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Kachana News

March 2007 News

STUDY TOUR TO AFRICA EARLY 2007: Report by Chris Henggeler

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

Rather than being a mere report this is also a reflection of fifty years as an ‘earthling’.

As somebody who prides himself in ‘working with nature” it is humbling to have to admit that for over fifteen years our work on Kachana and much of my work before that has been a battle against nature!
A battle against ‘human nature’

‘Job-preservation’ as much as ‘self-preservation’ is human nature.
We live in a society where careers and even some industries are seriously threatened should a paradigm of true sustainability ever take hold in public or political thinking…

There is a message that our planet appears to have been sending for some time now; a message that is now being amplified by ‘global climate change’:
I will eliminate human civilization as you people know it unless you humans begin to align your expectations and activities with the natural laws that govern life on this planet.

For all of my active life I have tried to be a messenger to that effect; I have also spent over twenty years believing we could save the national structures that enabled members of my generation to exercise privileges like:

Understanding and dealing with the purely environmental stuff I have found to be relatively easy, simple and rewarding….BUT how does one convince the person on the street that a commitment to making the world a better place for our children is a cause so worthwhile that it deserves some of our quality time?
How do you function on a grazing property when alongside a community of over 100,000 people lives on land that is gradually deteriorating?
This is a question that plagued my father in Rhodesia fifty years ago…
A similar question frustrates us here on Kachana today:
How do we get our neighbours and down-stream communities to realize that we are all in this together?

 

February 2007 I finally had the chance to conduct a ‘study-tour’ that I have been wishing to do for a long time:

My particular thanks go to:

On Kachana we explore options of sustainable land-use associated with meaningful activity. For this work to be of broader relevance it helps to keep in mind the bigger picture. Being surrounded by people and land you love and watching the things you believe in bear fruit is a soothing balm, but it can also be intoxicating…
To keep myself honest I like to see new areas each year, attend educational workshops, and travel…
With school age children and restricted income-possibilities due to our remote location and long hours spent in the field performing environmental “first-aid” and “therapy” I have only been getting back to Africa every five years…

Why Africa?
Africa is a reality-check… in some ways even a trip into the future for those of us who live in dysfunctional or mismanaged arid regions of the world…

Even if the rest of the world were to get their ‘act together’ at the environmental level, if Africa continues in the general direction that it is currently headed, the consequences of Global Climate Change can only escalate worldwide.
(Do we perhaps need a new perspective on ‘foreign aid’?
Perhaps it is more than ‘compassion’, ‘feel-good’ or ‘A seeing B in distress, then creating a bureaucracy to ask C do something about it’…
Perhaps it would be in our own self-interest and in the interest of our families to do something about the effective mitigation of ‘Global Climate Change’.)
                       
It seemed appropriate that on my return to Africa Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” was available for viewing. (I have since viewed the movie several times - even if it may be an election ploy- I believe it should be screened in every home and in every school in the world.) Early in the piece Gore brings a quote from Mark Twain:
“What gets us into trouble
is not what we don’t know
it’s what we know for sure
that just ain’t so.”

Flying over the United Arab Emirates I pondered over the significance of this quote in relation to visible infrastructure investments and articles I had recently read about the area…
A modern civilization being conceived and nurtured by a diminishing supply of fossil fuels… (Peak Oil  apparently happened around December 2005.)
Nature runs on current solar energy. Below me blowing sand largely covered the land and the ‘fuel’ for a booming ‘economy’ came from ancient solar energy: ‘sunshine’ that had been trapped by living organisms before humans had walked the earth! For generations this land had been harsh and inhospitable by most standards; now domes are being built for indoor snow-skiing; animal habitats are being created to show off rare and endangered species; a world class hub for commerce, tourism, recreation and comfort; desalination plants and irrigation schemes to supply the demand for nutrients…
Fossil fuels: a natural asset, captured and stored by our landscapes and what lies below them; ‘inert’ for millennia…
Unprecedented thinking has enabled us to ‘liquidate’ this asset for the purpose of investing in a new and modern civilization…
Will the new civilization evolve to run off sunshine once the oil runs out? Or do we resort to ‘liquidating’ even older natural assets (Atoms) to balance our energy budget?
Exciting times… at least whilst we still have these broad options… I only hope decision makers get to appreciate the scope of it all… If not...

Nairobi:
“A city where banana palms grow in the street and people are begging for food.”
Dick Richardson
I saw the movie “Out of Africa” in the nineteen seventies…
1996 was when I first experienced Nairobi…
If you can drive in Nairobi, you can drive in any city of the world…
Rome has been the most exciting driving experience in my life; Johannesburg my most dangerous… In the last seventeen years I have spent more time at the controls of an aircraft than at a steering wheel on a sealed road; I was not about to learn how to drive in Nairobi…
(To those of you who ever go there: do your homework first and find out from the locals what a taxi should cost for the trip you have planned. Negotiate the price before you get in. The drivers I have had were all friendly, informative and ready to pick me up for repeat service.) Shops can be mistaken for fortresses and many have security guards at the door: As in other African capitals the homes of the more affluent are recognizable by the walls that surround them and the electrified razor wire that discourages uninvited visitors. Anything worth purchasing has a price-tag in US$. But even the city-bred taxi-drivers will tell you to go and look at the country beyond Nairobi.

The countryside that supports life in the cities; landscapes that produce fresh vegetables for London and flowers for Amsterdam; rural communities that export ‘environmental refugees’…
These are the landscapes that I came to visit… not to see their produce but to observe the productivity…
Productivity that can be assessed by simply observing four simple yet complex processes(As simple as teaching a child how to ride a bicycle; as complex as explaining to a blind and physically impaired person what a bicycle actually is and how to ride it.)
The more I travel, the more it becomes apparent that at a ‘Community Dynamics’ level we need to ask ourselves about the active role of ‘homo sapiens’ (as a species) in a particular ecological context…
Actually asking the locals (rather than sending in a scientist to do research) often gets me useful information much quicker… e.g. there are chicken breeders in Lusaka who pay large sums of money each year to rid themselves of the tons of ‘chook-shit’ (high nitrogen organic fertilizer); Whereas here in Kununurra we have farmers who purchase the same stuff from Queensland and have to freight it over three thousand kilometers so they can put it to use…

We may get back to the science later; I’d rather spend time on the most significant biotic-factor that I could identify: ‘Human Activity’

Wherever I went there seemed to be a hum of human activity…
‘Business as usual’… leave politics to the politicians mind your own business… go with the flow and adapt to the governing parameters…

Zimbabwe seemed not dissimilar in this respect… Though I did sense a shadow over the whole country and there seemed to be less song than in earlier times… there certainly was less to sing about:
“People who are struggling to survive, talk openly and endlessly about their daily battle to feed, educate and care for their families. People who are careful about ‘talking about a revolution’ are less careful about talking about the internal succession battle within the Zanu PF party. We are looking for someone to be accountable for our misery. The combination of poverty, Zanu PF conflicts and outrage at the torture inflicted on our leaders has left ordinary Zimbabweans feeling a little more emboldened.

“Mugabe is famous for once saying: “absolute power is when a man is starving and you are the only one able to give him food”. But what happens to the person holding the reins of power when the food runs out and the cupboard is bare?

“Mugabe is on the brink of finding out.”

From: Sokwanele Newsletter [mailto:newsletter@sokwanele.com]
Sent: Saturday, March 24, 2007 1:58 AM

... and as seen on the 7:30 report 28/03/2007...

Meanwhile: “where there is chaos, there is also opportunity”.  The local exchange rate (Zim $ : US $) doubled from 5’000 to nearly 10’000 Zim $ during February; the purchasing power of the Zimbabwe Dollar erodes as you hold it in your hand. Innovation and creativity abound, but there is very little productivity in the economic sense.

The inherent good sense of humour of the people in that part of the world was still easy to find. This was most refreshing; where we find humour, we can also find creative thinking and hope. I still maintain that as an industrial and agricultural country, Rhodesia was indeed thirty years ahead of Australia; it was however already in ecological decline and (if I recall correctly) the population was doubling every eighteen years… 
Much of what I saw this time was simply the result of ‘politics’ accelerating a disaster programmed early to mid twentieth century.
It is however quite possible that similarly to Cuba such a crisis is helping Zimbabweans to adapt early to the ‘world without cheap oil’ that awaits us all. I met many people who are patient and waiting for inevitable change and fully aware of the potential they are sitting on… Sadly not all will make it and the social costs of running a nation into the ground will not disappear with a change of government…

In preparation of my trip I read two books written by a school-friend: “Mukiwa” and “When a crocodile eats the sun” . Peter, as many of my boarding-school friends belonged to the minority portion of white Rhodesians who grew up on farms and in small rural communities. Already forty years ago we ‘free-range’ youngsters each had our own unique ways of responding to the physical and emotional ‘bait’, ‘traps’ and ‘cages’ that town and city life had to offer. I’m sure there is much good reading out there, but I found both these books to be deeply moving. They certainly lend context to what we experience in Zimbabwe today. The sort of context that enables new visitors to Zimbabwe to better appreciate what they see.

I was able to visit some of the most beautiful farming country in the world: well watered deep volcanic soils in a sub-tropical climate…
Other places were covered in pebbles, rocks with sparse vegetation; the green tinge lent by the rainy months giving an illusion of stability…
Gone was the game and the bush was relatively silent compared to earlier years. Even in game parks little game could be seen. But this is the wet time of year where rain fills waterholes and drainage depressions enabling birds and game to scatter far beyond the points of perennial water-supply. Summer is not the time to be game-viewing and I was well aware of that.

What struck me were some reoccurring patterns:
Much of the green would not be there in a few months time. Crops were patchy and poor looking with many fields lying bare. Except for trees and shrubs, annuals and low-successional perennials dominated what vegetation did cover the ground. There was much bare ground between individual plants as well as the scarring from fires…
Many of these landscapes were suffering from ‘exposure’, ‘malnutrition’ and ‘diarrhoea’…

Only a fraction of the sunlight energy was entering the eco-system to feed the soil-building and production processes… most of it was either bouncing off or heating the ground making life unbearable for micro-organisms at the surface…
If this was a poor rainy season, where was the protection for the soil that should have been grown in previous seasons? What rain did come was either flowing off or evaporating from bare soil. Available moisture was not being retained…
One would suspect that minerals were being lost through erosion and fire… something that simple monitoring techniques could easily identify… Are minerals and nutrients being extracted and exported faster than they are being replaced? In some areas perhaps not… It could be argued that much of the land is ‘resting’ and therefore recovering from fire or abusive management…. I simply was not in any place long enough to find out…
Comparing the inherent productivity of areas that I visited to the leached out sandy soils that I have to contend with on Kachana I would have expected to see evidence of much more microbial activity. Soil-building should have been occurring at full pace and there is no legitimate reason for the minimal amount of large-animal biomass that I saw… the lack of tracks would support my conclusion that they are simply no longer there… I saw a human population that cannot be supported by current levels of biological activity. I saw biological (as well as physical) infrastructure that is in collapse…

Zimbabwe as a nation (this year again,) is confronted with food and water shortages; albeit on a smaller scale, communities and villages dotted around Africa face similar predicaments. As hunger and health problems confront family after family, not only livelihoods, but also the very lives of loved ones are at stake…
Is it of any surprise that people who no longer have much to loose will resort to desperate measures to try and protect those closest to them?
Is it surprising that if they fail and then have nothing to lose, that they may resort to violence, vengeance or other ‘dysfunctional’ forms of behaviour?

History or a trip to the countries that seem to make the head-lines regularly can teach us the same thing: Growing populations on land that is deteriorating eventually leads to conflict and violence.
But in 15 years of school I covered much history; I have seen such conflict first-hand and our family lost its farm in Rhodesia as a result; and I see a similar conflict brewing in many remote communities of Northern Australia…
Over fifteen years of tax-earner funded ‘land-care rhetoric’ and with the access to the largest number of scientists this world has ever known our own back yards continue to deteriorate…

The reason for my study tour was not to challenge the lessons of history, but to find out if anything was actually being achieved to change this woeful human track-record of man-made conflict….
Fortunately there is: The Matetsi Project centered on Dibangombe Ranch…

Local climate change:
If the Africa Center for holistic Management can produce the sort of results that they are getting despite the economic collapse all around them, then there is good cause for hope.
At Dibangombe the rainfall was no higher than elsewhere in the region. However in areas that were being managed rivers and streams were flowing again with a perennial supply of water. Riverbanks and drainage lines were stable and supported the vigorous growth of lush vegetation. Animals were hard to spot because of this but the sounds and tracks were everywhere. We got to see photos of how the same area looked only a few years ago or how it would look if Holistic Management were abandoned…  (A drive ‘next-door’ showed us that this change was not a seasonal thing). Dibangombe was using livestock as a management tool to restore biodiversity and grow vegetation faster than the animals could reproduce…
Then again this was nothing new. For over ten years we have repeatedly been doing the same on Kachana; The Zietsman brothers and O’Neills (pioneers of “ultra-high-density-grazing” ) proved as much on their properties before politics put an end to their valuable work; numerous Holistic Management practitioners around the world are successfully capitalizing on this knowledge.

What is different at Dibangombe is the context. This is no ordinary ranch aiming at maximum dollar extraction. Financial planning and a justification of costs involved of course do come into the equation, but other values play an even greater role. Traditional life-styles of the local people and the African wild-life heritage are both at stake. We do not have to travel far to see what happens when both are lost…

At Dibangombe I came across a diverse group of people representing different tribes, cultural and educational backgrounds working towards a well-defined outcome that all involved aspired to achieve. A Holisticgoal that tied together traditional and local knowledge, local experience, cutting-edge science and the will to ‘learn as we go’; a clear focus on how things would have to be and how to get there; kept on track by a decision- making process that enables progress at a speed that nobody gets left behind… that is, the moment there are teething problems: These are recognized for what they are and addressed without losing sight of purpose and direction…
The results are convincing…
The people are convincing…
They have a long way ahead of them, but they are happy, content and neighbours are beginning to take note.

Dibangombe is an inspiration for those who wish to see hope, and a worthy destination for those who wish to learn.

It is absolutely possible that the results I saw could convince rural populations to bypass failing political systems and motivate people on the land to have a positive impact on their destiny.
It is equally possible that politicians can view this sort of empowerment of people on the land as a threat to their political aspirations in a system that is fundamentally based on extracting the life-blood out of an economy.

Conclusion:
In many ways Africa has changed dramatically over the last fifty years, but it remains wild, unpredictable and appealing and continues to guard well its undisputable potential… however I would not be surprised if maps are redrawn over the next fifty years.

 

I still have hours of unprocessed video footage from my 2001 Africa trip; this time I did not take any photos. Photos for this article will be taken from earlier trips and posted on the Kachana web site on a new web-page when time permits.
Related links:
Allan Savory Africa Report June 06

Flash animation of the water cycle (850 K).

Why the focus on landscapes?
Beyond Conventional Pastoralism
Erosion: why it happens and what to do about it
There is no quicker way to sequester carbon than to manage for healthy savannahs

 



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