Monday, September 12, 2011

E is for Environmental Resource Management

E is indeed for Environmental Resource Management, which is my sector here in Peace Corps the Gambia. I think the name is pretty self-explanatory, so we won't get into that now.

but the question

and that's a toughie. i like to think that Peace Corps is relying on each volunteer, in their infinite wisdom and unique cultural understanding gained from living in their particular environment, to interpret their policies and act upon them as they see fit. it sounds fantastic, right?

unfortunately, i think the truth is, no one really quite knows. but, for heck of it, we'll go with what I said.

what ARE the environmental resource issues facing the Gambia today? at times, the question seems to be, what aren't? but i will gladly take this opportunity to harp on two of them and leave the rest of it to your imaginations.

you can refer to my earlier post (i believe the title is...i'm not fasting. and i made a quiz!) where i touch on a lot of rather alarming facts about deforestation. it's a huge problem in the Gambia, compounded by a population growing at an unchecked rate, and so far the response to this crisis has been, sadly, inadequate. the problem isn't just getting people to plant trees (though trust me, that can be a problem), it's getting people to fence them so they're not grazed by livestock (tying your animals doesn't happen outside of the rainy season), soil degradation caused by invasive species and over-farming, bushfires happening in the dry season due to people burning their fields, illegal felling of trees for various nefarious purposes, and cutting of trees as a byproduct of other measures (clearing fields, harvesting oysters, etc). there are a lot of things volunteers do to try and combat deforestation; the forestry training another volunteer and i led for the dept of forestry for example (an exercise rather like herding cats...these aspiring foresters were very interested in their cellphones), tree-plantings (largely ceremonial affairs but nonetheless rewarding), education and outreach (Gambia All-School Tree Nursery Competition), and the introduction of alternative income generation/conservation practices (mudstoves that reduce firewood use, biochar, etc). but it's a tricky issue in the Gambia, because people know, deep down, the bush is disappearing, but they also need these trees to live their day-to-day lives. and it's difficult to resist the chance to sell firewood for money (good money, at that) when you don't have any money. so there's a lot of blaming and not a lot of progress, sadly. any volunteer who's worked on this can tell you that, no matter who you saw felling trees, they will tell you those trees were cut by the next village over. or by the Senegalese coming across the border. or...even worse... Nigerians. and that is the worst thing a person could do, how could they cut down these trees the village needs for their lives? and they didn't even replant!
and their indignation seems so genuine. it's quite the performance.

Waste Disposal
and we're talking about all kinds of waste here. solid waste. medical waste. toxic waste (if you count batteries and old cellphones as toxic. which i do). sewage. this problem, also, is compounded by the population boom and the rapid cultural changes the country is facing. up until the introduction of plastic bags (for arguments sake let's say that was 50 years ago) all the trash in the Gambia could be dropped on the ground and, within a matter of months or even days, it would biodegrade. and be gone. so there's entire generations of people out there who have been conditioned to think that dropping your trash on the ground is the proper way to dispose of it. but it's not going anywhere. and this is a huge problem. plastic bags can be found almost anywhere in the Gambia. they are unavoidable. and they're not going anywhere. the same with batteries. the kids use discarded batteries as toys...and these are batteries of an inferior quality. which means they expire more quickly, causing people to use even more. they are also more likely to break open, exposing their acidic insides, a health and environmental issue. and, of course, as the populations grow the pit latrines fill. as the bush disappears, people have less places to dispose of their own bodily wastes. there are entire villages in extremely close proximity with urban areas where not a single soul has a pit latrine, everyone is doing their business in the river. or the woods. it's a truly cringe-worthy thought. what are volunteers doing about these issues? pit latrine projects...check out to donate to various sanitation projects in various pc countries. they are doing village clean ups. they reuse plastic bags as poly-pots to nurse young trees. they sensitize. the girls' camp we're about to undertake (less then a week now!) is going to be a huge sensitization effort. but this is one of the hardest problems to attack because, even after you've collected all this trash...there's really no place for it to go.

there was a point in my service, embittered by a lack of work and general feeling of uselessness, that i thought perhaps ENRM volunteers couldn't do anything in the Gambia, that the problems were too big and the people too apathetic and Peace Corps should consider pulling the program. but since then i have really come around. now i really feel that they should expand it, because these issues, along with others (poaching of endangered species, lack of understanding of wildlife resource management, the abuse of the term eco-friendly to name a few) that now i firmly believe the program should be expanded. but budget cuts hit everyone and they are receiving less volunteers next term. it's sad, but the best i can do is hope these next volunteers have the same revelation that i did, and that instead of being overwhelmed by these seemingly insurmountable problems, be overwhelmed of how they can attack these problems from any angle they choose and still be working for a positive change. because when you look at it that way, it's quite exciting

1 comment:

  1. Great job, and congrats on your Camp. Sorry we will not be there to see the drama and talent show!
    Love you, Mom & Dad