Urgency

The other week I got a call from Jenna about some severe burning that had taken place on the island. The dry season has been particularly bad. When I first arrived on Mfangano, the island was green and appeared lush. Within two weeks of the beginning of the dry season, Mfangano was noticeably less green and more brown. As the month wore on, the island became increasingly dry and brown. There was a small accident on Jenna’s property right before I left. Some local boys were trying to help clean the compound and burn the trash, but not realizing how dry everything was, the fire took off, burning a small portion of Jenna’s compound. We were told the fire was almost too fast to stop, but fortunately some neighbors were there to get it under control. Two weeks ago, the same event reoccurred, but on a larger scale. Too many people were slashing and burning for cultivation; the vegetation was too dry to take the heat and a major fire spread up into the forests along the ridges. One elder said he thinks they lost over 10% of the remaining ridgeline forests. When Jenna talked about this at the last staff meeting, people laughed at the ridiculousness of the event. What’s interesting about this response is the seemingly relaxed attitude people have about the fires. Given the fact that most people understand the ramifications of their actions, it’s disturbing to hear our friends laughing at the such a serious situation. From what I’ve been told, their reactions to the fires parallels their reactions to the HIV/AIDS issue on the island; when a situation is too overwhelming to digest, it’s easier to laugh in denial than begin to climb the colossal mountain of changes that need to happen in order to end deforestation on the island. The day-to-day routines of Mfangano’s community are arduous and, at the end of the day, large community issues seem too daunting to address for most. I hope my project will help to right-size those issues in a way that makes tackling deforestation a manageable and sustainable endeavor.

More Visuals

Here are some more panoramas of my eight hour boat trip around the island. They’ve been doctored, but they still help to paint the picture. That tour showed me how much cultivation has altered the hillsides of the south and east end of the island while much of the western end is still somewhat in tact. Much of this is due to the lack of inhabitants on that end of the island and access issues. Nevertheless, even in these less inhabited areas, one could still see evidence of deforestation along the lakeside.

Still Working…

I’ve been preparing a shrub and tree list for the past few days. There will be over 115 listed by the time I’m through with it. This list is critical to the project and has taken longer than I anticipated to put it together. I’ll be using this list, as well as other maps I’ve made, to determine land use boundaries, looking at which locations are suitable for tree farming, no-farming zones, stream buffers, etc. At the end of this project, my work, could potentially be the most extensive ecological study of the island. Although, I really hope not.

Review Rewind

Upon reviewing the critique from last week, I’ve come to the decision that not only did I wait too long to communicate the focus of my project, but my delivery of it was poor. Essentially, I took more time explaining the background of the project, than I took to actually tell the reviewers about the purpose of it. Lesson learned.

Project Review – Critique #1

Friday’s critique could have gone better. I failed to hit some key points and didn’t have a focused presentation. This project is dealing with some major global issues as undercurrents that are driving the goals, but it’s easy to make them the primary focus.

The critique also brought up a question that is related to, not just my project, but to landscape architecture as a whole. The reviewers consistently returned to the topic of site design, failing to see the design in the project. Although I’ll be mapping ecologically sensitive areas, designing a phasing plan for the reforestation as well as designing templates for intercropping and tree farming, since there wasn’t a site scale physical space for people, it isn’t design. I’m struggling with this concept quite a bit. From my perspective, I’m designing a framework, combining ecology, economics and culture to alter people’s relationship with the landscape and how they use it. This isn’t quite forestry or sociology instead it’s the connective tissue between both practices. In my mind, this is the strength and the role of landscape architecture.

Had I put a path into my design, it would have been seen as landscape architecture. If the defining characteristic that distinguishes landscape architects from foresters or sociologists is the construction of a physical object in space, I think that is a narrow stance on the skills of the profession.

Perhaps, for the sake of graduating,  I’ll have to design something at the site scale. Either way, I value the fact that my project is posing the question: what is landscape architecture anyway?

*I’ll be posting the video of this review within the next week.

Mfangano in Action

Here is a assemblage of videos taken during my time on the island. I’ve included landscape footage, lake front sounds, in transit traveling, children at Christmas and a portion of my meeting with the Council of Elders, capturing their discussion on the locations of the island’s Sacred Forests and rivers. It was an educational experience for everyone as there many were not entirely sure the location and the exact histories of each forest. Although it’s a lively conversation, despite the volume and tone of their dialogue, it was a very friendly meeting.

A Cross-Section

In terms of observation, I wish I could draw a section line through the island, but scanning is out of the questions, so I’ll have to describe it. The flattest areas and those areas closest to the lake (usually one-in-the-same), are residential areas that stop before the hillside gets too steep to build on. This steep middle area jets up a bit, is cut by a small plateau, then jets up abruptly to the edge of a ridge which separates the highest points of the island from the lower (this is on the east side), above the ridge is where the various sacred
forests sit. The island then gradually drops down to the west end, but has undulates tremendously so as to make building very difficult. Consequently there are fewer residences and greater areas of forests, but even those forested areas are noticeably encroached upon.

The flatter, residential areas are comprised of family compounds and farms. Compounds always have farms on them, but residential property can be large enough to include extra farms. This residential area also includes schools and churches…Anything built and human occupied. The vegetation of this area is generally non-native species. they are species that grow food or form nice hedges that keep goats out…goats are everywhere. Goats and children. I like both of them, but they’re some of the more destructive creatures on the island, depending on the setting. Also, there are not many trees in this area. Most of them are slashed and burned to make way for cultivation. The one tree that you’ll see most of in the residential areas is a tree called siala. It’s a lot like an aspen as it grows fast with a slightly columnar appearance. It works well for intercropping on farms, creating a bit of shade and preserving soil moisture and nutrient cycling through dropping leaves. It also works well for construction use…The other trees that are left are a couple other fast
growers and the big ones…like, the figs with the 30’+ dbh and such.

What’s interesting is that it wasn’t that long ago (maybe 15 – 20 years) when you couldn’t see in between the houses and compounds because the vegetation was so dense. As people say here, you did not know whether you were approaching a house until you heard the cock call. So it seems the deforestation began to really take off around the exact time of the height of the nile perch boom and HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Today you can see everything pretty well, except for those places where people have been allowing trees to grow on their compound.

The steep middle zone is used for cultivation. It used to be forest, but it’s very apparent that it’s used for agriculture because the main thing growing (right now) on the hillside is a shrub called lantana…it grows quickly and the goats love it. Any place where there has been cultivation, there is shrubland. I’ve seen areas where the forest has not been cut down and it looks nothing like this shrubland. The shrub area is hot and dry and the forested areas are cool with a bit of moisture. They’re actually one of the few places on the island with mosquitoes. The forests used to look like cobwebs of vegetation: a thick under and overstory, probably with a dense ground or duff layer as well…I couldn’t actually get into these areas unless I wanted to machete through. Plus, it’s black mamba hatching time, so I’m avoiding thickly vegetated or grassy areas.

The forested areas, or what’s left of them, are dispersed around the island, each is cool and peaceful. The Sacred Forests themselves used to stretch out over most of the higher points of the area. They were sacred because they were spiritual places. If it didn’t rain, you’d slaughter a goat within a forest and it’d rain soon after.Once the missionaries came and took god out of the forest then placing him/her in the church, the forests no longer held their spiritual value. Consequently, people began encroaching on the forests. Within the Sacred Forests, you’re not allowed to cut the trees otherwise you’re fined or you have to sacrifice a goat, sometimes even a bull. This is a serious deal if that happens. As time has gone on, the clan elders and chiefs have been more concerned with providing their villages with a way to make money and an easier way to do that is by farming or cutting wood for charcoal and construction. Either way, the Sacred Forests I have seen are not as susceptible to the herbivory that other areas have. It still happens, but the Sacred Forests are the only places where I have seen with an herbaceous layer resembling spring ephemerals. I can often find a plant that looked almost exactly like trillium the other day.

Honestly, it seems like the land is hanging on by a thread. It is hot, severely hot. The trees are integral to preserving the moisture that helped to make the soil of this place fertile. I’ve climbed up a landslide a couple times in order to get to the top of the island (the landslide cut right through the only path up). It threw boulders the size of eight 250lb men. It tore through the hillside, but due to the plateau that’s there, it stopped from hitting any residential areas. Nevertheless, there’s certainly a direct connection between the thin line the natural environment and the people are living on.

How It Is

The other week one of the butchers in the main village, Sena, was discovered as the culprit of a multi-week cow theft affair. What tends to happen is vigilante violence. In this case, the culprit was severely beaten by a mob and had his shop torn apart. this is pretty common…although there
are only a few police on the island, they tend to avoid involvement with mobs as they’ll suffer the same consequence as the accused. A friend of mine said that the violence isn’t so much about fairness or delivering justice as it is an opportunity to release anger and frustration over the (unfair) conditions of their lives. Aside from these infrequent occurrences, the island is very safe.

The people of Mfangano work very hard and die often. Women work especially hard and with little economic security as they have few employment opportunities and are beholden to cook, clean and serve their families. An average family has about 6 children per wife with about two to three wives per male headed household. The economic insecurity is apparent, one must work very hard, but the lack of jobs and the expense of secondary school leave people with few choices. The line people walk is a thin one.