure out a solution, but I’m going to start that process soon. The health issues are nice and bring marginal improvements to people’s lives, but this is the real issue for the community. Also, since this is a problem identified by the community (rather than by me), it’s a better issue to focus on.


This past week has been warmer. It gives me (false) hope that winter is coming to an end. Not just my community, but the entire country has been getting tons of precipitation recently. Crops in the north of the country have been ruined. My house had some serious leaks for a while. My community collected money from everyone to buy a sheep. We’re going to slaughter the sheep and ask God for less rain.

My work has been picking up, which is nice. Probably from now until next winter should be my most productive period as a volunteer. I might even be busy at times.


MMSD said...

Hey there. I'm about to join you there in Morocco as a health volunteer, and over the past few months I've been reading your blog religiously. My family has also found it helpful. Your posts are always thoughtful and it has been very illumination to read about your struggles and progress there. I'm looking forward to meeting you and seeing what Morocco has in store for me!

maryellen said...

hi dunc, great post. breaks my heart, buying a sheep to ask for less rain. you are so right that your commune is a microcosm for the larger changes facing humanity. those of us in affluent countries may need to look to the examples in communities livign closer to the land for hints on what to do once the oil winds down...cutting down all the trees sure probably seemed like a good idea at the time. some communities get it right and others do not. my guess it is visionary and selfless leadership that makes the difference. love from retreat, your ma

Uneasy Findings said...

Hi Duncan,

I'm a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I served in the Dominican Republic from 2004 to 2006. It's amazing how many similarities there are across countries...or rather how the same problems can exist just in a different cultural context. I lived in a mountain valley community where individuals set fires in the hillsides in order to clear land for farming...which led of course to landslides and a heap of other environmental issues. I'm curious about your water grant? Is it a SPA grant?

nchogu said...

hi duncan, I am from Kenya and our largest forest and water catchment area (the Mau) cover is the topic for bickering among politicians. here everything is political. just wnat to say thanks for this post. it has given me more reasons to try and convince my fellow kenyans the need for the Mau. some M.Ps (members of parliament) are arguing that evicting people from the forest is wrong. that is as far as their argument gets. no one goes further to give an alternative solution.

well, i feel evicting the people should not be the only measure since big chunks of land in the forest are being used for large scale farming. the forest is a shadow of its former self. Kenya relies mostly on hydroelectric power. the government has been forced to put in place a four days a week power rationing programe because the water level in two dams has gone too low to generate power.

the future looks grim. some areas in kenya are facing prolonged droughts as a consequence of receeding forest covers. i do not got have any data on the levels of air pollution but i think it must be high because people are suffering from air pollution related complications now more often than they did before.

i was reading a preview of the book Facing Global Environmental Change this morning. there is a chapter on 'Societal impacts of desertification: Migration and environmental Refugees.

honestly i had never heard of environmental refugees before and the thought of people being forced to migrate as a result of environmental degradation had never crossed my mind before. i had seen it happen and heard people talk about moving from an area because the soil was not arable anymore but i had never thought of it i those terms i guess.

how many people know for instance that there are civilisations that have collapsed due to environmental degradation?

I hope your community recovers from the deforestation. i also hope for this and the future generations' sake that Kenya's government0000 awakens to the cry of our abused earth. otherwise there will be few places left for the environmental refugees to turn to

thank you for your efforts and concern for the environment.

nchogu said...
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