Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From Agent Orange to a 4WD: being an environmentalist in Cape Verde

It is quite possible that my environmentalism started when I was around 10, somewhere in a clear-cut forest in the north of Värmland, Sweden. I and the rest of my family were taking part in a demonstration against airplane pesticide spraying. However unlikely it would seem today, it was customary throughout the 60s and 70s to spray aggressive chemical pesticides (”Hormoslyr”, similar to the chemical “Agent Orange”, used by the USA in the Vietnam War) on forest clearings in Sweden to kill off all deciduous (foliage) trees. To stop this malicious practice, some courageous people positioned themselves in the middle of the clearing, and dressed up in colorful garments so that they were plainly seen from the sky. The pilot was not allowed to spray if people were present, since the pesticide was a direct health threat to humans, and would thus have to turn back.

I vividly remember the mounting tension while having hot chocolate and sandwiches sitting on a big tree-trunk, waiting for the plane to show up. Eventually we would hear a roar from afar and spot the wings in the horizon, getting increasingly nervous that the pilot wouldn’t see us or simply break the rules and spray us anyway (we had brought umbrellas, just in case – not that it would help that much). Luckily enough, the pilots always spotted us and we were never sprayed.

These protest were successful; not only did they stop the spraying temporarily in situ, but they also created a lot of media attention which stirred a ferocious debate leading to the banning of the chemical by the Swedish Government by the end of the 70s. This was a crucial win for the growing Swedish environmental movement, and it no doubt contributed to the formation of the strong environmental awareness and policy which is now mainstream in Sweden. (Ironically, today everybody, including the forestry industry, agrees that killing deciduous trees is a very bad idea, also economically).

Since then, my interest in protecting the environment has only grown. I soon became a member of Youth and Environment Sweden, I chose biology and environmental management as my main subjects at the University, I advocated environmental solutions as board member of a tenant-owner’s society, I worked non-profit for an environmental NGO, and I applied for a position at the Ministry of Environment, eventually working for the Foreign Office as an environmental negotiator to the UN in New York and to the EU in Brussels. Throughout the years, I have remained convinced that, however difficult it might be in some cases, it is possible to change the world and to save the environment.

Moreover, as far as it is possible for someone grown up in the materialized Western world, I try to live as I preach. What I mean by this is that I seek to minimize my own resource and energy use as well as transportation, eat more vegetarian, and recycle and reuse as much as possible. While by no means being an ascetic, I have resolved to live a less resource-intense and materialistic lifestyle than the average Westerner. Not as a “sacrifice” or out of guilt, but as a way to feel more at ease with myself and the surrounding world.

Then we moved to Cape Verde. And as it were, I suddenly felt more ore less forced to give up many of my previous ideals. Here are some key examples:

Transportation: Before moving, we considered that we needed a car, and in retrospect I have to admit that it has been quite indispensable (especially considering that we have a toddler). It is my first car ever, and what is worse, it is a 4WD (albeit one of the markets most energy-efficient models, the new Toyota RAV4). Obviously, this considerably worsens my environmental performance – regardless efforts to minimize driving and to drive efficiently. What is more, our air travel has increased considerably. Given the geography of Cape Verde, unless you choose to stay on the same island, you need to fly to get anywhere in or outside the country. Consequently, the number of kilometers traveled by air has soared during the past year.

Resource and energy use: The perhaps most valuable – and scarce – resource in Cape Verde is water. Being aware of this, I make an effort to minimize water use in the household, for example through decreasing the water pressure, avoiding flushing toilets at night-time, refraining from taking baths, shutting off the water in the shower when shampooing, asking the cleaning lady to use less water, etc. Nevertheless, I am sure that I use much more water per day than the average Cape verdean. My old habits from Sweden, where water is abundant, are hard to give up completely. Regarding energy, we try to limit our consumption, and with the exception of the computer and the refrigerator (I am frustrating my wife by insisting that we need only a small one) we don’t have many electric appliances running. However, during the hot and humid season we are relying on air conditioning to be able to sleep at night, and during this period our electricity use (and cost) skyrockets.

Food habits: Generally, meat-production requires about 10 times as much energy input as vegetable- and grain production, and to eat less meat is therefore increasingly considered as key to reduce overall environmental impact. In addition, vegetarianism is healthier and ethically appealing. I now realize that being a vegetarian is relatively easy provided that you have access to good vegetarian restaurants and good sources of fresh vegetables. This is not the case in Cape Verde, unfortunately, and as a consequence, my meat-eating has increased considerably. On the positive side, Cape Verde can offer a lot of locally captured fish (most of the meat seems to be imported from Brazil).

Waste generation and recycling: So far, I have seen no system for either reuse or recycling in Cape Verde, and consequently there it would be rather pointless to separate our waste (in fact, I have become so accustomed to recycling that I now, being unable to do so, feel quite frustrated). Also, littering is a huge problem. Where I live there is a fairly well-functioning waste collection, but in other parts of the city, as well as in the countryside, waste scattering and dumping is commonplace. Not only does it create a dangerous and un-healthy environment, it also creates a unaesthetic living environment, deterring tourism and promoting depression and perhaps even crime.

Chemicals use: Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find environmentally friendly chemicals in Cape Verde. See my previous blog, “Out of Reach”.

All in all, despite good ambition and real effort, my environmental performance in Cape Verde is bound to be pretty poor. And, without trying to blame this on someone else, I have become ever so convinced that it is absolutely imperative to have strong environmental policies, regulations and incentives in place for any environmental ambition to be fulfilled. Without eco-labelling, it’s almost impossible to choose an environmentally friendly product. Without well functioning, safe and reliable public communications you are left with the car. Without as system for waste prevention, reuse, recycling there is no way to avoid creating lots of garbage. And without strong environmental education there will be no environmental awareness.

I just hope that also the Cape Verdean Government realizes this. I have had a look at their 10 year environmental plan, “PANA II”, and it is without doubt a well elaborated and ambitious document. But it needs to be fully implemented and developed further, as a very high priority. If not, sustainable development for Cape Verde will prove elusive, with a high cost for both the environment and for people’s health and livelihood.

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