Under the Cotton Tree – Part 2

Freetown Fuelwood Crisis

by Dato’ Chong Peng Wah

Due to the lack of alternatives and over dependence on fuelwood, all forms of wood-based resources are exploited for domestic cooking, salt-making, fish-drying, housing and other uses. Many resourceless African women and children gather firewood and fetch water on a daily basis. Charity: water an NGO claims that ” In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year walking for water “. If this estimate is correct, the corresponding time spent in firewood gathering must be equally astronomical.  On Sundays the woodcutters’ symphony could by heard across the Western Hills. Familiar rhythmic “tok-tok-tok” sounds followed by an occasional momentary lull and then the inevitable crashing sound of falling treephoto firewoods.  As nearby forests are degraded or depleted, villagers travel  farther to collect firewood. Older Malaysians who had experienced the harsh Japanese Occupation could perhaps empathize better with the plight of the Freetown folks. Those who have access to cooking gas, fuel, electricity and piped water tend to take such amenities for granted.

Alleviating the growing fuelwood crisis through mitigatory measures and reforestation are imperatives that could no longer be ignored if the adverse socio-economic consequences of inaction were to be avoided.  Consequently our proposal to bring the mangroves under management plays a pivotal role in addressing environmental erosion and resource depletion.  As the country is rich in minerals like rutile, gold and precious stones like diamond many inland riverine forests are destroyed by surface mining. To compound the problem large tracts of swamplands are converted to paddy fields and other uses. Unregulated mining activities and wanton greed have all but brought the economies of many West African countries to their knees – a condition known as “resource curse”.

We have to qualify, quantify, and map the distribution of the remaining mangroves in Sierra Leone. Based on such findings, to propose action plans, institutional and policy frameworks and other supportive measures. Malaysian foresters are au fait with mangrove management as compared to the West Africans, consequently the technical aspect was never an issue. For now we are concerned with the basic “nuts and bolts” of revitalizing the parts into a functioning whole from the “supply” aspect. Ideally one should look at both the supply and demand aspects. Getting the tribals to act collectively is difficult. This social dimension will be dealt with in the second mission.

Two national counterparts and a Danish APO assisted me. An area of degraded mangroves in Lower Allen Town, about 9 km from Freetown was selected for training purposes and as a demo-site. On one occasion in the swamp we heard the distressful cries of women ahead of us. Thinking that they needed help we trudged energetically in their direction. The harder we pushed ahead, the more frantic were their cries and it seemed like they were avoiding us – when “lo and behold” we felt upon several cowering women in a state of total undress!!. How revealingly embarrassing!!! Little did we realize that the villagers were accustomed to gather oystersphoto oyster and fish traps in the nude at low tide.  One could well imagine the unsavoury thoughts that crossed my mind. “A lecherous consultant led a group of testosterone-charged trainees to ogle at naked women in the swamp!!”. What surprised me most was that Amadou, my senior counterpart, could not understand what the women were yelling about. To divert our attention we back tracked and plunged into a serious discussion on oyster cultivation. In retrospect this was not my first encounter, I met some tall damsels, who were graceful like gazelles, north of Yelibuya island in Kambia district.

Speaking of surprises, we need a good dose of humor to survive anywhere. The place, people and culture were so far removed from my normal perception of African life that it took my breath away. I had to adapt quickly to the new reality on the ground and move out of my comfort zone to interact with the locals. Luckily most of them could speak English – though sometimes just enough to be nicely misunderstood.

In the field we ate common village food comprising rice, fried fish and a reddish green “concoction” cooked with plenty of oil. photo fish curryIn West Africa cassava root is pounded, mixed with boiling water to form a thick paste. The leaves are similarly prepared and cooked with plenty of unrefined palm oil into a greenish looking curry. It is quite tasty but then again it an acquired taste. Like after eating “petai” (stink beans) the body emits a kind of odor – eating cassava leaves produces the same effect. Bush meat is a common form of protein in the interior. Villagers are accustomed to prepare food cooked with plenty of red palm oil as it keeps longer and goes well with rice. This observation parallels my experience in Myanmar.  Unrefined red palm oil, a semi-solid, is locally available and extensively used throughout tropical West Africa. It is the most important ingredient that defines African cooking delicacies.

Most of a consultant’s time is spent gathering information from different sources. Ultimately his work involves interaction with NGOs, local agencies, target groups and other experts. Both empirical and basic resource data are needed to articulate a meaningful management plan. Lack of access to relevant information, maps and reports hampered my work. But then again life is full of surprises and serendipity.  Being in the right place, at the right time and gotten the right message make all the difference. Let me recall and recount. Normally after dinner I would take a long stroll and occasionally would buy some peanuts, bananas or oranges from the road-side vendors. I noticed that the peanut bags were torn pages from very informative textbooks. Reference books that would normally be kept in ministerial book shelfs and library archives were recycled as grocery wrappers!.  Putting my misgivings aside, I followed up. The vendor assured me he could furnish me with maps and other needed textual information at a reasonable price. I dared not ask him where the material would come from. Our project library had several reports that were in the main a disjunctive regurgitation of earlier consultant findings. A complete coverage of local knowledge and facts was needed for meaningful analysis.  Soon I had an adequate collection of maps, printed materials and subject matter documents for less than what I would have paid for an evening meal!. I was euphoric.

The “resource definition” phase required special equipment, technical support and expertise that the project could not provide. Fortunately I met a Philippine UN Volunteer who had access to a digital photocopier with reduce/enlarge features.  He assisted in map reproduction and documentation.  More importantly, I recruited a lady air-photo interpreter in the Surveys and Lands Department. We reviewed the available air-photos, and drew up an air-photo type interpretation code using stereo-pairs for reference, Soon she was on her way towards compiling the country-wide forest cover map using stereo-plotters, map projectors and planimeters in her workplace. Some of photogrammetric equipment remained in unopened boxes, while those that were installed were gathering dust.

Alice took several weeks to complete her task under my supervision. In happier times, she would probably be gainfully employed as a semi-professional in an organized geo-mapping team. It was sad, therefore, to observe her current sorry state. Her talents were misused and under-used. Without an operating budget, nothing seemed to be happening while at her workplace the state of neglect and disrepair screamed for attention.  She earned just enough to keep her body and soul together. Most civil servants had to moonlight to survive. When I reflected upon the ridiculous situation at our headquarters in Rome, where our bosses appeared to hang out on a limb to please their glamorous secretaries for fear of overworking them or inadvertently threading upon their sensitivities, I felt doubly blessed to have gotten congenial Alice as my assistant. Being an educated Christian Creole trained at ITC, Netherlands. I could sense her suppressed pride and joy at the opportunity to work professionally again. In spite of her quiet nature, I could sense the momentary delight that would escape from her otherwise expressionless face whenever I commended her on her meticulous work. Most of the time, her preoccupation and forlorn attempt to escape her sorry state seemed to weigh heavily upon her mind. She wore her burden daily but none too well – for even a busy consultant could see through her mask of equanimity. Such mental strength was truly inspirational. Only consummate faith in her church kept her neurons and synapses from falling apart.

I had a Sharp “portable” bread box computer with a thermal printer. It was a sluggish monstrosity that cost me “an arm and a leg” to buy and weighed over 5 kg. Yet in the late 1980s it was considered an epitome of computing technology. I used it for statistical analysis, curve fitting, data compilation and word processing. My computer savvy friends in Rome taught me the intricate MS-DOS commands and how to deal with hardware/software hiccups. We lunched together at the cafeteria or discuss our problems during our coffee breaks. Internet went public in 1989, so the only means to acquire computer skills was by learning from books, articles or through sharing with friends. The social disconnect that characterizes the new generation of computer nerds had not begun.

Being computer literate enables me to handle number crunching tasks, rest when tired, resume work at odd hours and make text changes easily. I know consultants who do not type nor word-process – they have to wine and dine their secretaries to complete their reports in time. Consultants are paid only upon the submission of approved reports.  Some would yell their heads off but finally capitulated by hiring outside help. Our project secretary offered to assist but I found her distracting.  However to please her I promised to make a church donation.

Several labour intensive and repetitive chores were subcontracted to technicians paid from my DSA as it was much more than I could spend.  This enabled me to concentrate on policy issues, institutional framework and strategic planning issues, as well as to organize field work, training programmes and seminar More importantly I had time enough to work on my report based on a Table of Contents format. Consultants are supposed to follow guidelines, house styles, etc., and formats for different kinds of report.

“The mangrove formation is the gift of the land and sea. Mangroves depend on terrestrial and tidal waters for their nourishment, and silt deposits from upland erosion as substrate for support. The tides nourish the forests, and mineral rich river-borne sediments enrich the swamp. Thus the mangroves derive their form and nurture from both marine and terrestrial influences.” (1)

The proverbial phrase “time and tide wait for no man” is embedded in the DNA of those dependent upon the bounty of the sea and mangroves for their subsistence. The daily diurnal tides, which change according to lunar influences, demand a strict working discipline that must be observed in a timely manner. We plan and organize our activities according to the tides, taking into account the dynamics of riverine currents, deltaic configurations and geological formations. In Costa Rica we felt the effects of an earth tremor on a stationary boat. Our boat was carried gently up and down by the rolling waves that travelled up stream. It was surreal.

The project staff were trained in forest inventory and other technical aspects. With the completion of the mangrove vegetation map the next step was to assess the condition and potential of forests. This is done through selective forest inventory, measurement of sample plots and statistical analysis. Quantification of the growing stock is referred to as forest inventory while forest mensuration deals with the measurement of single or group of trees. Sample plots were established in the productive mangroves along Maswari – Ribbi creek in the south. We travelled to Sherbo Island in the south and several coastal villages along the way. Our trip to the north took us to Yelibuya Island and the Kambia district which bordered with French speaking Guinea. A record of these visits will be elaborated in Part III.

Footnote : (1)  FAO Forestry Paper 117: Mangrove Forest Management Guidelines, 1994. ITC  = International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, Netherlands.; APO = Assistant Professional Officer. DSA. = Daily Subsistence Allowance;

(To be continued. Part III)

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