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An almost lost Paradise

This article was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 7 September 2021 by journalist LAURA SALM-REIFFERSCHEIDT with photographer NYANI QUARMYNE. Translated from the German by us Original title and link: Ein fast verlorenes Paradies 7 September 2021 – The Comoros will lose much more than a few old trees if the forests under the clouds continue to be sacrificed to agricultural land, construction and firewood. The slope of the field where Sidi Abdoulatif works is so steep that the sixty-year-old can barely stand: he supports himself with one hand while weeding with the other. This former telephone pole keeper does not receive a pension and wanted to plant taro, cassava and sweet potatoes to get an income from his field, which he bought a few years ago when he stopped working. Previously, the land was fallow, the soil exhausted and each rainstorm washed more soil down the steep slope. Nothing grew there until Adboulatif planted Gliricidia sepium, a fast-growing locust tree belonging to the legume family. This nitrogen-rich tree, whose roots allow water to rise and increase soil stability, also increases soil fertility. In addition, its leaves are used as fertiliser or fodder for livestock.

Sidi Abdoulatif, 60, bought this steeply sloping land years ago, where he now grows sweet potatoes and other crops.

The field is about 700 metres above sea level, near the village of Adda-Daouéni in the south of the volcanic island of Anjouan. Together with Grande Comore and Moheli, it is one of the three main islands of the Union of the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar. The slopes adjacent to Abdoulatif’s property are divided into plots cultivated by small farmers. “I was young at the time, but I remember well that this area was still a real forest until 1997,” says Samirou Soulaimana, 36, a reforestation expert for the environmental organisation Dahari. But in 1997, Anjouan separated from the Comoros and the island was placed under embargo. This was followed by a period of shortage of oil and building materials. So the locals took chainsaws and cleared a vast area in a short time. “We really did a lot of damage during that period,” says Soulaimana. “The figures for Anjouan are very alarming,” confirms Misbahou Mohamed, co-Director of Dahari, at a meeting in the capital Mutsamudu. In Anjouan, 80% of the natural forest area disappeared between 1995 and 2014. With Grande Comore and Moheli experiencing a sharp reduction in forest area, the embargo should not be seen as the only reason for deforestation. According to reports by the United Nations World Food Programme, it is the country where deforestation is progressing most rapidly, with only 30% of Comoros’ primary forest remaining. Since independence from France in 1975, the population has been growing rapidly, and trees are being cut down to build new houses, cook and distil ylang-ylang flowers, whose essential oil is used by the European cosmetics and perfume industries. Forty years ago, the Comorian population consisted of 335,000 people, today it is estimated at 870,000, 90% of whom depend on agriculture. The steep terrain of the volcanic islands limits the available agricultural space, so that trees are replaced by fields, with serious consequences. Of the 45 rivers on the island, less than ten are supplied with water all year round, some only during the rainy season (November to April) and the others are completely dry.

Population growth and increasing demand for firewood, timber and agricultural land are responsible for deforestation in the Comoros In Anjouan, 80% of the natural forest disappeared between 1995 and 2014

From about 600 metres above sea level, there is usually a forest under the clouds. Anyone who clears this forest disturbs the fragile balance. Ecologist Aida Cuní Sanchez, who researches the rainforest as a habitat at the University of York, calls them natural “water towers”. The mist that drifts across the landscape touches the leaves, mosses, lichens and ferns that grow on the gnarled trees and condenses. What is not held by the plants drips regularly onto the ground. Under the fog cover, the air remains moist and cool. “This reduces the rate of photosynthesis. Organic matter also decomposes more slowly in this environment, the soils are poorer in nutrients,” explains Cuní Sanchez. As a result, trees in cloud forests grow more slowly but store more carbon. The root system absorbs water like a sponge and releases it slowly into the environment, thus regulating the flow. Cutting down a cloud forest has far-reaching consequences, explains Cuní Sanchez: “When it rains, the water just runs off. In the dry season, there is no water left because there is nothing to hold it back The ecologist sees another danger in climate change. If it is warmer, cloud cover increases, the clouds no longer envelop the trees and remain as drops – the water towers lose their flow.

In Anjouan, it is still customary to wash clothes in the river. But in many cases, it is only a trickle of water because the island lacks water

“We haven’t had rain since Ramadan,” says Ali Mohamadi Hafidhou. He is a teacher in Mramani, a village on the southern tip of Anjouan, where deforestation is very high. That was two months ago, and the problems were predictable. The cisterns, which are fed by underground springs or rivers, are quickly emptied by women and children who come to fill jerry cans. “We know that the rain comes from the forest and the ocean,” says Hafidhou. Yet the trees are cut down: “It’s poverty that’s responsible During the dry season, villagers have to walk long distances to fetch water or wash their clothes in a river that is already just a trickle. “Sometimes we have to buy water, which is delivered by trucks. Twenty litres cost about 250 Comorian francs, the equivalent of 50 cents. The changes are also already having an impact on agriculture. Soils are drier, rain makes everything slide faster, and harvests are lower. Farmers are using fertilisers and clearing the forest in ever higher, ever steeper areas. But clear-cutting also increases the impact of hurricanes. Before “Kenneth” hit the coast of Mozambique in April 2019, the cyclone passed over the Comoros. Several people died, and Kenneth caused the most damage in Anjouan. Added to this is the political instability of the nation. Since independence, there have been more than twenty coups and various attempts at secession. The presidency is supposed to rotate between the islands and change every four years, but in 2018 a constitutional amendment gave the incumbent president, Azali Assoumani (of Grande Comore), another term – much to the dismay of the inhabitants of the other two main islands, Anjouan and Moheli. Poor infrastructure hampers economic development: electricity is irregular; waste ends up on the beach and in the riverbed because there are no landfills. On the other hand, citizens often take over government tasks; villagers repair potholes on the roads, for example, and collect a small toll from passing cars and trucks. A good quarter of the gross domestic product is provided by remittances from the Comorian diaspora, which has helped to improve living standards on the islands and reduce the poverty rate. Nevertheless, the lack of prospects has already led thousands to flee to the neighbouring French overseas department of Mayotte.

Mutsamudu is the capital of the island of Anjouan in the Comoros.

The archipelago of Mayotte is geographically part of the Comoros archipelago. In 1841, it came under French protectorate until a referendum for independence was held in 1974. The results were dealt with on an island-by-island basis, and in Mayotte the majority of the inhabitants voted against independence. Politically, it now belongs to France, as the 101st department, and since 2014 it has been part of the European Union as one of the nine ‘outermost regions’, so a dream place for all the other inhabitants of the archipelago. For the minority who enter legally, salaries are paid regularly, there is social security, the standard of living is higher, health care is better. For the majority, they are illegal immigrants, living in hiding in precarious conditions and earning a meagre income from their work in the fields. A young man points out the sea on the beach of Bambao, a small town on the east coast of Anjouan. Somewhere in the mist is the French island. In fact very close, only about 60 kilometres away. He takes his clients to Mayotte by “kwassa kwassa”, a small motor boat, which currently costs about 400 euros. Not all the boats arrive. “Far too many families, mothers, fathers, brothers have already been lost in this sea,” says the 25-year-old tugboat driver. According to a French Senate report, between 1995 and 2012, 7,000 to 10,000 Comorians died trying to reach Mayotte. The governor of Anjouan even speaks of up to 50,000 deaths. Attoumani Kombo lost his daughter five years ago. The 75-year-old is sitting in front of his general shop in Bambao, on the road leading to the beach. “A big wave overturned the boat. My daughter couldn’t swim.” But that didn’t stop his siblings from embarking on this dangerous adventure too. Five of her 10 children now live legally in Mayotte. “But even without papers, they would have a better life there than here in Anjouan,” says Kombo.

A fisherman’s hand on a “kwassa kwassa” boat, which he also runs to secretly take people to the neighbouring island, which belongs to France.

Not everyone has this view, one of Sidi Abdoulatif’s sons lives in Mayotte. “He has to hide there because he has no papers. He can’t work legally at all. If he were here, we could work together in the fields The farmer does not feel that the situation in the Comoros is as bad as some people seem to claim. His situation has improved. Since he planted black locust trees around the field, the harvest has been more abundant. Anli Ousseni, who cultivates a field on the opposite slope, has also planted trees in his potato field. “Everything that grows here is now developing better, is much greener. Before, the plants were often dried out and yellow And he himself can now work in the shade. The farmers are supported and advised in this agroforestry approach by the Dahari organisation. The focus is on improving the economic situation of the farmers in order to protect the natural resources that still exist. “Before, we had a reforestation policy that was not adapted to the context of our country,” explains Zalhat Bacar, regional director of environment and forests in Anjouan, about the programmes dating back to the 1980s in Comoros, which were not very successful. Farmers were not involved because decisions about which trees to plant on their land were taken without their consent. At the time, they were given food in exchange for a tree planted. “People realised that every time they planted a tree, they would get something in return. So they would pull up the saplings at night or pour hot water on them and then say they were dead,” says Misbahou Mohamed from Dahari. Farmers saw no direct yield benefits from these trees, which took up space.

“He should say, ‘This is my tree, on my land, and I understand why I am planting this tree here'”. MISBAHOU MOHAMED, DAHARI

Instead, Dahari follows a participatory approach: farmers decide what benefits they want from the trees – shade, water storage, fertiliser, fruit, animal feed, medicinal plants, timber or firewood. The organisation’s staff then determines which trees fulfil these functions and whether they can thrive under the given conditions, such as location, climate and water situation. Seedlings can be obtained from nurseries supported by the organisation. This should not mean that ‘the tree is from Dahari and they are planting it on my plot’,” says Mohamed. “But rather that “It’s my tree I’m planting it on my plot with an understanding of why “. After six months, the farmers are visited again to see if everything is going well. This follow-up allows the programme to be improved, and Mohamed is satisfied. 110,037 trees were planted in 2020, some of which were cuttings, others pre-sprouted seedlings, and 71% of which survived the first year.

The lemurs (Eulemur mongoz) are an attraction for tourism, which should also flourish outside Moheli.

With this planting system and other methods that increase the fertility and productivity of low-lying areas, the organisation wants to help reduce the pressure on the remaining high forest areas. Especially in areas where water sources and endemic biodiversity must be protected. In addition to many bird species, the remaining cloud forests are home to the Mongo macaque, an endangered primate species, and the Livingstone bat. About 1,200 specimens of this rare frugivorous species live in Anjouan and Moheli alone, where a team from Dahari has been studying their behaviour for years. Some important roosts, usually one or two trees at an altitude of 500 to 1,000 metres, are located on private land, which is gradually being cleared. With a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres, they are the largest bats in the world. To protect their habitat, Dahari works with landowners: in exchange for their renunciation of clear-cutting and reforestation, they are helped to improve the productivity of existing fields. There is also money to be made from tourists: “People come from abroad to see the animals. They then tell others about them,” says Dhoul-Kifl Attoumane, who houses a roost on his land in a narrow, densely wooded gorge and proudly shows it to visitors.

On Moheli, the world still seems in order; the island has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 2020.

Ben Anthoy Moussa, who works as a project manager for the national park on the island of Moheli (which is smaller and less populated than the others), also hopes for tourism. The tourism industry is still in its infancy, he says. “We now hope it will be developed further to generate alternative income and reduce the pressure on natural resources.” For that, he says, more investment is needed – and better education for the population. Moussa is positive about the island’s future: the biodiversity is still there, and deforestation has even slowed down in recent years. This is probably because almost the entire land surface of the island was incorporated into the national park in 2015, which only included the surrounding reefs and the sea when it was created in 2001. Moheli has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 2020. “We have solutions to reduce the negative impacts. But it requires everyone’s cooperation,” says Moussa, who would like to see more commitment from the government, for example to enforce laws regulating deforestation and hunting. Hardly any perpetrators are punished. But that could change: Many political positions are held by young people, many of them women. “I am very optimistic. The old generation thought differently, but we young people have a new vision,” says Zalhat Bacar, a 37-year-old director of environment and forests. “We speak the same language. We want sustainable development, healthy communities and forests.”

Sheet by sheet Most of the time we take trees for granted, yet they are essential to our survival – and not just as fruit producers or carbon stores. In 2021, the European Journalism Centre will award eight research grants to European media to promote reporting on global development issues. Three projects from German newspapers, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, are among the successful applicants; total funding amounts to €900,000, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With this “European Development Journalism Grant”, the F.A.S. Science Department, together with freelance writers and photographers, will in the coming months continue the “Tree Palaver” project, which is based on the fact that palaver trees traditionally represent the centre of African villages. Through a series of articles, we want to draw attention to the trees themselves, their function and their importance for us humans. Not only as an instrument to fight climate change, but also as a tool with which people can sustainably improve their standard of living, their health and their environment: How do forests contribute to our health and well-being? What happens to villages or cities that lack trees? And how do ecosystems interact, especially in the face of epidemics, when humans increasingly invade animal and plant habitats and destroy forests? We would like to explore all these questions in different countries and feature people in stories whose ideas are driving the sustainable development of their communities, villages and cities. Sonja Kastilan The project can be followed in the coming months in the F.A.S., on and on Twitter at @baumpalaver. Comoros is the second part of the Baumpalaver project.