Tag Archives: Environment

A story on every corner

My first full-time gig as a reporter was a wonderful summer in a small city in eastern Canada. Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. It’s home to the provincial legislative assembly and two universities. The problem for news-gatherers is that those three institutions are effectively in hibernation for the summer months. Between May and September, there isn’t much in the way of sensational news in Fredericton. I remember a day where the cameraman and I drove around looking for news. After a few hours of searching, we did a story about a small rise in the number of visitors to a provincial park.

The JHR team and bike drivers on the way to Yeliboya Island.

Developed countries like Canada can be referred to as “developed”, because not much happens. Citizens are safe, healthy, secure and, for the most part, have their human rights respected. Here in Sierra Leone that is not the case. Before I came here, a former JHR trainer told me that “there is a story on every corner.” I think of that phrase almost every day.

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

Kambia town is just a few kilometres from the Guinean border

For the last reporting trip of my time in Sierra Leone, we decided to head north to Kambia District to see what sort of stories we could find. I mentored two journalists from Africa Young Voices Radio, with help from JHR Local Trainer Kevin Lamdo and Kambia journalist Gibril Gottor (recently-crowned Male Media Professional of the Year). Our plan was to do two stories.

We started with a story on unsafe abortion. Abortion is illegal in almost all cases in Sierra Leone. The current legislation dates back to 1861. A recent report showed that, in 2011, 1,622 women went to hospital as a result of the effects of illegal abortions. It estimates that almost 2% of abortions resulted in the mother’s death. We spoke to a community doctor, nurses, a pastor, and after some searching we finally a woman who said she had had an abortion, performed illegally in a local hospital. Story #1.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone's Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don't like him much.

Gibril Gottor. Sierra Leone’s Male Media Professional of the Year. The border police don’t like him much.

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river

Hanging toilets on Yeliboya Island drop waste straight into the river.

On the way to Yeliboya, we had stopped at the village of Kychom to hire our boat. While waiting, we noticed hundreds of empty water packets sitting in the sun. These ubiquitous 500ml bags of water are the cheapest way to get purified drinking water. The packets litter the streets and clog-up drains across the country, contributing to sewers flooding the streets in rainy season. AYV reporter Princetta Williams asked about the packets. A woman told her she was drying them to send them north to Guinea for recycling. Recycling programmes are almost unknown in Sierra Leone. Story #3.

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

Water packets drying in the sun at Kychom, Kambia District

When we got back to Kambia town we noticed new sets of clean water taps around the town. They were all installed with the help of the Japanese government in February. But they had all been turned off for the past month. It turned out that very few local home-owners were paying the monthly fee of Le15,000 ($3.50). The local water company engineer said that all he needed was $50 of fuel per day, to pump the water and restore supply. He also said the Ministry of Water was supposed to inject $17,500 into the project in February. The money came two months late, and was only $9,300 – enough to pay-off some of the fuel debts. In the past month, locals have been going to old water sources that are no longer chlorinated. Story #4.

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

Africa Young Voices Journalist Diana Coker checks the closed taps in Kambia

On our second evening in Kambia, we decided to head north to the Guinean border. After a colourful exchange with border police (Gibril said they don’t like him very much), we were allowed to walk into Guinea. The border is protected by four rope barriers. But just off to the side is a modern border complex, with barriers, offices and an inspection zone. It was closed. We wandered across. A sign highlighted the grand opening of the Joint Customs Border Post on June 2nd – just days away, I thought. I read it again, June 2nd… 2012. The project was funded by the National Revenue Agency and has sat empty for a year. Story #5.

Nothing seems to surprise Sierra Leonean journalists. Almost everything still surprises me here. When I leave Sierra Leone this month, I will miss it desperately. I fear that life will be too boring back in the developed world. The thing is, so many Sierra Leoneans long for the day when life here is as quite, as healthy and as uneventful as places like Fredericton.

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used

The one-year-old Joint Customs Border Post has not yet been used


Digging up the future

In Hollywood “romcom” movies, you’ll sometimes see the male lead whisk away his lady in a blindfold for a surprise holiday. When they arrive, he removes her blindfold and she gushes in delight. Maybe that was an episode of The Bachelor, but I think you know what I’m talking about.

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

Bureh Beach is about 90 minutes from Freetown

If such a thing were ever to happen to you, and you were brought to Bureh Beach, you would almost certainly think you were in the Caribbean. Along Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula, below Freetown, there are a dozen-or-so beaches like this. The beach known as River Number 2 was used in a classic Bounty chocolate bar ad.

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Tokeh Beach, south of Freetown

Some of these beaches are just 30 minutes from the capital. For a country as poor as Sierra Leone, the potential benefits from tourism are huge. But before that can happen, the country needs to improve its infrastructure. Freetown’s international airport is currently in Lungi, at the opposite side of a wide estuary. It’s a $40, 40-minute ferry ride to Freetown (cheaper ferries take longer). Getting to a beach from the airport is a long and cumbersome affair.

The government recently announced plans to build a new airport south of Freetown, quite close to the beaches. A new road is also under construction to bypass central Freetown, giving even quicker access to the beaches. Sierra Leone is a six-hour flight from Europe, the same as the Caribbean. It would seem as though all the pieces will soon be in place for a tourism boom. One obstacle remains. Sand Mining.

Legal sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach

Sand miners on their way back from John Obey Beach – where mining is allowed on a limited basis.

The recent economic growth in Sierra Leone has seen a jump in the number of public and private construction projects. Sand is an important ingredient in this building industry, and free sand is just sitting on the beaches near Freetown. For years, trucks would head to the beaches and teams of men with their shovels would spend the day filling them up. Back-breaking work, but work nonetheless. Recently, this practice has been mostly outlawed. The government now only allows mining during daylight hours at one beach at a time. But the sand mining still happens on most beaches at night time.

A guest house owner told us that these rocks were once covered in sand.

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts told us that these rocks were once covered in flat sand.

Radio Democracy Journalist Keziah Gbondo and I headed down to Lakka Beach to find out more about the effect of the mining, and the extent to which it still continues. Guest house owner Marcus Roberts took us on a tour of the beach and showed us how the landscape had changed over the past decade. He told us how visitors now complain of sprained ankles because of the unnaturally sharp slope on the beach.

Around the corner he took us on a tour of a swanky seaside house, abandoned by its Lebanese owner about a decade ago. Its pool now half-collapsed into the sea. Other residents nearby told us they now fear for the future of their own houses, large and small.

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Keziah Gbondo interviews Marcus Roberts by an abandoned house in Lakka

Later that night, we walked the beach, looking for miners. For hours, all we could see were flash lights in the distance, but when walked on we saw no one, just some tell-tale trenches feshly-dug in the beach. Eventually, at 1:30 a.m. we found one miner, filling a bag and lifting it off the beach

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

Guest house owner Marcus Roberts finds a freshly-dug sand pit

He looked petrified, but agreed to speak to us if we kept his identity secret. He was in his mid-twenties and had a weak-looking right leg – an injury picked up during his days as a child soldier in the civil war. He told us he had no education, so this is the only way he can earn a living. He gets two or three dollars a night. He says police sometimes catch miners like him. They ask for a bribe rather than issuing an official fine.

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

A sand miner with a bag of sand on Lakka Beach

The local police unit commander blamed a lack of resources for not being able to stop the miners. The Executive Director of the EPA told us how she values the beaches as a vital part of the country’s environment. But for now, the mining continues, and locals dig up their future, to feed themselves today.

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Inside an abandoned house near Lakka Beach

Keziah Gbondo’s story aired this month on Good Morning Salone on Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. The producer said it had a remarkably high response from listeners, in support of protecting Sierra Leone’s “Taste of Paradise”.

Rain in Liberia and how weather becomes an issue of health, and even life or death

During Liberia's wet season, neighbourhood wells can become contaminated with waterborne diseases, to which children are especially susceptible. Travis Lupick photo.

Living in Liberia through the country’s wet season, I find myself nostalgic for the relatively dry climate of Vancouver. To witness a true West African monsoon is to realize that western Canada is seldom inconvenienced by more than a drizzle.

A couple of statistics to explain my point: downtown Vancouver receives an average annual rainfall of 1,590 millimetres. Monrovia: 5,300 millimetres. The capital of Liberia sees almost as much rain during the month of July (1,150 millimetres) as Vancouver does in an entire year.

For many in Liberia, weather is an issue of health, and even life or death.

On a recent visit to Monrovia’s West Point neighbourhood, Thomas Tweh, head of the community’s sanitation committee, explained the problems that come with the wet season.

“When it rains, the water flows through the streets and into the wells,” he said. “Water with feces goes into the wells.”

During seasonal flooding, wells with openings at ground level are easily contaminated with waterborne diseases such as dysentery. Travis Lupick photo.

Lacking access to the city’s water supply, Tweh estimated that West Point relies on wells for 95 percent of its water needs.

He said that residents know that water from the wells is not safe to drink. But for many, the cost of clean drinking water leaves them no choice.

“And the little ones, they drink the well water unknowingly,” Tweh added. “This is how they become sick with waterborne diseases.”

West Point is one of the poorest areas of Monrovia. A July 2012 report on the neighborhood found that 85 percent of households live on less than 4,000 Liberian dollars (US$57) a month (and many, significantly less than that). That same study reported that water pollution is the primary community concern. West Point sits at sea level, and so is especially prone to flooding.

Tweh listed dysentery and typhoid as seasonal problems that come with the rains every year.

“We are talking about diseases like cholera,” he continued. “Just three weeks ago, a child fell sick from some water. We tried rehydration. But within a number of hours, he was gone.”

In Clara Town, another low-income neighborhood in Monrovia, David Jacobs, chairperson for the community, relayed complaints similar to those of Tweh.

“The drainage ditches around this community are very, very small,” Jacobs noted. “They were not meant for this many people,” which is he estimates is around 48,000.

In Clara Town, Monrovia, a lack of options for waste disposal has resulted in drainage ditches meant clogged with waste. Travis Lupick photo.

Touring Clara Town, Jacobs pointed to open waterways clogged by piles of garbage. He explained that the community lacks a proper facility for waste, and so people use the drainage ditches as disposal sites.

“When the rains come, the water just goes everywhere,” Jacobs lamented. “Sanitation is the issue here. You get cases of diarrhea.”

Back in West Point, Tweh presented a simple plan that could drastically improve the quality of the community’s well water.

He wants to strip existing wells of their metal linings— which are porous and rust— and replace them with more durable, heavy plastic linings. In addition, Tweh continued, wells with openings at ground level should be raised with concrete barriers so that their entry points always remain above flood levels.

Tweh has identified 50 specific wells for such renovations, and estimates that the cost of each upgrade would be US$100, or US$5,000 to significantly improve the quality of sanitation for a community of some 72,000 people.

Tweh maintained that funding remains the only barrier to his plan. He said that he’s approached several NGOs active in Monrovia, “but everybody is holding on to their money.”

Thomas Tweh, head of sanitation for Monrovia's West Point community, says he has a practical plan to improve access to clean water in the area. Travis Lupick photo.

Jacobs similarly has ideas about how to address the sanitation problems he described in Clara Town. Drainage ditches should be widened, he suggested. And open sewers should be covered to prevent people from using them for the disposal of garbage.

But again, there’s a lack of funding.

Both West Point and Clara Town are technically informal settlements— slums, as they are commonly referred. And so while the City does do business with them and is beginning to provide the most basic of social services, neither community is a high priority for the Mayor’s office.

During our interview, Tweh repeatedly returned to the story of the young boy who succumbed to dysentery. He emphasized how easily the death could have been prevented.

“They tried to take the child to the health facility,” Tweh recounted. “But at the end of the day, the child was lost.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

Fighting for the front page: The challenges of environmental reporting in Malawi

In Malawi, parliamentary proceedings and political scandals dominate the headlines and radio waves.  Whether it is a mere press conference or cabinet reshuffling, journalists jump at the chance to report on governmental affairs. The prevalence of political coverage, however, means that other issues are sidelined.

The country’s state of underdevelopment, coupled with intermittent electricity and water shortages, serve as a constant reminder that there is a long way to go in the creation of even the most basic infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, sustainable energy and water management are worthy topics of discussion. Furthermore, clear-cutting in Malawi’s northern region has left large tracks of land barren, and poaching has devastated animal populations in the country’s national parks and game reserves. Nevertheless, such pressing environmental issues remain largely ignored by the mainstream media.

In recent years, a multilateral effort to encourage journalists to cover environmental issues has been underway. Various organizations under the United Nations (UN) banner, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), are behind this push driven by global objectives – namely the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

For the past two years, MIJ FM reporter Anthony Masamba has been a regular participant in environmental reporting workshops.

Masamba explained that at these workshops, journalists are trained to understand the linkages between climate change and a range of issues, from agriculture and health, to transport. Through these sessions “journalists have been imparted with skills that allow them to write good stories from an informed perspective, as most of these journalists have not been trained to report on environmental issues,” he said. While “most of them have knowledge in journalism – they know how to write,” Masamba explained that many journalists have yet to grasp the technical languages and jargon of environment and climate change.

For this reason, the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) offers an Environmental Reporting class for certificate and diploma-level students. The course aims to equip students with knowledge on major environmental issues facing the contemporary world, as well as stimulate interest in the topic. The curriculum encompasses environmental issues, ethics, policies and legislation, as well as the idea of sustainable development.

MIJ student Patrick Botha believes that workshops and coursework are a valuable means by which to encourage journalists and journalism students to work to ensure a sustainable environment. “[Journalists] have a role to play and it is their duty to inform the masses and expose issues. There is a need to engage these journalists to create an interest in them to report on such issues,” Botha said.

Undoubtedly, journalists play a crucial role in information dissemination, knowledge acquisition and overall awareness. While media houses are a useful outlet for the promotion of sustainable development and campaigning for social change, clear challenges remain.

“Here in Malawi, if a newspaper is to sell, it must have a political story on the front page,” Masamba explained. “No one will buy a paper with a headline that reads climate change impacts development – Malawians want to read about politics. If a paper has politics on the front page, it will sell like hot cakes,” he added.

At the same time, further challenges arise as a result of the hierarchical newsroom structure. Masamba outlined a typical scenario: “I can have an idea for a story. I write my letter seeking financial support but if my request is not approved, what do I do? I just sit because I cannot support myself to go that far to do just a story.”

Botha explained that for journalists concerned with nabbing a front-page byline, there is even less motivation to report on environmental issues. With such an article, “they will probably make the third, fourth, or twentieth-something page.” According to Botha, another deterrent “is the belief that the majority of people will not bother to read [an environmental story] unless they have nothing better to do.”

Despite the workshops and other efforts, Masamba attests that the impact has not been realized due to a lack of political will. “At the moment in Malawi we do not have a climate change policy. This is a policy that would provide guidelines through which climate change issues can best be addressed or integrated into various programs,” he explained.

Masamba believes that the Malawian government’s failure to implement such a policy is unacceptable. “How do they handle climate change issues without having a climate change policy? This is a policy that would provide guidelines, but they don’t have it,” he explained. “We as journalists have our own challenges, but the government, on their part, must show political will,” Masamba said.

As for the future of environmental reporting in Malawi, Masamba has high hopes. His optimism stems from the country’s new leadership, which has already outlined a way forward. For instance, in place of the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment the Joyce Banda administration has established the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. “In coming up with this ministry, I think this government has shown political will towards addressing issues to do with climate change,” Masamba said.

Tamale’s rights media crusader: The story of Joseph Ziem

Choosing a pen and paper over a bow and arrow, Joseph Ziem is the Robin Hood of Ghanaian rights media.

Joseph Ziem - advocate, journalist, environmentalist.

“When I see something wrong, I start to ask questions,” says Ziem. “Who is supposed to deal with this situation? Why is it like this?”

A blogger, a radio host, a freelance writer – Ziem chooses not to limit himself to one title. However, the focus of his pieces are clear: giving a voice to the voiceless and holding those in power accountable.

“I am a human rights journalist, I’m a development journalist, and I’m an environmental journalist; human rights journalism is in all of them,” the 28-year-old explains.

What makes Ziem unique among other journalists in Ghana is not the quantity of his stories but rather their calibre. While prominent Ghanaian newspapers are headlining “Fisherman Kills Rival” and “Robbers Rape Student Nurse”, Ziem challenges the sensational with titles such as “Disbandment of Witches’ Camps Should Not Endanger Lives of Victims” and “Costly Disasters Created By Mining Companies in Ghana”.

Ziem has made his mark on a wide array of media outlets: as a radio host for Tamale’s FIILA FM, northern correspondent for the Daily Dispatch newspaper, staff writer for The Advocate and Free Press newspapers, and most recently co-founder of the development issues-oriented blog, Savannah News.

Ziem’s interest in journalism began as if torn from the script of a Hollywood childhood fantasy: nose pressed to the glass, fogging up the window with wide-eyed curiosity. It started in 2002, when a community radio station opened up in his hometown of Nandom.

“I peeked through the window of the station and saw gadgets,” he recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How can people sit inside this room and when they talk, people just tuning their radio sets can hear what they are saying?’ I was inquisitive. When I went to senior high, I nurtured this ambition to become a broadcaster.”

However, a crusader’s path is rarely without challenges. Ziem explains that he was unable to complete high school, only half a percent shy from making the minimum grade of 50 per cent to move up a grade.

“I was sacked. I think somebody was in there to get me out of school,” he confides.

Unable to make the grade, he was denied entry into his final years of senior high and moved south to Kumasi to recalibrate his future with broadcast journalism.  Not letting his academic standing stop him, Ziem was determined to carve a new path to his dream. Six months later and six cedi lighter for the application, Ziem enrolled himself in broadcasting school.

After four years in the industry, Ziem was awarded the 2010 Kasa Media Award for Natural Resources and Environmental Journalism.

He still remembers the call from Kasa Media.

“I just knew I had won. When they said congratulations, I said Hallelujah,” he says.

Ziem wrote the award-winning article in response to foreign gold mining activities in Northern Ghana. Mining is one of Ghana’s largest industries and yet the government only sees a fraction of the royalties.  His article highlighted the effects of desertification wrought by mining activities in the North and the impact on many surrounding communities’ ability to access to clean drinking water. Ziem advocated that the environmental and health risks to the nation were not worth the profits evidently escaping the country.

Word came back to Ziem about other stories as well. A community in the East Gonja region of Ghana faced constant power outages by the Volta River Authority (VRA). The community advocated several times to the VRA regarding their right to electricity, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Ziem wrote a story for the Daily Dispatch advocating that the VRA address their concerns. It was passed on to the Accra head office and the resolution caught the attention of the wider community.

He admits that there is not much money to be made in journalism in Tamale. Journalists in town earn between 50 to 70 cedi a month (around 30-40 CAD). However, Ziem’s affirms that his passion is rooted in the positive effect journalism can have on improving the standards of living in communities and the environment.

In journalism, he says, “if you want to be rich, do not come. But if you want to save humanity, you are welcome.”

Despite choosing silver-framed sunglasses and a well pressed shirt over a green cape and tights, the fervour for justice remains the same.

“Until I see nothing wrong around me,” he says, “I won’t stop writing.”

Malawi prepares for climate change

Charcoal producers in rural Malawi understand that their work hurts the environment, but they argue that poverty leaves them little choice but to continue working in the industry. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Daniel Chakunkha and Mussa Abu understand that what they do for money is detrimental to Malawi’s environment – but poverty has left them little choice in the matter.

“We are well aware of the effects of deforestation on the environment but we are forced by circumstances,” said Chakunkha.

“We are feeling the effects of these self inflicted injuries,” Abu added. “When we had enough vegetative cover, the soil was very fertile and strong because of the leaves and roots. Nowadays, our farmland has become useless.”

These men are charcoal producers; to earn money to feed their families, they fell trees and slowly heat the wood to turn it into the chalky lumps of biomass used for cooking across the country.

Charcoal is big business in Malawi. According to a 2007 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the industry employs upwards of 93,000 people and charcoal is used for cooking by 85 per cent of households surveyed.

But charcoal production is also a leading source of deforestation in Malawi, a densely-populated country where resource depletion is an increasingly-pressing concern.

Chakunkha and Abu maintain that they do not want continue exacting such a toll on the environment. But they are poor and must do what they can to see that their incomes grow.

The two old men told me that last week, in a remote village called Makunje. Not so far away, in Durban, South Africa, similar arguments are being made by some of the most powerful men and women in the world.

Monday marked the opening of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or if you’re on Twitter, just #COP17). More than 20,000 state delegates, lobbyists and scientists are meeting to negotiate resolutions and agreements around climate change.

As U.K. publication, the Guardian, paraphrased it, the International Energy Agency’s “most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure” recently warned that “the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels.”

Yet despite such a dire pronouncement by the world’s foremost authority on energy, it largely won’t be the environment that’s the focus of discussion among world leaders in Durban next week.

For years now, international talks on climate change have been locked in arguments between the world’s richest economies –including the United States, European Union, and Canada– and the world’s fastest growing economies –such as China, India, and Brazil– over who gets to pollute the most and why.

Largely left out of the debate are the world’s poorest nations, which are not only the countries least-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change, but also those projected to be the worst-affected. (For a map illustrating how climate change will specifically affect Africa, click here.)

“(Malawi’s) total emissions are insignificant at the global level,” said Yanira Ntupanyama, director of Environmental Affairs, “and yet we do suffer from the consequential adverse effects of climate change that include intense rainfall, floods, droughts, dry spells, cold spells, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, hailstorms, mudslides and heat waves, among others.”

Ntupanyama described the link between climate change and extreme weather – which was recently confirmed a reality by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as “a threat to the country’s socio-economic development, attainment of the goals in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy, as well as the Millennium Development Goals.”

Speaking as she packed for her flight to Durban for the convention, Ntupanyama detailed a host of measures adopted by the Government of Malawi to minimizing the country’s contributions to greenhouse gases and prepare the nation for oncoming stresses associated with climate change.

For example, there is the Greenbelt Initiative, Ntupanyama said, which was designed to safeguard against climate change impacts like erratic rains and unexpected draughts. And the National Framework for Managing Climate Change, she continued, which is promoting adaptation and mitigation capacities, strengthening weather forecasting capabilities, and researching how to strengthen the management of climate change.

But there is always more work to be done. “We need to up-scale the effort, scope and modalities of funding to effectively manage the efforts of climate change,” Ntupanyama added.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

One little voice – a journalist defends the environment, champions human rights

The result of coastal erosion – this tree has been uprooted.

Christian Baidoo was still a student when villagers from his community, Assorku Essaman, decided to chop down an ancient Brokofi tree, believing it harboured witches, incarnate in owls that were bringing misfortune to the village.

“Such trees actually need to be protected. I see people in this community don’t give such relevance to trees. They don’t see the importance of trees,” says Baidoo, noting the Brokofi tree can grow for hundreds of years and its trunk can be as wide as five feet.

“I think trees also have a legacy and we need to protect them,” he says.

Twenty years after the historic tree was felled, Baidoo, now a reporter and presenter at Skyy Power FM in Takoradi, has made it his personal mission to make people aware about the environmental impacts of their actions.

“It’s all about education,” he says.

Since becoming a journalist, Baidoo has always focussed on human rights and social justice issues, knowing he was “saving lives with those stories.” But it hasn’t always been easy when media houses lack the resources needed to pursue the stories that count. Baidoo has had to sacrifice his own time and money, devoting his weekends to bringing stories from his home community and other rural villages to public attention.

“If we are able to highlight some of these things and people are aware that when they do this, they are going to be showcased in the public, it’s going to be brought into the limelight what they are doing, it will be some sort of disgrace to them and they will rescind their decision.”

That’s even more important now than ever before in the “Oil City” where the environment has long been left out of the discussion about oil development.

Along the shores of Shama, Baidoo points out large rifts of sand several feet deep that reveal Western Region’s changing coastline. Human activities, like sand winning and construction of sea walls have hastened the erosion of a beach line that today is several hundred metres from where it was only several decades ago. Adding to the problem is climate change, which is causing sea levels to rise.

“Even last year, the river came into people’s houses and some of their houses are broken down, some are collapsed and they’re now building new ones,” says Patience Amusa from Shama Beach.

Kennedy Amegah, a fisherman, is concerned about the environmental degradation he’s witnessed on the coast, but when Baidoo asks him, he says he has never heard of climate change.

“A lot of these fishermen are losing their livelihoods because a lot of them have their businesses located right at the shoreline where people smoke fish, where people mend their canoes. All these places are being overtaken by the sea,” says Baidoo. By some estimates, the whole village may have to re-locate in less than five years.

Ghana’s emerging oil industry comes complete with a whole new set of environmental concerns that could affect the natural ecology and life on the coast. Baidoo says the country is not prepared to deal with the environmental impacts of developing the industry.

“The government has been convinced to believe that soon crude prices are going to fall very, very low and that even if you have crude it’s not going to be of any importance, so even if we are not ready with the institutions to check pollution or have structures put in place to be sure we are getting the desired benefits we should just go ahead for it because of the fact crude oil prices could fall in the near future,” says Baidoo.

Christian Baidoo was still a student when villagers from his community, Assorku Essaman, decided to chop down an ancient Brokofi tree, believing it harboured witches.

“And I think it’s a very bad decision,” he adds. “Ghana’s is also striving to develop industrially. There’s no rush. I believe we could have waited until we put all the necessary structures in place.”

Baidoo will continue to write stories about the environment on the coast and oil’s impact. He also has plans to adopt three daughter Brokofi trees, so that he can protect them from the same fate as their mother.

“I think that with my little voice I can make some impact,” he says.

Monkey business in Northern Ghana

I snapped photos of the setting sun over Ghana’s Mole National Park, not wanting the day to end.  As I turned around I realized I was not alone.   About ten feet away on the path leading to my chalet sat a female baboon staring expectantly at me.  I let out a piercing scream and began pounding on the door.

Irrational reaction?  Maybe.  Conventional wisdom says I should have shown-no-fear and charged, but if you had seen those teeth…

As the sun sets, a baboon relaxes at Mole National Park.

We had spent the day touring what the Bradt Ghana guide calls the “linchpin” of Northern Ghana’s tourist circuit.  Mole National Park is known as one of the cheapest ways in Africa to go on safari, but also an example of failure on the part of government and local communities to capitalize on tourism potential.

The park is served by a bumpy dirt road that takes hours to travel by an unreliable twice-daily bus service from Tamale, the regional capital where I live.  Many locals have lamented to me that if only the government paved the road, more people from the wealthier, more populated South would visit the park.

The only accommodation available is the Mole Motel, built in 1961.  Lack of competition has allowed the motel to charge almost double the standard Ghanaian prices for meals, drinks and rooms despite the basic décor and only periodic running water.  These drawbacks are compensated by a viewing platform metres from the swimming pool that overlooks two popular waterholes often frequented by elephants.

Perhaps most frustrating is that the 4, 480 square kilometre park can only be visited by walking a small area around the hotel or driving along 40 kilometres of road, providing a mere peek at the landscape and its wildlife which includes elephants, hippo, buffalo, primates and several species of antelope and birds.  The lack of surveillance has also created a haven for poachers – during our short time we heard the sound of gunfire come from the park.

That’s not to say we had no encounters with the animals nor that our time was a waste.  Our foot safari had barely left the information centre that morning when we witnessed four male elephants gracefully lope within a few feet of us as if we weren’t even there.

The baboons, however, were very much aware of our presence.   We were warned not to carry the black plastic bags used to carry food in Ghana and that “they don’t like girls.”

Back at my chalet my gender status crossed my mind as I looked at my camera case – black bag.  Half-asleep, my boyfriend opened the door to the darkened hotel room and I charged past him.  The baboon was slamming against the door and turning the handle, trying to get in.  I felt something brushing against my leg and let out a blood-curdling scream.

“What are you screaming like that for?!”

I realized he had won the fight with the baboon over the door handle and it was my camera case strap I had felt.

Later on in the hotel restaurant we heard several similar stories. One man woke up from a nap to find a baboon in his bed. A fighting match ensued and he had bruises to prove it.   We witnessed another German man get  mugged by a baboon for the black bag he was using to carry a towel. Mixed feelings of humour, anger and fear prevailed – we were being ambushed.

The sole fearless warrior among us was Joshua, a seven-year-old who lunged at the baboons with fire in his eyes, whipping a stick on the ground and fiercely whispering nonsensical threats.  His hotel room was next to mine so we tasked him with escorting me to and from my door.

If there’s anything I noticed about Mole, it is the solidarity among tourists who sit bouncing and jolting along that road through Northern Region to be overcharged and under-serviced.   We all agree – the chance to walk among and in some cases clash with the animals makes it all well worth it.

Accidental recycling in Malawi

Blantyre craftsman and merchant, Isaac Stone, begins his work for the day by carving into a used tire. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Give Isaac Stone 500 kwacha, a tire, and two hours, and he’ll hand you back a pair of sandals.

At just 21-years-old, Stone has already been making footwear for nearly a decade. Born and raised in Blantyre, a city of some 732,000 people (2008), Stone didn’t always have to compete for kwacha in the market. He once went to school and had a mother and father who looked after him. But his mother passed away and his father disappeared. And so, when he was 12, Stone was forced to drop out of school and fend for himself.

Born street smart, he quickly realized that his best bet at survival was to learn a trade – to the carving knife was it.

I chatted with Stone as he made his day’s first pair of shoes.

His morning starts at 7:00 a.m., at which time he catches a minibus out to Limbe –a trade hub on the outskirts of Blantyre– where he can pick up a used car tire for 250 MWK (about $1.60 CAD). Stone then travels back to central Blantyre where, from 9-5, he can be found working behind a makeshift wooden stall, cutting away at rubber.

”I like working with my hands,” he told me. “It brings me money for food. Just enough for a place to stay.”

Stone doesn’t know it, but his small sandal business is part of something very big: Malawi’s efforts to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

The MDGs can broadly be defined as a set of development goals aimed at significantly reducing poverty, hunger, and disease, by 2015. Target seven reads: “integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.”

Stone explained that it had never occurred to him that what he was doing was a form of recycling – and more than that, I offered, he was saving the tires from the garbage fires that so-often sour the city’s air.

”It’s a business,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I do it because I can make some money. But if it is good for the air, that is okay too.”

Karen Price, a project manager for Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust, explains that in a country as poor as Malawi, while many posses an awareness of environmental issues, it is difficult to get communities thinking about litter.

“I think there is general awareness of the environment, but when it comes to something like recycling, there is much more that could be done,” she said.

Local merchants watch over a bottle recycling depot in Blantyre's downtown market. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“It’s about the understanding of what waste is,” Price went on to explain. “There is not that added value of something as waste –that something can turn into waste or be recycled to become another product that can be reused.”

Stone and his tires are not the only accidental recycling operation running in Blantyre’s downtown market. In fact, in nearly every direction, people have repurposed and are reusing objects of every sort in countless imaginative ways.

And it’s a good thing, too, for Blantyre’s one-and-only garbage depot is filling up fast.

Down the hill from Stone, Grant Kenneth, another young entrepreneur, sits in the market with a small group of associates. Surrounding the men are mountains of empty plastic and glass bottles of every size, shape, and colour one can imagine.

”People bring them here,” Kenneth told me. “We pay three kwacha, five kwacha, 10 kwacha, and 15 kwacha, depending on the size.”

Kenneth or one of his colleagues will take the dirty bottles they receive, strip them of their labels, clean them, and, sometimes, refashion their shape to fit a specific purpose. And then they’ll resell the bottles at a slightly higher rate than the one for which they were purchased.

“It’s a job,” Kenneth said to me, echoing Stone’s remarks. “I guess it is good for the environment because otherwise, the people would be throwing it away. But it is just a job.”

Ghana oil industry impacts environment and tourism at Axim Beach Resort

[pullquote]“We are removing all the buildings, making them more attractive, building new ones. This is the future plan. We believe we can also catch the eye of investors,”[/pullquote]

Axim Beach Resort hasn’t seen an increase in tourists yet, but like many resorts along the coast of Western Region, they are preparing to draw in more visitors, as oil is drawing more people to the region.

“We’re expecting that people will be coming more, since people will be exploring,” says Solomon Alloteuy, the assistant manager of the resort.

The emerging oil sector is creating many opportunities for the region’s entrepreneurs. He says they have already started expanding to accommodate more guests.

“We are removing all the buildings, making them more attractive, building new ones. This is the future plan. We believe we can also catch the eye of investors,” he says.

This new development, however, comes after an oil spill in February, which threatened the coastline, as well as marine life. Alloteuy says the resort is still facing a number of environmental problems he fears may be associated with the offshore activities.

“There’s this oil residue and then some rubbish that comes, some weeds we have been experiencing that people are saying is because of the thing – it floats around the coast and becomes a heap rubbish.”

Paramount Chief of Western Nzema, Awulae Annor-Adjeye the third is one person who has been speaking out about environmental issues affecting the coast since oil was discovered three years ago.

[pullquote]“If for instance, a fisherman went to see and just by his simple knowledge he found some oil spill, where is he going to communicate this information to?”[/pullquote]

“We are not only looking at what happens downstream. We are looking at the environment within which the activity is taking place, where the exploration is taking place and that is offshore. What happens with the drill mud? What happens with the ballast water?”

Annor-Adjeye is launching a forum called the Platform for Coastal Communities of Western Region, to address environmental concerns of people living on the coast. The biggest problem, he says, is not having a place to report incidents when they occur.

“If for instance, a fisherman went to see and just by his simple knowledge he found some oil spill, where is he going to communicate this information to?”

Ballast water, which ships carry and often discharge at ports contain many biological organisms, some of them harmful to the local ecosystems. Programs co-ordinator Kyei Kwaco Yamoah of Friends of the Nation, a local NGO, says ballast water is also one of his concerns about the environmental impact of the emerging oil industry.

“The issue of ballast water has come up and ballast water has the potential to pollute marine waters to the extent that fisheries will be affected. It could even affect the whole extent of the coastal environment – all of these, we think there are not adequate measures as we speak to deal with them,” says Yamoah.

Developers and entrepreneurs want to make the coastline appealing to an influx of visitors to the area, but are worried about the environmental impact of offshore oil activities.

He says right now the focus is on revenue when it should be on the environment and Ghana needs to toughen its laws when it comes to conservation.

He says, “For now, we are concerned with the kind of loose laws we have relative to the oil and gas. The industry has started, but the laws we have are inadequate to handle the various challenges the oil and gas sector presents.”

That’s a problem Western Region can’t afford to ignore.