Why to Not Buy that Mahogany Desk
As many of you may know I am working for an environmental NGO here in Gambia called the Stay Green Foundation. As the name suggests we are doing our best with our staff of 6 and miniscule funding to prevent a dirt poor, overpopulated country from rapidly and irreversibly turning itself into desert. It's not easy. Gambia has been free from colonial rule for about 40 years now but the real, and sometimes uncomfortable, truth is that most of the developing world is under another (maybe more destructive) form of economic colonialism. The gaping maw of America/Europe/Japan/China/India is simply consuming the world--its forests, its fish, even its people thru people trafficking. Add to this the fact that extreme overpopulation and a dangerous mishmash of powerful new technology (pesticides, chainsaws, and yes, even vaccinations, food aid, and roads) are seriously taxing beneficial cultural traditions and the resource base...and basically the developing world is teetering on the brink.
It's very hard to realize this sitting at home, living a "normal" life, "just buying stuff". Think about it for a minute. Possibly not a single person that will receive this email can regularly and definitely identify where the resources they consume daily come from. That is insane! We are all willing yet blind participants in the devastation of much of the world. How is it that America, with its population of 300 million and the highest resource consumption the world has ever known can have national parks the size of entire states, hmm? It's because we (the developed world) siphon up the world's resources with our endless materialistic hunger, while people here experience real hunger. Where does the wood that your house/desk is made from come from? Could it be Vietnam which lost 51% of its forest from 2000-2005, Indonesia (2nd largest rainforests on earth), which is estimated to have no virgin forest left by 2020, or maybe even in Gambia...1 km from my house.
African Mahogany, Kahya Senegalensis, Kahe in my native tongue here, is truly a King of Trees. A massive gorgeous behemoth more than 150 feet tall, maybe 9 feet in diameter, and with a crown as wide as it is tall. They are simply confirmation that the universe is an incredible place to live. So, you can imagine my shock when two days ago I saw 2 of these legally protected trees crumpled and broken on the ground less than a mile from where I live.
Then next day the director of Stay Green told me he had a run in with the loggers. He had asked to see their permit, which happened to be for 1 mahogany only. Furthermore, it is illegal to fell protected trees here if there is not at least 3 of the same species within 200 meters. These two trees were standing in the middle of a vast barren field of sand...not quite a forest. He brought the police, documented everything with photos, and alerted the divisional forestery officer, and even the National Minister for the Environment. The next day when we returned to the police station to see what had happened, the police chief, the logger's boss, and the forestry officers had "negotiated to reach an understand"--he paid a bribe and got off. Curiously, the National Minister for the Environment wouldn't answer my boss' calls as well. The logger's boss had offered the village that owned the land a small amount of mahogany to help them build doors on their mosque in exchange for their permission--yet one tree could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars once brought to the US, China, Russia, etc.
Please think about this next time you buy wood of any sort and only buy it if it is Forest Stewardship Council Certified. Or better yet, don't buy it at all. Our seemingly annonymous actions threaten life in many countries.
The other shock I had recently was to realize the scorching speed of deforestation in my area thru a conversation with a friend. My village currently has 18 family compounds and sits in a vast area of parched fields with about 1 tree per acre. Ten years ago we had 3 compounds and you could hunt gazzelle on the edge of the village. I barely see a squirrel these days. Our "forest" is a line about 200 feet wide and is used by several villages of which mine is smallest. We eat fruits from the forest, we cook all of our food with its wood, and all of our animals (which represent nearly all of our wealth most of our minimal protein) rely on leaves in the bush to survive thru the 8 month dry season. When all the trees are gone, people will have to move...but where? This country cannot survive if its trees are sold off for the world's rich to adorn their houses with, because it cannot even survive its own internal pressures.
Think about it--a village increasing 6 fold in 10 years! But that is what happens when every woman has 8 children. It's easy to say its their fault for overpopulating, but intil we decided to vaccinate their children to every disease known to man, they had to have 8 so that 4 would survive. The other source of all the new people is environmental refugees. I have only met a small handful of people in my area who originally come from Gambia. Everyone else is from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso--areas that once looked like the Gambia does today, until all the trees were cut, the rains stopped coming, and the thin topsoil blew away into the ocean.
Where I live is naturally a near rainforest of soaring Mahogany, Teak, Rosewood, Ebony, Baobab and about 20 other varieties of trees. In a generation it has been transformed into a near desert. Trees are cleared for fields. Immense downpours come in the rainy season and their force is not broken by tree canopies but instead washes away the soil. The dry season comes and great fires come and burn all the fields killing baby trees and leaving something very similar to the sand of a volleyball quart behind.
I don't know where the family I live with here will go in 15 years when there is no rain, topsoil or trees. Probably they head south, and probably the story of modern Africa will repeat itself and there will be deforestation, drought, and now that there is nowhere left to migrate, ethnic conflict and war.
They have enough problems on their hands right now. Do you really need that desk?...