Living in the Community – Claydiggers

The clay here in Fintonia was bright golden and great stacks of bricks had been extracted.  In another location under some trees we found more excavation going on.  A whole family were eagerly digging away in a pit over 10m square and already several metres deep.  They seemed pleased to see us and willing to show what they were up to, pose for photos which we then showed them through the viewfinder to hoots of laughter.  The base of the pit was completely churned up and they were putting the clay into buckets of plastic bags and hauling it up to a dry area in the sun to form the bricks.  They had several ways of forming the bricks with different results.  Some of the bricks looked misshapen and were hand crafted, others they put weights on or formed them from a simple wooden or metal mould.  The clay in the bags appeared to be being taken off to be used to make pottery.  It was all surprisingly industrial for this small rural village.  But here and elsewhere the clay was transforming the landscape.  The traditional “mud huts” or rondavels that were so typical  in Zimbabwe in the 1990s were being replaced by square, quite substantial buildings with galvanised roofing and proper doors and window frames.

This family were interested in what we were doing so we laid out the satellite image on the ground on a dry spot up the slope from their pit.  Covered in a grey slime, they heaved themselves up out of the clay, wiped their wellington boots on the ground and stood around us as we explained the project.  I’m not sure they got the whole story of the property rights issues, but they were fascinated by the satellite imagery.  I know from past experience that people often can interpret satellite imagery easily; once you have orientated them a little they are away.  We showed them the village centre and the roads heading out in  different areas and soon they were pointing out where we were currently standing and where they lived, as well as the school and the community forest.  It was all very encouraging.

Into the Jungle – Kansema

We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula.  The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees.  We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating.  As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.

As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention.  At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness.  We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north.  As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself.  So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain.  Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema.  Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side.  Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.

Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.

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The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.