Sunday, 6 April 2008

Sanitation and trees: a way out of rural poverty

I’ve been looking at IFAD’s website – IFAD is the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialized agency of the United Nations established in 1977 as a major outcome of the 1974 World Food Conference organized in response to the food crises of the early 1970s that especially affected countries in the Sahel. “IFAD is dedicated to eradicating rural poverty in developing countries. Seventy-five per cent of the world's poorest people − 800 million women, children and men − live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods.”

One page seemed particularly relevant to IYS2008: Tree domestication programme in Africa helps families out of poverty. Why? Well, because it complements very well Peter Morgan’s Arborloo (see Toilets that Make Compost). Rural families with an Arborloo can (and should be encouraged to) grow profitable trees – indigenous fruit and medicinal trees, as in this IFAD project, which IFAD says “has changed the lives of tens of thousands of poor people in rural Africa. Women are feeding their families, sending their children to school and improving their status at home”.

Arorloos are the cheapest EcoSan system. They need to be much more actively promoted in rural areas by the various EcoSan agencies (such as SEI/Ecosanres, GTZ and TUHH/IWA Specialist Group). I simply fail to see why they don’t do this. After all, shouldn’t we be promoting in IYS2008 really low-cost sanitation systems, especially ones that are profitable, to the rural poor? Maybe we should just be promoting Arborloos in dispersed rural areas – excreta in, money out – and forget about VIPs and so on.

Quite a few years ago, it must have been in the early 1980s, I visited INPA, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia in Manaus, to look at some sanitation research being done there by an English tree researcher (whose name I just can’t remember). The idea behind his research was to plant a food tree (and he told me that some of the rainforest trees produce a tonne of food a year) and dig a shallow pit about 1.5 m away from the young tree. He had a portable wooden latrine superstructure (much like a sedan chair) which was placed over the pit. The latrine was used for about 3 months, when another pit was dug on the opposite side of the tree and this was then used for the next 3 months. Then a pit was dug at 90° to the first two and used for the next 3-month period; finally a fourth pit was dug opposite the third and used for the final 3-month period. The idea of all this was to enable the tree to develop strong lateral roots (rainforest soils are very shallow) and, of course, produce more food.

I remember telling Peter Morgan about this when I visited him in Zimbabwe (again in the early 1980s), and he remembered this when we met at AfricaSan2008 in February. This research at INPA led to Peter’s development of the Arborloo.