Days and Nights of Freetown – The Charcoalers

We had to park the car at the entrance to the village and then negotiate a marshy stream to end up on the drier higher ground on which most of the settlement had been established.  They were under a huge canopy of trees but the ground below had been cleared by people, goats and chickens.  I noticed how black the soil was and realised it was a combination of a rich swampy soil and years of charcoal burning which was the main source of income for the village.

Jan was greeted as an old friend – he’d only been there once but you don’t get many white guys down this cul de sac.  I was introduced to people and we asked if we could go and look at what was going on.  We walked as near as we could get to the river.  It was flowing past some mangroves in the distance.  Obviously the tide still reached all the way up here.  To our right, a large tributary served as an area to moor their dugout canoes, from which they were heading out into the mangroves to forage for wood.  This was being brought up on to the muddy shoreline and chopped into convenient sizes.  Close to the stream they were being neatly piled, but further in they were arranged with their ends pointing towards a central spot and steadily built up into a rondavel ready for lighting.  I could see the next stage of the process to my right, where river mud had been packed over the pile and the centre set alight.  Smoke was now dribbling out of a few holes in this mudpack but inside the wood was steadily cooking to turn it in to valuable charcoal.

Not all the wood was used as charcoal – huge piles of logs and timber poles were stacked up all round the village.  In some ways it was very industrious and they obviously had access to an amazing resource.  But I did find it jarring that my project was trying to protect the Guinea biome in the north of the country and here there were similar levels of logging and stripping out of slow growing wood to meet the insatiable demand of Greater Freetown for building material and fuel.

The Other Mauritius – The Dominance of Sugar

Even the growing of the cane was an act which dominated the life of the island.  So often when we were driving around letting the air circulate in the car with the windows down, someone would spot one of the huge irrigators in the distance.  In Mauritius most of them were a metal framework that could be up to 1/3 mile long supporting.  More often than not they were not activated but if they were, they were none too accurate.  As you raced along the road, you had to rapidly hit the window switches and slam on the brakes not to be drenched in water as you passed underneath.  It was not so bad if you were on a straight road but a couple of times you came round a corner, the irrigators would be hidden by the canes and no way could you close the windows in time.

The overall magnificence of the cane fields stretching for miles never ceased to take my breath away when you had the full vista, but the monotony of the detail when the canes were in full growth could also overwhelm.  When the canes were in flower, though, you could marvel again at the individual plants.  Huge pampas like florets extended high in the air, and gently waved in the wind.  They turned whole fields a greyish white.  In the late afternoon , as the sun dropped towards the horizon, they could go golden then red.   They seemed to refract the light in all directions.


Cane in flower

The sugar cane dominates the culture of Mauritius too.  Not just the sugar itself, but all the other products.  I’m not as big a fan of Mauritian rum as the brown Caribbean sort, but the rums flavoured with vanilla and other spices had their charms.   The whole societal structure had been managed around the plantation culture.  The Frenchies were the owners and the key workers, the Indians replaced the Creoles in the fields, the Chinese were merchants supplying essential ironmongery and groceries.  As I said many of the field workers lived hidden away from the main thoroughfares.  The plantation owners generally did too, but the announcement of where they lived was as bold as anything.  Massive gateways, long avenues of trees leaving to a wooded hilltop where if you caught the right angle you might get a glimpse of the white paint of an estate house.

The Adopted Dog – Life after bananas

I dropped in to Kingstown a few times during this contract and it gave me a chance to explore both the city and the country more deeply.  There is a habit on my kind of work that you are always thinking of the passport stamps.  As long as I step into a country, stay there a night, say, I can record that I have been to a particular country – and gradually count up to the 204 states and multiple autonomous territories.  So many I have never returned to so my single snapshot in time and space is all that is stored in my memory.  When I return to a country it is revealing to see it again – some places familiar, others changed from the last time I have been there.  But more interesting is stay somewhere new , have a new rhythm of life there,  and meet new people; it allows you to see the whole country afresh, go down new roads and have new experiences which change and hopefully enrich your overall perspective of a country.

This project gave me the chance to do that for St Vincent.  The first work I had done there had been natural resources based, particularly to do with the sea and its reefs, rocks and sandy bays.  This project was about the whole of St Vincent, which put a bias on the land.  New issues were to come out for me; land rights, disaster management, and in particular the process of diversifying agriculture, from which the need to make a national GIS had come.


Bananas in the field below – but fewer are commercially viable

St Vincent, like many small island nations, had been developed through colonial times to provide one commodity to their respective empires.  For St Kitts this was sugar, for Grenada it was spice.  For St Vincent it was bananas.  Many of the volcanic valleys were cleared of their natural vegetation and planted up with row upon row of banana plants.  For years and years, extending past the colonial period, the whole industry of St Vincent was geared around the growing, harvesting and shipping.  Boats from the UK would regularly call in to Kingstown harbour and the lorries would pile down from the leeward and windward sides of the island to load them up for shipment.  I’d seen it myself on previous visits.

But St Vincent’s banana industry was in decline.  The economies of scale that were gained from mass production could not be emulated on the island; indeed some of the individual competing plantations in Latin America were larger than St Vincent itself.  Also, it was incredibly risky economically to put the vast majority of your land and exports into one single item, at the whim of global markets and fashion.  The Government of St Vincent had become convinced by this over the years.  And the European Union were sensitive to it too.  The treaties of the EU preclude favourable trade to former colonies, but they realised that they had a legacy of obligation not to leave these countries stranded with no guaranteed market, so had set up a large fund to help stabilise export earnings from these countries.

St Vincent needed to find a use for the large areas of banana plantation that were being taken out of production due to falling export trade.  Left fallow they could easily become a tangle of weed, or worse still cause horrendous soil erosion that could store up trouble for the rest of the country, causing landslides, cutting off roads, clogging up watercourses and smothering coral reef.  The programme we were a part of was meant to put together a package of interventions to help diversify the land use; for agriculture, tourism or construction, while retaining the balance of soil and vegetation for a healthy environment.  Basic to this was understanding the characteristics and potential of the land, and that meant you needed good information from all government and non government agencies to do that analysis.  Hence our project to systematically gather and catalogue all the existing GIS data for the Ministry of Planning.