Sunday, November 22, 2009
Garden of Eden in the Sand
A small group of us attended a talk by an extraordinary man, Arne Garvi. He's Norwegian, but has lived in an arid, impoverished part of Niger since 1986. That year, he and his wife and three young children got into their VW van and drove from Scandinavia across the Sahara Desert to implement an untested idea for growing food in the desert without fertilizers or irrigation. Twenty-three years later Arne and his son are still there. His wife passed away a year and a half ago. 2600 households in the area around his station are now eating fruits and nuts from plants and trees that grow where before was just miles of land with not a plant or tree in sight. The area gets about 9" of rain per year, enough for one season of millet, assuming no drought. After the millet season the men head out of the area to find work while the women and children fend for themselves.
Arne's idea was to find and distribute seeds for plants and trees that were once indigenous to the area, adding diversity and something edible throughout the year, let alone some greenery on an otherwise barren and monochromatic expanse of land. The locals had cleared the land of trees long before because the birds that came to the trees also ate their millet. With a diversity of plants, that's no longer a problem. Arne said he practiced "passive persuasion," growing things on his land and then hoping it would arouse the curiosity of his new neighbors. He did not want to "sell" his ideas. He imagined it would require ten years before people would get interested in what he was doing on his land, but people started coming with questions and asking for his free seeds after three years. At this point there are 2600 households that have planted the diverse plants and trees and have been eating and marketing their fruits. The work has been done by and large by women and it has altered gender dynamics and generated some income for families.
When he first arrived, he was asked by a local official, how long he'd be staying. In that area they have seen a number of do-good agencies send people to do a project that always seems to end within 2 - 5 years. Arne looked down at his son and said he could only promise them two generations. He has definitely made good on that idealistic promise. It is called the Eden Project.