Saturday, June 26, 2010

African Odyssee: Zomba Plateau Malawi

The first stop on our trip is Zomba Plateau. The Hogs is running well so far (only a few hours out of Blantyre) and the views from the mountain are nothing short of astounding. Today we drive to Zambia, but this special place where I spent a few Christmas Holidays with my family when I was younger and we lived in Malawi requires mentioning. It is places like Zomba where a new environmental ethos is evolving in Africa, as governments realise that forest cover is vital to retaining scarce water resources.

An indigenous tree stands at sunset on the top of Zomba Plateau, the whole mountain used to be covered in forests, but now only about 8% is left.

The view from Zomba Plateau over the southern Rift, towards gleaming Lake Chilwa and the Mulanje Massif in background under moonlight.

My travelling companion, raconteur, and environmentalist Pierre Pretorius putting out a running grass fire on Zomba Plateau. The fires ravaged the newly planted forests in the dry season, preventing new growth and hampering attempts at regeneration.

In 1958, Emperor Haile Selasie visited Malawi and stood on the top of Zomba Plateau and clearly stated the importance of forests.

"When our forests are properly conserved, they protect the fertile soil of the nation from erosion, they render the landscape green and beautiful. But when forests are neglected and gradually destroyed, the wealth of our land is progressively reduced and the country slowly becomes bare and barren"

Fires sweep the former forest lands of Zomba

What is at stake? The woodland of Zomba Plateau.

Despite this, much of Africa has become barren and bare. On Zomba Plateau itself, the forest was chopped down, and this massif, rising more than six thousand feet from the base of the southern Rift valley was ravaged by erosion and then replanted with foreign pine and other alien vegatation. Today the Malawian forestry department is busy removing the pine, and hoping that they can restore some of the indigenous forests that have been lost, securing the abundant rainfall so that the rivers once again run clean, and the waters flow all year around. The following images clearly show some of the original forest that is still left, and running grass fires that are inhibiting the restoration project.

Monday, June 21, 2010

An African Environmental Journey

Lake Malawi and the mighty Shire River are under threat from deforestion. This image is taken from Khandi beach

This is the first post of an African Odyssey. I am in Malawi, getting ready to drive through Zambia, Botswana, maybe Namibia and on to South Africa. My big diesel truck,called the Hog, a Toyota Landcruiser, will be our vehicle for the journey. It is well tuned, but will still be pumping out noxious greenhouse gases like CO2 and CO, but sadly without an electric 4x4 vehicle, it is our best way to get around in the remote areas of southern Africa. When a plug-in electric 4x4 that can travel at least 200 Miles is available, I will be getting one. Until then, I will rely on the Hog.

Along the way we will be meeting up with people who are making a difference in their communities and countries by starting to reverse some of the massive deforestation that is happening here. We will try to make up for all those noxious Hog exhaust fumes by planting some trees that will grow large and strong for many years to come.

Right now I am in Blantyre, Malawi. Outside it is wet and cold and rainy, with some patches of scattered sunlight just starting to break through. Blantyre sits nestled between a group of granite mountains. Until twenty years ago, these mountains were home to huge forests that supplied water to Malawi's biggest city all year. Streams, covered with cycads and fern-shaded mosses cascaded all around the town. Deep in the forests leopards and hyaena hunted for their food among the populations of small forest deer and warthogs. The forests are almost gone now, felled for a burgeoning population and humanity's insatiable desire for food and energy. They have not been replanted, and now most of the peaks are laid bare, covered with withered grass and mud and ringed by squalid wet townships and shacks that are prone to being flooded out by rains that are not retained by the roots of the old forest giants.

But there are possibilities here, chances at an alternative future. Plans are afoot to replant many of the peaks and hills with much of the natural forest they have lost. Rafiq Hajat, the executive director of the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction, is putting to gether a plan that links government, civil society, AIDS assistance groups, international Non-Government Orgiansations (NGOs) and the people of Malawi to start a reforestion campaign using indigenous trees.

As we sat on the airplane together on my way back to Malawi, he outlined a clear plan that seens local people creating rare tree-oil businesses from the newly planted forests, and in turn, benefitting from the increased rainfall and slope stabilisation systems that the trees will bring. Their crop yields will increase, their income from the oil will provide an entry into Malawi's cash economy, and the renewed access to fresh water will increase the health of the population.

Through this convergence of goals and needs among the many stakeholders, it is possible to rebuild and regenerate at least some of the forests Malawi has lost. Hajat and donor contries (Malawi gets 38% of its annual budget from the international community) see tree planting as an investment in the future of Malawi. Malawi gets most of it's power from hydroelectric dams on the Shire River. These dams are badly affected by deforestion as the silt and old forest materials from deforested hillsides are washed into the Shire and gum-up the turbines. The country experiences electrical blackouts daily, and are a major drain on it's development and a hindrance to economic activity and investment.

Malawi is a Microcosm of the rest of the world and it's large population and small land area means everything that is happening to the trees and forests around the world are happening here more quickly, severely and with disatrous consequences. It is ironic that countries like Canada and the United States, which are currently in the process of cutting down their own old-growth forests, have been so active in trying to get Malawians to replant theirs.

More updates from the road will be forthcoming.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dear Dad, A reply to my Father

The "slimes" Dam at the Cullinan Diamond Mine, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Could cleaning up sites like this demonstrate an "enlightened" and mentally evolved human race?

Hi Dad,

Thanks for your very thoughtful letter, I have to say I think you may have hit the nail on the head, but also there is always an undercurrent of social change that indirectly drives our scientific and material gain. The psycho-social development as us as a people seems to have lagged behind the "material" developments of our societies, yes. Though I think if we look into the history of the human thought and social change, we do see a parallel evolution of human thought that had driven, reflected, and been an intergral part of the material developments. I am thinking of those suffragettes, including the Mayor of New York's wife at the time, ready to stand and fight for their real role in society, and be judged upon that. I think of the social networks of people who quietly got on with a diversified life within the confines of Victorian England (think Sir Richard Francis Burton) or others like Galileo during the Inquisition.

So much of that evolutionary thinking, the development of a higher understanding and a high ability to understand and even empathize, I feel is tied to a more "enlightened" approach to human interactions. It is difficult to put into words, but the gist of what I am thinking is that our development as a species on the psycho-social front is inextricably bound to our human progress, and although it looks like the one lags far behind the other, it is only through discourse like this, and many other "high-level" empathetic interactions that we can raise the bar on it.

Here in South Africa, we often see the back and forth interplay of more animalistic notions like greed to the real "evolved" emotions of empathy, kindness and selfless giving. It is one of the defining charachteristics in this society where people are essentially ungoverned and un-policed. Everyone must look out for each other, and on any given day its possible to see the most babaric acts of horriblness, juxatposed next the most heart-breakingly giving acts of kindness. If there is anywhere that more tellingly illustrates the "war" between hatred and empathy, between evolved emotions and simple stupidity, and between the chance to add something positive to our social world instead of tearing it down, it is here.

Mix into that the natural human ability to judge upon looks, upon black and white, upon education versus ignorance, and all the potential trouble-making stew of personal grievances, past injustice and papered-over fissures, South Africa is one of the frontline states in the war for the future spirit of humanity.

I feel strongly that environmental stewardship, essentially good house-keeping, sits squarely in the "enlightened" camp. This is because only when we feel like we all have a collective future, that we are all responsible for the effects we have on our material and spiritual worlds, can we make the hard decisions that will take care of our children and our future selves. Saving money, planning to make our planet better and healthier, making informed choices about our bodies, our communties and how we want them to look, these are all part of the process of "enlightenment" that brought us electricity, social equality, and the end of slavery. They are a process that must continue. We must love our future selves, and that is sometimes a very hard thing to do, but we all got here by doing just that, to a greater or a lesser degree, and it's our collective responsibility to continue that process.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

An Evolution In Psycho-Social Growth? A Letter From My Father

Australopithecus Sediba, this recent hominid discovery in South Africa has the world's scientists excited. But, asks my father, has our emotional evolution kept apace with our physical evolution?

For my regular readers, I extend an apology for missing out on the last month. I have been very busy with World Cup of Soccer work, renovations, paperwork and all the daily-life stuff that becomes such a time suck. Fortunately my time is my own again.

This last week I have been talking a lot with my father, John W. Barbee, a giant (literally and figuratively) of the sustainable development movement around the world. He has worked tirelessly in Tadjikistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Malawi and many other places assisting local people to lift themselves out of desperate situations. His take is one of vast experience and empathy with the people he works with. He is my real-life hero and a man of action.

Letter from My Father,
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
June 2, 2010

Dear Jeff

Right now (beginning the second decade of the 21st centruy) we are in the midst of an evolutionary revolution, being clobbered with disasters (nearly all man-made, or man-induced) and opportunities. And the magnitude of the latter seems definitely related to the magnitude and frequency of the former.

Many of the issues relating to our ability to respond to the opportunities is that for the last 10 years or more we have been using "the hammer" in response to problems, and this has led us to preceive the shape of the nail in every problem.

We seem, at the same time, to be gaining knowledge of our development as a species AND lacking understanding and insight of what that means, as well as its usefulness in informing our adaptation. What a paradox.

I got ahold of a fairly new book that is good food for thought....and adaptive action. "The Nature of Technology." It's written by a guy with a "understanding complex systems" perspective. He describes the process and progress of "technologies" and the interaction & complementarity of science & technology. What captured my thinking most from this book is that the "human systems" of thought, activity and their psycho-social effects seem to be the most elusive in developing and replicating adaptive & effective technology and science.

I believe the answer is that we still have not acquired the insight of ourselves as a species integrated into our global existence. We have achieved incredible development in technologies & science of electronics, micro & macro aspects of physics & chemistry, bio/genetics, etc. but only a little of the technology and science of psycho-=social development, even though much of the necessary ingredients are available. The result is that we confuse "approach" with "solution" and disregard process by over-focusing on short-term product.

The "building blocks" are there, but we have neither recognized them as such, acknowleged their essential nature in the psycho-social & civil society nor recognized them as technology/science (and therefore integrated with all the others).

Just as gravity (and its lack) are forces fundamental to the universe and our existence, so is trust (and its lack) a necessary and very basic feature to us and our existence in the universe. And trust is based on our ability to understand, communicate and engage amoung ourselves & other life forms and the universe at large. Building this -- a "civil" society of our species and those that have evolved with us -- within the universe is the primary imperative of the 21st century, and for our success as a species.