Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Blog: What does sustainable mean?

BJ Heinzen

For 20 years, analyst and consultant Barbara Heinzen has been working with organisations around the world to help them think long term.

In the first of 3 guest articles, she introduces the work of Barbets Duet, a social experiment to find ways of living that put the earth's well-being at the heart of any economic activity.

Most people know that we need to change the way we live if we are to tackle climate change and to protect nature. Few can imagine how that change will come about. 

I help people imagine different futures. Most of my assignments have been with business and civil society in Asia, Africa and Latin America. My clients have also been my teachers, especially in East Africa where I facilitated four major scenario projects between 1998 and 2008. We learned a lot from each other and in 2009, several of us started Barbets Duet.

I act as co-ordinator of this small network of people in East Africa, the UK and the USA.  Our underlying assumption is that people will only protect ecosystems if they are rewarded for doing so. However that requires new institutional rules and market mechanisms. To invent those, each of us is working with our own land and communities to test new ways of managing the land and making a living.

Barbets are tropical birds that sing in duet.  As a duet, we draw on modern and traditional knowledge including African and Western science and institutional ideas. Here are some East African examples.  

In Western Kenya, Oby Obyerodhyambo's grandfather told him that elephants used to live nearby. Fruit was so plentiful no one went hungry. Land was collectively owned and managed, with reserves set aside for dry spells. After land ownership was individualised, cash crops dominated and diversity declined. Today, Oby is reintroducing traditional crops like millet and new crops like onions and squash. He is sharing water rights and creating a new botanical reserve. 

Sharing knowledge of plants in Kenya (c) Barbara Heinzen

Sammy Muvelah's site at Lukenya, outside Nairobi, is very dry.  He built a dam to capture and store rain. The stored water is now a shared community resource.  He also replanted his hillside with drought-tolerant trees that produce saleable fruit, fodder, fuel and timber.   His neighbours are starting their own nurseries.

Sammy Muvelah's site in Lukenya, Kenya. (c) Barbara Heinzen

The Msi Choke Co-operative of seaweed growers in Tanzania cannot get a fair price for their seaweed.  They are developing new products like seaweed soap.  Beekeeping is diversifying their income. They also protect the mangroves, stimulated by the rest of us. 

Machano Ali of Msi Co-operative (c) Barbara Heinzen

My USA learning site is a swamp forest on the Hudson River.  It is a botanical mess.  Three neighbours who want to hunt deer now work with me to improve the land.  Our agreement was inspired by my African partners.

Together, we are learning to build sustainability place by place, a dynamic and unpredictable process. While learning from each other, our solutions adapt to local knowledge, history and conditions.

In her next blog post, Barbara Heinzen continues her account of the work of Barbets Duet with a visit to Molo, Uganda.

Inspired by Barbara's work? Help defend human rights and the environment too, and take our actions on environmental justice.

View the original article here