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Struggling with sustainability in Sierra Leone by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | May 12, 2014 Comments Off on Struggling with sustainability in Sierra Leone by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

The village has a handful of cement houses and a new cement mosque, but most structures are made of mud bricks with a roof of tin or palm thatch. One of the soundest structures is an agricultural extension station built by an international development agency; it has sat abandoned since the agency ceased its operations here a few years ago. No house – even the cement ones – has a kitchen since cooking is done outside over a “three stone” fire; a pot sits on three rocks pushed close together and large sticks of wood pushed into the space between the rocks supplies the fuel. The village is off the grid since there is not much of a grid in the entire country. The largest two cities in country have some electrical power some of the time, but our plane’s arrival in Sierra Leone was delayed for a day since the international airport in the capital city of Freetown does not have lights to allow for landings or takeoffs after dark. A couple of houses in Sembehun have a generator; if their owners haul gasoline from one of the larger cities they’ll be able to have electricity for a few hours. Running water means that the woman or girl hauling it in a bucket from the village well (drilled a few years ago by UNICEF) hurried more than usual.

Somewhat incongruously, many people in the village have cell phones. They are generally very basic, inexpensive models; virtually no one has a smart phone. While some phones can at least theoretically access the internet, web connectivity is virtually nil outside of internet cafes in the largest cities. On the other hand, it is easy to buy a charge for one’s cell phone or purchase extra call minutes at clapboard “top up” booths the seem to be present in even small villages like Sembehun. It is strange to see a woman cooking over an open fire pause to take a call. But the ubiquity of cell phones demonstrates that technologies can be quickly adopted in the developing world if they provide a service that people value and if there is profit to be made after investing in necessary infrastructure.

The road as well as most of the village itself is red dirt and rock. The primary school’s playing “field” is also bare red dirt. Lori knew that soccer balls would be treasured here; the one we brought is now the school’s only regulation ball. The school itself is a cement structure with six identical rooms of about 300 square feet each for Levels 1-6. The classrooms have an open window, a chalkboard, and benches and desks – about the same technology as an American classroom before the Revolutionary War. The school has two teachers who are (sometimes) paid by the government, and two “volunteer” teachers for its six levels of classes. The volunteer teachers hope to use their experience to get paying jobs someday; they also get some fees that the school charges its students. Students whose families do not pay fees are often beaten when they arrive for classes. Middle school and high school students are absent; the village does not have schools for these ages, so most families try to scrape together fees and send their teens off to live with relatives or friends while they attend school in bigger town.

A trail leads from the village to the nearby Sewa River, which serves multiple purposes for village residents. Women carry clothes to wash on the rocks along its banks. A few of the men sometimes fish from dugout canoes. But mostly along the river people look for diamonds and gold. Sierra Leone has deposits of volcanic kimberlite, the only type of rock that includes small inclusions of super-hard pure carbon – diamonds. Over the years the river has eroded kimberlite outcrops far upstream, meaning that its sediment deposits contain a tiny smattering of placer diamonds (and a little gold too). A few international mining companies have exploited these deposits; we visited a former mining site nearby where a South African company had dug out two huge pits near the river, sifting the sediment through sorting machines to separate the diamonds. The huge open pits and related tailings piles are now partially covered by forests of invasive bamboo. We walked around an abandoned village of containers on the hilltop above the pits, some fashioned with air conditioners to make the temporary living quarters more comfortable for the foreign managers. Curiously, a security guard, complete with a uniform tee shirt with printed-on badge, appeared to accompany us. He has lived at the site since 2006 – with his brother and a goat for company, he informed us. While the mining company is clearly not going to return to the played-out pits and rusting containers, the lone security guard most likely provides a convenient and inexpensive cover story that the mining company may someday return, thereby absolving the firm of any need to comply with the country’s requirement – on paper at least – to reclaim affected land after mining activity ceases.

Local people mine as well. We visited another series of somewhat smaller pits along the river. Villagers and men from the surrounding area dig by hand through the topsoil down to ancient gravel deposits, then sluice the gravel in the river to find diamonds. Those pits will also never be filled.  We even saw an amazing makeshift diving operation to mine the riverbed itself. A dugout canoe with a few men and a gas-powered pump anchored in a calm area of the river, where one of the men put a plastic hose in his mouth and jumped overboard. The pump sent air down the small tube to the man deep at the bottom of the pit dug below the water, where he filled buckets with gravel that the men in the boat hauled to the surface. The hose popped off the pump a couple of times while we watched; one of the men in the boat casually reattached it. At the shore, a woman panned the sand along the river looking for flecks, or if she was very lucky, a small nugget of placer gold.

The mines have displaced some of the farms that used to surround the village. The staple food in Sierra Leone is rice, which is typically grown on uplands where the forest has been cut and burned. This method can produce only one or two crops before the soil is exhausted an area can usually be used again if it is allowed to lie fallow for about 7 years), and of course relies on plentiful rainfall during the May-August rainy season. My wife’s job during her Peace Corps stint here was to try to convince people to convert swampy area to rice paddies that could produce more dependable crops without slashing and burning the forest. She was often thwarted by land ownership patterns near her town; because the chief owned much of the nearby land, others had little incentive to put significant labor into improving agriculture in areas they did not own. The family Lori knows owns significant areas of land near Sembehun. They are mining some of the land, and planted a palm oil plantation on another portion because the oil is also ubiquitous in cooking here. They are just starting to plant cacao on another portion of their land since the world demand for chocolate is continuing to skyrocket. All cacao is exported; many people in Sierra Leone do not know what chocolate is.

There are essentially no jobs in or near the village. Men typically mine or work on their farms; a few young men earn money by doing things such as fishing or ferrying people along the bumpy dirt road on impossibly loaded small motorbikes. Many dream of a job with an international aid organization or NGO, which pay extremely well compared with any other occupation. While immediately after the war such jobs were not uncommon, these entities and their various projects and jobs have mostly gone on to new crises in other areas of the world. Women cook, wash clothes, carry water, and do other domestic chores. The village women’s group was excited to hear that the internet could be a source of funding when Lori talked about Kiva and similar websites, but the group had little idea of what sort of venture it might pursue to make money, much less how to prepare a business plan.

Medical care is extremely basic. The village has a small clinic run by a part-time nurse. However, stories of people suddenly dying of what in many cases are probably preventable causes are common.

A week from now someone will be serving me a drink as I jet along at 39,000 feet back toward a world where I almost take for granted food, electricity, clean water, health care, and other basic necessities of life – not to mention comforts and recreation that people here in Sembehun likely cannot even conceive of. It is precisely the astounding juxtaposition between life here in Sierra Leone and the way we live in the developed world that most resonates when I pull my thoughts away from the unrelenting African heat or the lack of indoor plumbing and consider issues of sustainability.

We have been very quick to develop a globalized economy that mostly benefits the developed world, but of course we’re reluctant to also globalize the economic, environmental, and social costs of our current system.  It is not sustainable on a global basis for richer countries to ruthlessly exploit the natural resources of some of the poorest countries on earth – even as far as displacing subsistence agricultural production. And not only do the appetites of the industrial world often leave the environment a shambles in places like Sierra Leone, the carbon emissions of richer countries put at risk the very lives of people who literally depend on the weather to eat. And while the disparity between rich and poor in the United States has become a significant political issue, most people in the U.S. never consider the even more stark social disparities between a villager in Sierra Leone and almost anyone in America.

It strikes me that globalizing sustainability is very much like Aldo Leopold’s prescription for protecting ecosystems: humans need to see themselves as part of the ecosystem rather than apart from it. So too we in the developed world need to see ourselves as part of a global community that cannot function properly with the economic, environmental, and social disparities that are immediately evident in places like Sembehun.

But being here has also allowed me to think more about the role of people and governments in Sierra Leone and other developing countries in pursuing a more prosperous and sustainable future. As is unfortunately quite typical in these nations, corruption is rampant in almost all aspects of government, commerce, and even everyday life. The people of Sierra Leone benefit little from exploitation of the country’s ample natural resources in significant part because their leaders divert those benefits for themselves. True democracy and the rule of law exist mostly in the country’s relatively few textbooks. We’ve even heard stories about corruption routinely faced by average people, such as students who find that their grades have dropped and less able peers’ marks have risen after payoffs or even sexual favors. Such breakdowns in legal and social norms – from the top to the bottom – have and will continue to make up one of the country’s most significant hurdles – and one that must largely be surmounted from within.

Even the attitudes of people in the village sometimes don’t help matters. The women’s group was very interested to hear that money might be available to them, but less enthusiastic to hear that it was in the for of a microloan that had to be paid back. When they brainstormed about what enterprise they might pursue, they hit upon a vague notion of a co-op that would grow vegetables that would benefit Sembehun and surrounding villages. But it is interesting to consider why the group not has done this already when they themselves are keenly aware of their needs and know ways to possibly meet them. Capital necessary to get such an effort off the ground would be fairly minimal; one woman already has a small but thriving trade in onions that she grows on a small plot of land along the road. It is certainly true that the developed world bears much of the responsibility for problems in developing countries and thus must shoulder much of the burden of remedial responses. However, it also seems to me now that true sustainable development will also require enterprise from within developing countries themselves.

Bottom line: we’re all in this together.




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under: General, International

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