Archive for November, 2008

perakisj-1-with-caption1Western Kenya is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world, putting tremendous pressure on natural resources in the region. In Kakamega district, agricultural expansion, cattle grazing, fuel wood collection, and logging have reduced the once mighty indigenous rainforest to only 240 square kilometers. This trend is likely to continue, it seems, despite efforts by government and non-government agencies to combat forest destruction.

For almost one year now, I have been working with a local environmental conservation group in the southern part of the Kakamega Rainforest. Despite the unfortunate political conflict earlier this year, I was able to work with my organization to research and develop programs that address deforestation and simultaneously address the needs of the community. In particular, we developed a fuel briquette initiative to reduce the demand for firewood that is collected from the forest. Fuel briquettes are made from everyday commercial and agricultural residues and can be used as a replacement for traditional sources of energy. The system has been successfully implemented in other parts of East Africa and will certainly benefit the communities living in and around the Kakamega Rainforest. In July, we held a comprehensive workshop to train community members to make and use fuel briquettes. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support for the project.

That same month, however, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was expanding its rural electrification program to include the communities living around the lower half of the forest. In less than three weeks, and without much warning, a major section of the forest had been cleared to make way for telephone poles and overhead electric wires. Acres of indigenous forest were lost, forming small forest islands that are unable to maintain a significant level of biodiversity. In one instance, where there was a choice between indigenous land and plantation land, the indigenous land was cleared while the plantation land remained unaffected for no apparent reason other than shear convenience. The most devastating part of this all was the fact that only a handful of people raised any voice of concern, and only after the trees had been felled. I think everybody was happy to have open access to firewood and timber and even I myself was excited at the prospect of electricity. But all of this made me reflect on my own work in the forest and the value of small-scale environmental conservation programs in the face of larger-scale development issues. The immediate needs of the community seem to be more numerous and more varied than could be addressed by any one strategy for forest protection. Moreover, the pace of development in the region, in terms of infrastructural improvements and changing land-use patterns, seems to be too rapid to sustainably coexist with the forest. Though what we saw with the rural electrification program in the Kakamega forest represents unnecessary destruction caused by a hasty, careless, and close-minded approach to development. The desire to bring electricity to the region overwhelmed the need for careful sustainable planning to implement the project. In order for environmental conservation to work, we need to take time and create innovative strategies which allow for human development, but which also protect our natural resources. But who are we to deny electricity to people who have waited so long to reap the benefits of industrialization? Similarly we might ask, who are we to deny agricultural land to those who choose a subsistence lifestyle? These are not question to which I, or anybody else for that matter, have complete and unarguable answers. Finding creative ways to combat deforestation caused by fuelwood extraction is part of the solution, but without a comprehensive approach to environmental management, it appears the fate of the forest is uncertain.

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Once on of the ten richest countries in the world, recurring political corruption and an economic crisis in 2001 has greatly impacted the economic stability of the country.

The Argentine “comedor” is a mixture of a soup kitchen and community forum depending on the location. Generally comedor’s provide one daily meal for people living in the community. These meals are either eaten at the comedor, or taken home to eat. Some comedors even act as a daycare or after school program where kids can come to do homework or other activities.

koehlerj-1My name is Jacquelyn, I am from Kansas City, Kansas. I graduated in 2006 with an economics degree and was unsatisfied in my job. Wanting to enter the world of microfinance, I felt hands on experience working for a microenterprise would be essential in getting a feel for how microloans effect a community. In June 2008, I came to Argentina to work with a comedor and the baking cooperative they wanted to implement.

La Estrategia de Caracol is located on a dirt street and is a light green building thanks to a fresh coat of paint. The neighborhood is referred to as an “ausentimiento” or essentially privately owned property that was usurped by people moving to the area after the 2001 economic crisis. Houses in the area are precarious built using any materials they could find, cardboard, tin, wood boards, bricks, concrete. The street running past the comedor is not paved (as a majority are not in the area), which also means that no services pass by, including trash trucks, so people have taken it upon themselves to throw their waste in the street. Just the other day I noticed a tennis shoe embedded in the dirt road…

koehlerj-3The building consists of two rooms, one for the comedor and one for a Panadería. The comedor side is slightly older and has a tin roof speckled with holes left by a hail storm last fall. (Eventually they will lay a thin layer of tar over the roof to prevent the leaking every time it rains.) During the week, a couple women come each morning to cook lunch for the community. Community members come with their own containers in order to take the food to their homes.

However, the kitchen is lacking various basic cooking utensils. The knives in the comedor are comparable to steak knives. These small knives are used to cut hard vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and butternut squash, not an easy task – I have blisters to prove it! They did not have a can opener and one day I used a wooden stick to pound a broken knife blade and into 15 cans opening them inch by inch. After telling my host mom this, she immediately donated a small manual can opener which they have made good use of since. Old wooden cutting boards and stirring spoons are used, whose potential hazard for bacteria prevents me from eating the food as much as possible. The same three dirty, grungy dish towels are used over and I have never seen anything disinfected or a table washed with soap.

koehlerj-4This prompted me to raise funds from friends and family members in the U.S. in order to buy some of these kitchen supplies that you and I take for granted. Thanks to their great philanthropic spirits, over $400 was raised to buy these materials. In my final week here I will be buying the supplies for the comedor. I will also be holding a “hygiene” workshop to talk about proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

I accepted this internship to get experience working with a microenterprise. La Estrategia de Caracol started the idea of a panadería or bread baking cooperative early 2008 spurred by the construction of a mixed material oven due to the help of another local NGO, Biosfera, and the previous intern, Arvil. Thanks to a grant received by Arvil, they were able to buy many of the materials to realize the baking cooperative, including a 30 kilogram industrial mixer. However, when I arrived in Argentina, the baking cooperative had not yet been fully realized. The comedor provided a room in which the cooperative could be housed, but it need various repairs, including fully sealing the room (large cracks were left between the ceiling and walls), routing water and electricity from the other side of the comedor and adding locks and sufficient security to protect the expensive equipment. Many of the materials to do the repairs had already been bought with the previously received grant, the man power is what was needed. Marta’s husband, Daniel, was fully capable of doing most of the repairs, but was very busy with his job, so most of the work was put on hold.

My seeds fund grant was used to pay for some of the work to be done. My host dad, Claudio came and installed all the electric work (using both volunteered time and materials). Daniel installed the sink (though as of today water had not yet been installed.) The lock has been bought for the door. Once the lock is installed, materials can be moved to the panadería and the women in the community can start their business. Hopefully I will see some movement toward this by the time my internship ends next week.

koehlerj-5Working with the comedor and panadería has been quite an experience. It has taught me that expectation are not always met, and just because they are not met as intended does not mean that outcomes will not have an impact. It has been difficult for me to see work that is being done that I feel does not meet my “American” standards, but I have had to learn that what is acceptable for me and what is acceptable for them are two different things. They are making the best they can out of their limited resources. Whatever assistance I or other interns can give them along the way is greatly appreciated by them. We are then repaid with the satisfaction of knowing that the work we have done has hopefully helped them take another step towards a more sustainable future.

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