Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Former Peace Corps Forestry Volunteer Reflects on West Africa's Greening of the Niger: "Shade Trees for the Grande Marche (Big Market) in Zinder"

Gerry Hawkes in West Africa
Former Peace Corps Forestry Volunteer Reflects on West Africa's Greening of the Niger...

"Shade Trees for the Grande Marche (Big Market) in Zinder"
By Gerry Hawkes
Woodstock, Vermont

This is just one story out of the many efforts that helped lead to the greening of Niger as described in a July 2007 story on National Public Radio  

In 1972 the Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert was in the midst of a severe drought and famine. 
One typical day, with the sun scorching down, I entered the big outdoor market for the city of Zinder, Niger (West Africa). Despite the lack of water and shortage of food, the city of Zinder had somehow found money to install street lights in front of the market even though there was seldom electricity to run them. A dusty old man, wearing a turban and sword, was coming toward me. As he passed under one of the street lights I heard him mutter in Hausa, “Gosh, that street light doesn’t give us much shade, does it!?”

A light immediately flashed on in my brain. What better project could a Peace Corps forestry volunteer initiate than to see that shade trees were planted in the main outdoor market for that region of the country!? Instead of a firewood plantation of fast growing (and fast dying), exotic trees favored by many international donor projects, I would plant local species, such as Gao (Faidherbia albida) trees. Local tree species might not grow as fast, but they could better withstand the harsh conditions. Unlike other trees, the large, nitrogen fixing Gao trees had leaves in the dry season when shade was most needed and dropped their nitrogen rich leaves in the rainy season, enriching the soil.

Playing the banjo in Desga
I set about obtaining permission from the city government of Zinder and the district forestry department to initiate a shade tree planting project. Permission was granted with the stipulation that I come up with all the funding and organize the project. From previous projects I had organized, I knew that USAID would fund up to $10,000 for self-help projects such as this, if they were well planned. Planting holes had to be prepared in the rock hard earth, seedling trees had to be grown, fertile soil had to be created for the planting holes, fencing had to be purchased to protect the trees, and water had to be hauled to irrigate the trees during the first years of growth.

I calculated how this could be done, how much it would cost and submitted the request to USAID. The request was quickly rejected because I had specified hauling water by camel which could not be funded. They would provide funds if I used US made equipment to haul water. The district forestry office had a broken down John Deere tractor, so I got a quote for parts and repairs (from a heavy drinking former Peace Corps volunteer who was married to a nomad girl and had a repair service on the edge of town) and sent in the revised proposal. The funding was granted.

The seedlings were started in the district tree nursery while I hired local men to start digging the 1 meter wide x 1 meter deep holes in the rock hard earth in double rows in front of the market. The work was brutal.  Once the holes were dug, we had to do something to improve the fertility of the soil, so I arranged with the city of Zinder to have convict crews (many were political prisoners) clean out the dried sludge from the nearby open sewers and mix it with the earth from the holes. Somehow during the processes, I managed to pick up an infection in my hand and within just a couple days’ time, my arm doubled in size up to my elbow and I had red streaks running under my armpit. Fortunately, the Peace Corps doctor for Niger happened to be making one of his infrequent trips through Zinder. He immediately cut my hand open to start draining puss and put me on a heavy regime of injected antibiotics for which I had to pedal my bicycle to the local hospital where a Catholic nun would sharpen a needle on sandpaper and give me a shot a couple times a week for a month. A few months later I saw the doctor again and he was amazed that my hand was not permanently paralyzed.

While the seedling trees were growing in the nursery and the holes were being prepared, I had the fencing and the posts on order from France and the tractor parts on order from the United States. It would take about 6 months for both orders to arrive.  The tractor parts arrived first. I received notice from the customs office in Zinder that I could pick up the parts and pay the 80% duty. Pay the duty! Nobody had informed me that a project like this would be required to pay duty. I had no extra money in the budget for that! For two weeks I pleaded with the Frenchmen who ran the customs office to release the parts so we could start repairing the tractor in time for the planting season. Finally they gave in. Later I heard that the forestry and wildlife department had arrested the head of the customs department for poaching so customs was out to make life difficult for forestry projects.

The fencing arrived next and I went to the French merchant on the southern edge of town to pay for it. When I entered his office, he leaned back in his chair smiled and said the price had doubled! Doubled!! But we had agreed on a price and shaken hands! I had no extra money in the budget. He smirked and said I wouldn’t be able to get fencing anywhere else in time for the shade tree planting project, so had to buy his. I jumped up, called him a double crosser, told him he could keep his fencing and left. My brain was racing on how to keep the project moving forward, and then I remembered that I had heard that the forestry department sometimes used a smuggler in Kano, Nigeria to help them circumvent their problems with the customs department. The next day I had the smuggler’s name and address and was on my way to Kano riding on the top of a loaded truck. I was able to strike a deal with the smuggler for higher quality, mesh fencing delivered to Zinder for less cost than the original price that the French merchant wanted for his fencing, however fence posts could not be obtained.

What was I to do? The mesh fencing would be worthless without sturdy posts to hold it up against the onslaught of camels, goats, donkeys and humans entering and exiting the outdoor market.
A few months earlier I had inventoried and mapped an oasis-like forest reserve about 50 kilometers from Zinder. This reserve had many African fan palm trees that were dead and dying. I knew the wood was highly resistant to termites and would make excellent posts, however there was a government ban on cutting trees in forest reserves. Fortunately the district forest service chief was most pleased with the inventory and had my multi-colored, pen and ink inventory map displayed on the wall of his office. Using that map I was able to show him how many fan palms were dead and dying and could be cut to make the posts we needed. After a couple weeks I had permission to salvage the dead and dying palms for the hundreds of posts we needed, but I had no harvesting tools and no crew.
Cutting ronerai palm in Desga

I put the word out that I was looking for a crew to cut and split African fan palm posts while I began looking for axes, sledge hammers and wedges to cut the trees and split the posts from the trunks. Tools were difficult to find. I had several traditional African axes made and was able to locate two heavy sledge hammers, but could not find any steel splitting wedges. Lacking the essential wedges, I went to the camel market on the outskirts of town where there were several traditional blacksmiths. I told them what I was looking for and they began making heavy splitting wedges from the drive shaft of a truck. As I was working with the blacksmiths, a small piece of steel flew off a wedge as it was being forged and embedded in my leg. With blood gushing out, I laid on my back in the sand to elevate my leg as I applied an old rag as a compress. Once the blood stopped gushing, I began the 2 kilometer walk to the hospital using my bicycle as a crutch (it’s tough to pedal with one leg).

As I stood waiting in the foyer of the emergency room (there were no chairs), I looked through the door into the hospital ward with about 30 patients lying on beds with no mattresses, just thin straw mats. Orderlies were dumping bed pans out the windows and flies were buzzing back in while relatives of the patients cooked meals just beyond the bed pan splash zone. A few minutes later a woman joined me in the waiting room, moaning and leaning against the wall a few feet away. Gangrene had turned her lower jaw into a fetid mush. The two of us continued to wait there alone for another 20 minutes or so before orderlies passed through with a dead man they had just taken off the emergency room operating table.  More minutes passed when finally a Polish doctor (who I later found out was probably a Nazi collaborator who had fled Europe at the end of WWII) came out to see me and said in French that soldiers during the war got lots of shrapnel in them and often left it in. I told him (in French) I had recently read a story about a small piece of metal migrating through a young man’s blood stream causing his death, so thought it would be best to remove it. He said alright, let’s take X-rays. I was surprised and pleased to hear they had an X-ray machine so said sure. Following the X-rays I went back out into the foyer to wait.

After about a half an hour, the doctor’s Nigerien assistant indicated that I should proceed up the stairs to the same operating room from which the orderlies had just removed the dead man. They hadn't changed the sheet! In fact they hadn't changed the sheet for a week! It was covered with wet sticky blood from the dead man and old dry blood from others who had gone before. I laid down gingerly and waited and waited. Finally the old Polish doctor arrived and asked his Nigerien assistant if he had any local anesthesia and received a negative reply. He asked him to look again and a couple vials were found. The assistant then touched up a used syringe on some sandpaper and gave me an injection near the wound in my leg. The doctor began to cut immediately, before the anesthesia had time to take effect, then asked me if it hurt. When I answered “Oui, un peau”, he had his assistant give me another shot with the scarce local anesthesia. My whole right side then went numb. The doctor then started cutting into my leg in earnest. After a bit he said that he did not see any metal to which I replied that it couldn’t be too deep and asked him what the X-rays showed. Ah, the X-rays. He hadn’t thought to look at them! Soon the assistant reappeared with an X-ray in which the metal could be clearly seen, deep down near my lower thigh bone just above the inside of my knee. As I wondered how it could be so deep, the doctor said that he would start cutting off tendons so he could get to it. Given what I had observed so far, I was having some doubts about the quality of the medical care I was receiving so requested that they just forget about the metal and sew up my leg, which the doctor did with the recommendation that I come back to have the stitches out. I thanked him, but said that would not be possible and could pull them myself. On the way out the door, I asked if I could have the X-ray for my records. There were two! When I looked at the second X-ray, I could see that the metal was only an inch or so deep into my flesh, but the angle of the first X-ray had made it appear to be deep down by the lower thigh bone. I did not return for a second attempt at removal and the metal is still in my leg.

Two days after the attempted surgery on my leg, I rode my black stallion the 50 kilometers out to the classified forest with the dead and dying African fan palms to meet with the government forester who oversaw the area to get final approval on which trees could be cut. I would have preferred to delay the ride a couple more days, but there was no way to contact him to change the meeting time.
Once I had final approval on the trees to be cut, I rode back to Zinder (sleeping overnight on the ground with only my sword for protection in a brushy forest that I later found out harbored hyenas that had eaten 3 children in a nearby village earlier that week), checked to see if the blacksmiths had finished making the axes and wedges, then hired a crew of 10 itinerant wrestlers who needed to supplement their income. I believe they normally earned their money by traveling from town to town wagering with the strong, young local men on the outcome of wrestling against them, but since the region was in the midst of a drought and famine, times were lean.
Gerry preparing wood cutting tools
With a crew and tools we headed off to the classified forest for a month’s worth of palm tree cutting and rail/post splitting. The crew was getting paid 800 CFA per tree, cut and split into rails (about $3.25). I had cut many trees back in Vermont, but had never cut a palm tree before. The trunks were hard and very fibrous so the cutting and splitting was more laborious than I had anticipated. After about a week the crew said they needed to be paid 1000 CFA per tree, which of course I didn’t have in the budget. I agreed to pay them the difference out of my own pocket (I received $75 per month) while I hurried back to Zinder to dig out an old Sears and Roebuck, gear drive chainsaw I had seen in a storage shed. It was missing a gear! I then hustled down to the mechanic who was fixing the water hauling tractor and asked what he could do. After some thought, he decided he could replace the gear drive with a chain drive using a timing chain and sprockets from a junk Land Rover. In a couple hours the engine was connected and the saw chain was whizzing around the bar, in reverse. This was not ideal, but by reversing the chain, I could still cut down the fan palms.

The new deal with the crew of wrestler/loggers was that if I cut the trees down with the chainsaw and cut the trunk into lengths then they would split them for the original 800 CFA we had agreed on. They had been cutting the trees about waist high where it was easiest to chop, but with the chainsaw I thought I should cut the stumps low. Well I soon found out that not only do African fan palm trunks flare near ground level, they also become much more solid, losing the pith that is in the center. Not only was the sawing near the ground tough and slow, I had the choice of fighting to hold the saw against the tree or having it spit wire-like palm fibers into my face (there was no face protection to be had) since the chain was running backwards on the bar. After one tree, I was cutting stumps waist high. After 5 trees, one of the Land Rover timing sprockets stripped and the saw ceased to function. I paid the crew 1000 CFA per tree and learned to live on considerably less than $75 per month.
Gerry abandoned by his horse in the desert

My original plan was to hire local camels to transport the African Fan Palm (called Ronier in French) rails/posts back to Zinder, but they were busy hauling sugar cane. I had to scramble to find some other means of transport that could negotiate the loose sand and rough trails. Finally I convinced a UN agency that had a fleet of several WWII surplus, ton and a quarter 4-wheel-drive, Power Wagons that resembled extreme duty pickup trucks, to assist in the transport. They also had one Unimoc which was a combination pickup and tractor made by Mercedes. The Power Wagons, which had their original gas engines removed and replaced by Cummins diesels, had tremendous torque for powering their way through the sand. Unfortunately these vehicles could not get as close to where the split rails/posts were cut in the oasis-like classified forest as could camels and I had no extra money to hire anyone to move the rails to a point of truck access, therefore I had no choice but to strap the rails vertically onto a pack frame and carry them out myself, a few at a time, several hundred yards to where they could be stockpiled for loading. When you are 22, you can do anything!
All went smoothly after that, at least for awhile. The planting holes were ready, the soil was mixed with sewage sludge, the fencing was smuggled in from Nigeria, the water hauling tractor was repaired on schedule, the Gao trees had been grown in the nursery and the termite resistant posts had arrived on site. No problems were encountered planting the trees and constructing the protective enclosures.

However a few years later, when I was working in the neighboring country of Burkina Faso (it was Upper Volta then), I heard that someone had sabotaged the tractor in a pay dispute with the Nigerien forestry department. Despite the loss of the water hauling tractor, I assume that the trees lived. In 1991 I was within a two hour Land Cruiser drive of Zinder while working on a natural resource management assignment for USAID and was hoping to get back to see “my” trees, but our work schedule was so overloaded that we could not detour in that direction.  

Since 1972, when there were few trees left in the Zinder region, the local people have worked to husband the Gao and other native trees in their fields and in their villages, turning the region around Zinder amazingly green. This is described in a recent, front page New York Times article, titled, InNiger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert.

I like to think that the example of the Gao trees planted in front of the big regional market in Zinder played a significant role in encouraging the people of the region to protect and grow their own native trees, particularly the Gaos. Virtually everyone in the region would go to the Zinder market and seeing those trees would realize that successful tree planting and husbandry could involve highly beneficial and hardy local trees and did not have to be just big, expensive, donor sponsored plantations of exotic species that often failed.

Note: In February of 2011, I found that Google Earth had upgraded the images of Zinder, Niger and I could see whether or not there were any trees in front of the Grande Marche. There were none!
I can only speculate on what happened. Did the trees die from lack of water after the tractor was sabotaged or did the funds for watering dry up even sooner? We’re the ronier posts and fencing protecting the trees stolen, leaving the trees vulnerable to the predations of goats, donkeys and camels? Did market expansion eliminate the trees?

In retrospect, I should have found someone or some group to be a zealous, effective, long-term advocate for the trees rather than just leaving them in the care of the district forestry office.
Gerry with his son Ethan back home in Vermont (2011)


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