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.