Considering the endless cycle of televised appeals, the global conferences to alleviate hunger and the ubiquitous twentysomethings standing on street corners asking us to fill out direct debit forms, one might assume that the more that rich countries give to the Third World, the better things would be there.
So when the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) said recently that it was planning to return with ‘interventionist strategies’, everyone must have breathed a sigh of relief. Help was on its way at last. In the hotel where we meet I ask Fatima Jibrell what she thinks of the news.
‘I don’t think the UNDP — or any UN agency, for that matter — will make any difference if it comes back to Somalia,’ she tells me. ‘And if it doesn’t come, it won’t be missed. If the UN comes, it just stays and rents a big house and drives its cars around and then leaves. I don’t seen any improvement. You tell me where it is working?’.
To understand her answer, and to understand why so many other Somalis have such a mistrust of outside aid, one needs to know something of Jibrell’s. and Somalia’s, history.
54-year-old Fatima Jibrell first awoke to the severity of Somalia’s plight when she returned to the country after attending university in the US. As a student she had campaigned for the world to do something to stop the fighting in her country, to stop arming the warring factions, so that Somalia might be given a chance to find peace. Returning home she saw thousands starving as millions of dollars were spent on a useless war, and watched as the baby goats she had played with as a child were unable to find enough food to eat, because all the acacia trees whose leaves formed the staple of their diet were being felled to fuel the country’s most economically profitable, if environmentally destructive industry — the production of charcoal.
But rather than give up, or leave the country, Jibrell committed herself to working to bring about the changes that might help her country recover. To this end she has set up and worked with numerous different groups. Though they may work in disparate fields, all these groups are driven by the same ethos. As Jibrell insists: Somalia’s future can only be built from inside Somalia, by the Somali people using their own indigenous knowledge and resources.
The list of these groups is impressive. Jibrell was instrumental in creating the Women’s Coalition for Peace, set up to counter political crisis in the Puntland region of north-east Somalia. She is coordinator of the Resource Management Somalia Network, which unites environmental groups across the Horn of Africa. And she has joined with several villages in the region of eastern Sanaag to form the Buran Rural Institute. Last May the institute organised a camel caravan: young people loaded tents and equipment onto camels and spent three weeks walking through nomadic areas. The volunteers educated people about how to use and protect their fragile resources, healthcare and livestock, and how to live peacefully with one another.
But her most notable success is her work with Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organisation, which she founded and still runs. This year, that work has been awarded with a Goldman Prize — environmentalism’s equivalent of a Nobel. And Jibrell is en route for the US to receive her award when I meet her.
Somalia’s Black Gold
Traditionally Somalia only produced charcoal for its own local market, employing a small number of people. However, ever since the collapse of the country’s central government in 1991 and the ensuing civil war, the lack of central control has led to widespread, environmentally destructive logging, accompanied by inter-clan warring over control of the trade. Following the livestock export ban imposed by the Gulf States in 2000, charcoal replaced beef as the number one export, earning it the sobriquet Somalia’s Black Gold. However, like oil, this black gold comes with a heavy price for the environment.
At the height of the trade, hundreds of square kilometres of trees were being cleared a month. Once the trees have been burned, the scarred land that remains cannot support life.
Most of the trees felled are acacia, important in Somalia, not least because the leaves provide food and shelter for the livestock that forms the basis of Somalis’ traditional diet. Full-grown trees, which are aged between 50 and 500 years, were being turned into charcoal and exported at the staggering rate of 30,000 tonnes a month.
In addition, many other bushes and plants in the logging areas are used as kindling to help burn the larger trees. This is a dangerous process that can cause runaway forest fires which wipes out hundreds of kilometers of much needed bush and forest at a time.
Finally, the trucks that carry the charcoal leave rutted tracks in their wake. These tracks end up as eroded gullies when the rains came,
Working with her group, Jibrell trained a team of young people to organise awareness campaigns telling people about the irreversible damage the charcoal trade caused. This culminated in a peace march through Puntland’s main town, calling for an end to the ‘charcoal wars’ being fought by the different clans over control of the trade.
It worked. In 2000 the Puntland regional government banned the export of charcoal. The ban has remained in place ever since, and has resulted in an 80 per cent reduction in charcoal exports.
But Jibrell was aware that it was not enough just to stop the trade. She had to offer sustainable alternatives. So, at the same time as she was explaining to people why they must stop making and using charcoal, she promoted the use of simple solar cookers — so breaking the domestic dependence on charcoal, replacing it with a clean, and cheaper alternative.
She may have won an ‘Environmental Nobel’ for her efforts, but Jibrell would rather emphasise that she was just part of a team and is reticent about any discussion of the prize itself. She seems utterly unimpressed by the trappings of so-called Western progress. She has good reason.
‘Somalia was not always like this,’ she says, adding that, in order to learn how her country can survive, she spends much of her time speaking with and listening to the many nomadic peoples that make up nearly 80 per cent of her country’s population. It is their indigenous knowledge, she insists, passed on from generation to generation of pastoralists who have lived and survived in Somalia’s difficult conditions, that holds the key to her country’s future.
‘In the past,’ she continues, ‘before the arrival of the colonialists, these nomads had their own way of protecting against the cycle of drought. When the weathers were good, they would take their cattle far away from the watering holes and leave the land nearest the water, which is, of course, the most fertile, untouched. When the droughts did come they could return to these fields that they had saved, which now would be the only ones still rich with water.’
All this changed with the arrival of first the British and then the Italians in the 19th century. For the Somalis, surviving for themselves was no longer enough. Now they had to compete for a share in the markets for which the Europeans compelled them to work. Inevitably greed got the better of some, who rejected all that their old wisdom had taught, and began to farm the land near the water holes in the search for quick profits. Fighting broke out over who controlled these profitable lands. And then, when the inevitable droughts returned, there were no fertile pastures to return to.
So began Somalia’s collapse, a century of division and drought where tribes fought one another relentlessly, while the people starved in their thousands.
In 1992, with the country torn apart by civil war and facing the worst drought in a decade, the international community finally acted. (Actually it had been acting all along behind the scenes, supplying arms and influence, with the US alone providing Somalia with military aid worth $390 million between 1980 and 1989).
In December of that year, 28,000 US Navy Seals and Marines charged up Mogadishu beach to the delight of the attendant crowd of camera crews and reporters, all of whom had been briefed by the Defense Department in advance of the landing. What followed was one of the most painful episodes in recent US and Somali history, jingoistically recast last year in the US’ favour by Ridley Scott’s film, ‘Black Hawk Down’. The tragically misnamed Operation Restore Hope was a cruel and unmitigated disaster, in which 10,000 Somalis died, mostly women and children. Former US ambassador to Somalia T Frank Crigler accused the US and UN of ‘turning triumph into tragedy, applying brute military force to a situation that calls for quiet diplomacy, patient mediation, steadiness and understanding’. As if to emphasise the total lack of all the above qualities, certain US leaflets distributed to civilians during the campaign had mis-translated ‘United Nations’ when turning it into Somali. Instead it read ‘Slave Nation’.
It is now 10 years later. Somalia is once again facing a devastating drought, which local people say could be the worst for 50 years. Up to 800,000 people are at risk of death.
I want to know what Jibrell thinks her country needs. She doesn’t have any time for the UN, or for its development arm the UNDP, yet her organisation is called Horn of Africa Relief and Development. Does she think, then, that there is still a place for development in her country’s future?
‘Development is not about doctorates and PhDs,’ shel replies. ‘It’s about us developing our natural resources holistically on our own terms. By which I mean that we will use our indigenous knowledge, and then choose to use what outside help we believe can support us.’
This is a long way from the open-market mantra of globalisation which puts all knowledge up for grabs to the highest bidder. As Jibrell sees it, those pushing development on her country now are little better than the colonists of the 19th century. She once wrote: ‘Slavery was also about profit for the then developing [Western] world. It provided free human resources. Profit makers of today do not claim ownership of individuals, but they are busy making fast profits by exploiting and destroying the natural and human resources in a very cruel and greedy manner.'(n1)
Nothing Jibrell has seen since has changed her mind.
‘Don’t you see what the fishing fleets are doing to the reefs?’ She asks the question in such a way as to make me feel directly responsible for the damage. ‘The reefs took millions of years to grow. Now they are using nets that are destroying them in seconds. Do we have another two million years to wait for them to grow back? The acacia tree that took between 50 to 500 years to grow is gone. Do we have time to wait for that to come back?
‘And don’t listen when they blame the corruption of our ministers. In Somalia now we are not saying that we wish we had received the IMF loans that the presidents and ministers were putting in their pockets and calling aid. We don’t miss them. We’re happy not to get them.’
The evidence supports her. In a 1995 article, Somalia expert and former editor of Somalia News Update Bernhard Helander wrote: ‘Militia strength and the ability of factional leaders to hijack Somalia’s future are functions of the levels of influx of dollars and aid. The more funds that come in, the more likely it is that the artificial factions will be able to cling on to aspirations of power.’ On the other hand, he added,’In areas which have received minimal levels of aid and political involvement, quite different processes have emerged… Since then, clans of the area have been engaged in an impressive series of conferences engaging continuously widening spheres of clan elders, professionals, intellectuals and politicians.'(n2)
The trouble is, explains Jibrell, the nature of globalisation is such that even when Somalia isn’t being crippled by debt-related aid European fishing fleets are dumping illegal waste off its shores, and DDT is still being exported to the country despite its being banned in America and Europe.
‘There are certain insects in hot countries that live off and decompose the animal droppings before they get too hard and dry,’ she tells me. ‘But DDT has wiped them out. So now, the manure just hardens in the sun, the soil does not get fertilised, the trees don’t grow and there are no leaves for the baby goats to eat and turn back into manure.’ It is a fatal cycle, and the only amount of foreign interference that will solve it is none.
‘How are we going to survive?’ she asks. ‘We don’t want to leave, we love our hot country. But if there is nothing left in our land and we have to, then the survivors will come to your shores. The rest will die. So which is better? For your countries in Europe and the US to get rich for a little while from our resources, or for those resources to sustain whoever lives in Somalia?’
The answer: build hundreds of dams
Although she urges the outside world to pressure its companies and governments not to abuse the Third World, Jibrell does not believe the solutions to her country’s problems will be ones that are externally introduced, financed and controlled. For her, the answers are simpler, smaller, cheaper and indigenous. If only we would leave Somalia alone.
‘Imagine there is a seven-year-old boy working as a herder for baby goats,’ she says — and the changes in her face show that, while she is deeply angered by the injustices inflicted upon her country and the world, she is also an optimist.
‘Instead of this child just sitting around all day idly, what we have him and his friends doing now is studying the land that they know so well, and seeking out the traces of the rivers. Whenever they find a trace they follow the line to its weakest point, which is just where the bends start. There he puts some stones, one on top of the other — say eight or nine, to form a small rock dam. Then he continues downstream to the next bend. He builds another dam, and another, until the end of the day.
‘Then when everyone comes home they will sit around the fires and talk and share their experiences. “How many dams did you build today?” It becomes a game, with everyone involved — the mother, father and all the children.
‘You do not want the water to stop,’ she adds, picking up a little chocolate wrapped in the logo of the hotel we are talking in and turning it on its side on the table. ‘It will create a gully. You want it to slow down, so you have to position the stones so.’ She lies the chocolate down flat, mimicking the dam building.
‘You want it to slow down so that the water will deposit soil and manure and seed. Then, after seven or so days something may grow up from the soil — maybe some grass, or an acacia bush, or a tree. And if it grows, then later the baby goats can come up and munch at its leaves.’ She accompanies her last sentence with little munching sounds, her fingers and thumb snapping together like a shadow puppet.
‘Suppose one tree lives. It will grow and become bushy. It will become cover for the land, and this will stop soil erosion and the leaves will provide food for the goats and the sheep and the cattle. And we repeat the process all across Somalia.
‘Slowly but surely, over 20 years or more our country will recover. It is not a difficult solution. It’s not quick, but nor is it expensive. And, most importantly, it does not involve the UN.’
originally published in The Ecologist, Jun 2002