Monday, May 14, 2007

A conversation with enviromentalist Hiyoba Ghirmay

Enviromentalist Hiyoba Ghirmay resides in Eritrea.
She is a very impressive young woman who cares for the world we live in.

This is a conversation that I had with her.

Issayas: Can we start the interview by telling our readers briefly about yourself?

Hiyoba: My name is Hiyoba Ghirmay, and I am an environmentalist. I have had this deep
passion and love for the natural world since I was little. Although, then, it was only experiencing and appreciating a comfortable pleasant environment, when I had no idea what its absence would mean, just an innocent intimate attachment. Eventually, with my exposure to a wider world, witnessing how cruel nature can be in return, as a consequence of human action against it, the passion was accompanied with purpose, growing stronger with time. And now, here I am, with a deep passion and purpose, towards creating a healthy environment and a better world to live in.

Issayas: When did you graduate from the University of Asmara? And in what discipline did you graduate in?

Hiyoba: I studied ‘Land resources and environment’, completed my BSc. study in 2005 and graduated in late 2006, after one year of national service out in the fields. During my study stay at the university, I learned scientific research methodologies and innovative approaches towards problem solving, and basic knowledge on global environmental issues. From there, it’s up to your personal effort to build up your knowledge and experience to cope up with current environmental problems, at global level, and those of which are bold in Eritrea. Generally speaking, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, habitat destruction and species extinction (loss of biodiversity), air and water pollution, groundwater depletion and contamination, unwise resource use (including energy), land degradation, desertification and drought are among the major crises our world is facing. Land resources and environment is indeed an extraordinary broad field, you can swing between its different perspectives, you can learn and work infinitely, it doesn’t have any boundaries to limit you, which is why it suits me perfectly, because I will be a ble to approach the natural world in every aspect I want, and that is what I intend to do.

Issayas: You worked for Ram Farms? What was your position and what did you do?

Hiyoba:Yes, it was a privilege working with Ram Farms, Mr. Redaegzy Gebremedhin
(proprietor and manager), an Eritrean plant and animal lover. I was a researcher and research coordinator, on mountain farming project at Menguda Mountain Enclosure. I did research on flora-diversity and resource monitoring, and coordinated research activities by senior students from University of Asmara doing their final thesis and field visits for their practical courses.

Visiting students at Menguda Mountain Enclosure I also worked as a tour guide, giving shot lectures for visitors and village students about the environment. Even if not in large scale, we produced promotion posters on critical environmental issues, so I have practiced the graphics designing endeavor as well.

Issayas: Where is Menguda Mountain Enclosure and what major activities are done there?

Hiyoba: Menguda Mountain Enclosure is a protected watershed (nature reserve), covering about 520 hectares, 15kms south of Asmara, along the Asmara-Mendefera road. The land feature is characterized by a down running valley line dissecting the mountain into two, the east and west facing mountain chains, and stretching for about 2.5 Kms, from north to south, and finally joining shikketi village agricultural plain. As a nature reserve, it is protected and given the chance to regenerate and recover from its ecological damage. This ‘saving the environment’ action comprises; water & soil conservation, biodiversity (vegetation and wild life) conservation and honey bee farming. Ram Farms play the role of managing and developing the existing natural vegetation and the water catchment area, in order to increase its capacity to
conserve water and soil, granting sustainable use of grass, dry woods (by the shiketi village community) and organic honey production from wild flowers.

Issayas: Could you explain what flora-diversity and resource monitoring is?

Hiyoba: Ok, just to give you a brief idea, flora diversity is the abundance and occurrence of different plant species in a given area. The level of flora diversity indicates how rich an area is or how stable its ecology is. The higher the number of plant species and their abundance is, the more the ecology gets stable, and the greater our benefit becomes; environmentally, economically and culturally. From the environment perspective, the absence or presence of one species in an ecosystem affects the net work of the survival interdependence among the organisms. It is like adding or removing one brick stone from a building, that mere action can support or collapse the whole building, just like that!

One of the environmental promotion posters produced by Ram Farms When we talk about economical and cultural benefit, most pharmaceutical medicines are obtained from plants or animals, and in Eritrea, we make very good use of plant resources, especially for traditional medicine and food, among others. You would be surprised, almost every plant has its own use, either the flower, the fruit, the leaf, the woody part or the root, and it is amazing. Aloe macrocarpa (Ere) for instance, Ere (its name in tigrigna), is used in the language to mean very bitter, because the juice in the leaves of the plant, is the most bitter fluid known to the society, and what is interesting is that, the juice (nectar) in the flower is the sweetest mitse mitse, it is too sweet that people, especially children are fond of it, and is the best for honey production. The plant hosts two opposite and extreme things.

What I am trying to say is, it is not only the economic use, our history, tradition and life style is closely associated with the plants and their use. And I want to remind you, destroying them is destroying our selves. And the second point, monitoring is a follow up study on resource status, a fundamental component in any plan to manage natural recourses for conservation and sustainable use. Opting for the most compatible management practices and up-dating them with changing conditions requires information on biodiversity. Or let me put it this way, how well is a
patient responding to the treatment it is taking, how is it progressing over time, what treatments should be given at the different stages of recovery?, e.t.c.. This is monitoring in the medical science, and same holds true with the environment.

Issayas: You said your researc h activities are on these issues, what can you tell us about it?

Hiyoba: In an area where scientific research is not well known and practiced, one has to start collecting information from scratch, which makes it challenging. The landscape it self was more challenging and risky that you can return home with broken limbs, at times we had to climb up with bare foot at slippery steep slopes, but the out come was worth it. Preparing an inventory of all the plant species in the area was the first step, what do we have? and what is their state of occurrence? was what we tried to answer. It is like calculating how much money you have before going to shopping, you need to know the size of your pocket in order to know whether you can afford what you want to buy or not, if you can afford it, great. The problem is if you can’t afford it, will you wait till you do, or go to dept/bankruptcy? If you take more than what the environment can give, it is bankruptcy. Having that in mind, a checklist of the plant species (trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses) was prepared, identifying the dominant, endangered, locally extinct and ecologically extinct tree and shrub species.

This also tells you, what you already have lost (locally extinct) and what you are about to lose (endangered and ecologically extinct). In the end, the necessary management interventions were pinpointed to improve the ecological setting of the catchment. Aloe macrocarpa( Ere) And the next step was setting a monitoring system, establishing permanent study plots over the landscape, along with full information on how much species are in one plot and how much of each are there, by updating this information we can know how fast the vegetation is recovering through a yearly evaluation. And this gives us figures and facts confirming, the area is actually recovering, which can be used to promote the advantage of a nature reserve. More over, having that information, the protected watershed can be managed and used in a sustainable way, and most importantly, the whole scientific approach can serve as a model and be adopted in other areas.

Issayas: When I was in Asmara (August, 2006), you gave me honey made out of Beles (prickly pear), How is it made? And what is the difference between Beles jam and Beles honey? because one associates honey with bees?

Hiyoba:Yeah, it was an organic mountain honey from Arbe Robu’e, a mountain where the
vegetation cover is significantly dominated by ‘prickly pear cactus’ (Beles). Well, the secret of producing different varieties of honey is, placing the apiaries (group of hives) at the right place at the right time, strategically placing the beehives at the chosen spot of suitable forage. Color and flavor of honey depend on the storage period and on the source of nectar, although, the storage period should not be used to mark varieties. The flavor and color, the distinguishing factors, vary based on the flowers in the surrounding area of the beehives. Since the worker bees fetch flower nectar (mitse mitse, we call it in Tigrinya) from the nearest available forage, they make their trip to the blossoms of the dominant specie at the immediate neighborhood, ultimately producing honey of a particular variety. Accordingly, we place the beehives among specific plant specie during its peak flowering season, and get a honey variety of that specific flower. That is how the Beles honey, among others, is produced.

There is also a multi-floral honey, produced from nectars of multiple flowers. Therefore, the range of honey varieties we can have depends on the availability of a diversified plant species that serve as bee forage, and once again the importance of flora diversity can be associated with honey production. Monitoring plots over the landscape And associating honey with bees is not the only explanation as for the difference between Beles jam and Beles honey. Although, that is one thing for sure, and the main difference comes from having the bees as the producers. Beles jam is cooked/manufactured from the fruit and Beles honey is naturally made from the flower nectar. The jam is a synthetic substitute for Beles honey. They differ both in content and flavor. A pure organic honey is rich in its nutrient content; the various natural enzymes in it add up a good deal of merit to it, prevailing over the jam with its medicinal value. Honey is simply an out put of a sound natural process, its benefits radiating towards various angles; health and nutrition, the ecology (pollination) and economy.

Issayas: How can one person, one village, one small country create a healthy environment within the man-made natural degradation you talked about? And what message do you have for our readers?

Hiyoba: Nowadays, with awareness gradually encroaching to peoples mind, the destruction is mostly done not out of free choice but out of need, especially the need for fuel wood, resulting deforestation, and the subsequent loss of all related ecological, economical and socio-cultural benefits. But other than that, the wrong understanding or attitude people have collectively brings a considerable damage. ‘The little I take or do won’t harm much, or won’t make a difference’, this is the most ruining, bloodsucking understanding, because it moves in both direction, it encourages people to destroy, while at the same time, stops them from taking any good environmental action. But the thing is, no matter how minor you think your action is to bring a change, eventually it will add up, plus just a little contribution from an individual is multiplied by the mass’s number, this is like a savings account, with an interest, piece by piece you build up your fortune.

People go to the bank even just to add a little more on their savings, knowing it does make a difference, and the good environmental action is not any different from
this. We need to develop the habit of associating any action for the good of the environment with social occasions, a socio-cultural approach. Indeed, policy and science are very crucial and are on the shoulders of the professionals and government officials, but what is expected of the society in general? You can have the best director, the best story and the best customs, and you know, all the materials you need, but with out the actors and their good performance, there is no movie, just the script. The society is the actor; our goal will end up being just a script without the full involvement of the society.

In Eritrea, students, village women and children participate in afforestation campaigns (Ma’etot), and there is also an official sanitary day, where people clean their surroundings in mass ‘me’alti tsiriyet’, which is a good initiative and it should be encouraged. We can also soften our approach, in a way it can raise a deeper interest or get a bigger attention by all members of the society. For instance, we can plant a tree with a new born baby, naming it after him, that is great you know, they will grow up together, or on memory of the dead, or on special occasions, like wedding, graduation, or an opening of a new house, you name it. Imagine the responsibility and special attachment people will have with the environment, and if you can create that bond you can safeguard both, the environment, which is for the people. It is what we do at the grass root level that would make a difference, as much as its power to destroy.

The environment or nature doesn’t have a political boundary, what is happening in other parts of the world is also my concern, our concern, because it affects us directly or indirectly, now or later, that is why it is an international issue, we all fight for a better world, and that starts through your local action. So, where ever you are, put your share of responsibility in the pool.If the concern is in the mind of every individual, whoever you are, what ever you do, wherever you are, that is it, you will find a way. So, the fundamental question ‘what is it that I can do?’ is what I want to leave in the reader’s mind.

Issayas: Hiyoba, thanks for your thoughts and time

Hiyoba: Thank you Issayas, for your time and for creating the ground to put across my personaland professional message to the reader.