New forms of media criticism are gaining ground in countries such as Kenya and South Africa. The Twitter hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN prompted US news channel CNN to back away from identifying Kenya as a “terror hotbed”. And before elections in Kenya in August, male dominance of expert panels on television was challenged with the hashtag #SayNoToManels.
Human rights are literally going up in smoke when Kenya launches major geothermal energy projects in the indigenous Maasai areas. Part of the investments derive from UN climate projects under the Kyoto protocol (CDM), where the municipal energy company of Gothenburg (Göteborg Energi) is one of the investors. Emission reductions in Kenya are used for carbon offset (climate compensation) of Swedish district heating.
This is an english translation of a Swedish text published in Sveriges Natur #5/2014
It has to be said right away: Geothermal energy is probably a climate smart solution for electrifying Kenya. Significantly better than fossil alternatives. The first power plant was built 30 years ago, and with the planned new investments the complex in Olkaria, 120 km west of the capital Nairobi, will be the world’s largest.
The problem is that the exploitation causes suffering among the indigenous people who live in the area and claim traditional rights to the land. Their environment is damaged and whole villages are relocated by force.
Last summer the conflict reached new heights when the governmental Kenyan energy company KenGen tried to expel Maasai locals from the village Narasha by force. A couple of hundred thugs, supported by armed police, burned nearly 250 houses, killed livestock and assaulted several villagers. The incident became hot news material, so much that the President Uhuru Kenyatta felt compelled to personally visit the village and make promises of compensation for the affected.
We are heading to the village, which is situated close to the already established power stations. As the road turns into the hills from the large lake Naivasha the typical volcanic smell resembling rotten eggs can be felt in the air. Smoke clouds are visible from afar, and just inside the gate of the National Park Hell’s Gate we drive through a large industrial park with several power stations. The emissions do not just smell unpleasantly. Sulphur hydroxide is a poisonous gas and one of the health impacts of the power plants is that diseases of the respiratory system have become the most common among the locals.
Some warthogs graze below one of the large pipelines carrying hot gases from boreholes a thousand meters deep. Steam hisses from valves. A network of pipelines meanders for miles and miles through the arid landscape.
The first power plant, Olkaria I, was built in the early 1980s. Combined Olkaria I, Olkaria II (funded by the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the German Development Bank KFW) and Olkaria III (operated by American-owned Orpower) deliver 150 megawatts (MW) to the Kenyan grid. Olkaria IV, which is under construction, will provide 280 MW and is launched as a new climate project for foreign investors who want to offset their own carbon emissions (CDM, clean development mechanism). KenGen is planning to expand the capacity to several thousand megawatts in the area.
The name Olkaria derives from the Maasai word for ocher, which is collected in the area. It is used to dye hair ritually. The local Maasai belong to the clan Ilkunono. Following bloody clashes with British colonial power in the late 19th century they retired to this part of their original area because it was less accessible and more easily defended. The area also holds sacred places of significance for all Maasai, among them the scenic Ol Njorowa gorge with hot springs, cliffs and waterfalls.
Just outside the village our car is held up by an old man in jeans and shuka (traditional felt cloak). 78-year-old Oseen Parsampyla is waving menacingly at us with his long rod. Four sons and a grandson follow suit.
He declares that they are prepared to fight us. As he understands that we are journalists and not part of KenGen’s foreign investors matters calm down and we can talk.
– We believe that the company will try to expel as again soon. If so, it will have to be over my dead body. We will not move!
Under the drone of the high-voltage lines high over our heads, he tells how his family has been forcibly relocated from place to place. The first resettlement took place in the period of Kenya’s independence and national formation in the 60s. Initially the family lived in the area where the power plants are now. At that time the morans, the young warriors, took to arms.
– We were promised compensation at the time, but have not received any so far …
The first thing we see in the village itself is a demolished house of corrugated steel, still standing after last year’s attack.
– A group of women used to make cornmeal in there, says Rebecca Liziay, who is standing behind the counter in a small shop next door.
All is quiet and peaceful, except for children’s voices from the school across the road (which has about 400 pupils). It is hard to imagine the uproar last summer, but Daniel Mpatinga picks up his mobile and shows a video he filmed. We see burning buildings and people on the run.
A car fleet with approximately 200 hired thugs with chainsaws and machetes entered the village early morning July 26th. All were Kikuyu, Kenya’s dominant ethnic group. Along came armed police and a court decision for evacuation, which later proved to be false.
Land ownership is disputed, here as in many other places. The Maasai claim traditional ownership, but after independence in 1963 the government distributed title deeds to people in other parts of the country who had connections to the political elite. The official title deed holders of Narasha have already reached an agreement with KenGen.
When the thugs arrived the animals had not been taken out to graze yet, most of them remained in the village. Over 200 sheep and many goats and calves were incinerated. Buildings were burned and torn down the whole day.
– Those who tried to stop the destruction were arrested and several people were beaten. My father was one of them, says Daniel Mpatinga.
The World Bank denied involvement in a statement and when the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta visited the village a week after the attack he promised thorough investigation and compensation for those affected. A committee was appointed, but the work hasn’t perceived as planned and is at present stalled. Nothing has happened on the issue of compensations. Daniel Mpatinga is part of the group that is trying to estimate compensation for the values that were destroyed. He figures the values amount to approximately 100 million shillings (about 8 million SEK).
Prior to the attack the villagers were offered 31 million shillings (about 2.5 million SEK) if they moved out voluntarily, he says.
– We were also told that the money would be used to force us out if we did not accept.
Jack Zooibo and his family lives in the house closest to the shop. It took him six months, but now he has rebuilt his burnt house from scratch. His neighbour Hannah Sencho shares the bitter experience.
– We got no chance to empty the buildings. Animals and many possessions went up in flames. It was a great suffering, she says.
The villagers we meet are worried because KenGen visited the village a few days before, measuring the land. The company is planning for a new, more powerful geothermal plant (Olkaria V) and a large industrial area with homes for tens of thousands of workers.
The area the company suggested for relocating the villagers is much smaller than their present and, according to them, with less possibilities for grazing and cultivation.
– The place is stony and eroded. And it is uncertain whether we would be allowed to remain there, says Daniel Mpatinga.
Another group in the area accepted relocation after lengthy negotiations, to make space for the power plant Olkaria IV. KenGen has built 150 new houses for them on a height. The day of our visit the Shaa family is moving in. They are the last to go.
– We waited as long as possible because the houses KenGen built are fewer than what was promised. 14 families have not been offered anywhere to stay and we wanted to fight for their rights, says village elder Daniel Shaa.
The description in KenGens resettlement plan (RAP) does not appear that bad. The goal is that all PAP (”Project Affected Persons”) should be no worse off than before the project started. The World Bank safeguards are to be followed. And the community’s wish to be resettled together has been respected.
The house of the family Shaa, bearing the sign RAP HSE 31, also appears more modern than traditional maasai huts. More space, cement walls and tin roofs. But the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, according to Daniel Shaa.
– We can not live in our traditional way here. The house feels isolated and has a fence around the small yard. There is no space for the animals and it’s difficult to be social with your neighbors. The whole relocation process is very disappointing for most of us and does not live up to expectations.
The water tanks deployed are not matching the needs, the houses are secluded and routes are difficult. Promises of bus transport have not been fulfilled. The families do not have to pay rent, but they are also not recognized as owners.
– To access the house we had to sign a paper that we have no additional claims. But the houses are still KenGen’s and may not be altered in any way. They can not be inherited or sold.
Daniel Shaa has written several letters concerning breach of contracts to the World Bank, but has so far not received any other answer than that the bank has promised to discuss matters with KenGen.
On the road from the settlements we get stuck in the muddy road, even though our car has four-wheel drive. It takes assistance from passers-by, before we can continue towards Nairobi.
Joseph Simel is director of the human rights NGO MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization), working for the Maasai and other nomadic pastoralist groups in Kenya. MPIDO has sued the police, several governemental departments and multinational corporations for several cases of rights abuses, including the evictions in Narasha. The first hearing will take place in Nakuru on December 23rd.
– We ask the court to suspend any activities that are detrimental to the locals until the case is settled, he says.
– The government wants to secure energy supply, but does not consider the consequences. It takes no account of a number of previous court decisions that have gone our way. Instead, the methods for expelling the Maasai are becoming increasingly violent. Narasha is not the only example.
Kenya has not ratified ILO 169 (international convention securing the rights of indigenous people), but Joseph Simel still thinks that Kenyan law does take into account the rights of indigenous people, and he is hopeful of further improvement. The problem is that the authorities do not apply the legislation. And that court processing is expensive, especially for an NGO.
The MPIDO programme officer for land, natural resources and rights, Lawrence Mbelati, adds that the mining law in the making does not include benefit sharing for local communities in the way it should according to the Kenyan constitution.
– I recommend that the government should also consider the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, UNDRIP, and its principle of free prior and informed consent (FPIC), says Lawrence Mbelati.
Joseph Simel says that it pays to mobilize the media on these issues:
– But even that has a price in Kenya. Politicians often bribe to silence the media, or threaten them with lawsuits.
Geothermal energy is not the only form of exploitation that attracts developers to the Maasai areas. Natural gas, hydro, oil exploration and mining are other threats to livelihoods.
Historically, the ethnic group has been pushed out of its original territory further and further into dry and arid areas. The British colonial rule left the feared Maasai warriors in peace until the late 19th century, when severe rinderpest and diseases weakened resistance.
Through two agreements (with conditions that were not respected) the colonial power was able to get a hold of large areas. Independence meant no improvement in terms of land rights, according to Simel.
– I usually say that the white colonists were replaced by black. The political elite redistributed the land according to their own purposes.
Nevertheless Maasai culture and traditions are heavily used for marketing Kenya as a tourist destination. In the center of the national flag Kenya boasts a Maasai shield with two crossed spears.
The big challenge of the Maasai today is climate change, according to Joseph Simel. Although they themselves hardly contribute at all (very few even access electricity grids) the greenhouse effect is heavily affecting their areas. He is also critical of the fact that Olkaria and similar projects are used in climate measures as the CDM.
– The projects are most likely positive for the climate, but they damage the Maasai livelihood and lifestyle.
Language barriers, top-down approach and lack of interest for local stakeholder views result in weak or corrupt environmental impact assessments. The difficulties and problems connected to projects are hidden behind beautiful words.
– I do not think people in Europe or the United States want to make trouble for us. But they may not know what is actually happening. There is a need for better opportunities and resources for indigenous peoples to document and disseminate information.
Swedish companies that chose to climate compensate for district heating (fjärrvärme) have also been contributing to CMD-projects in Olkaria. “A good deed for the environment” according to the web site of Göteborg Energi (The municipal energy company of Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg).
CDM, Clean Development Mechanism, are projects under the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, where industrialized countries reduce domestic carbon emissions by investing in projects in developing countries. Four different CDM projects have been registered for the geothermal power plants in Olkaria.
One that began in 2011 is about expansion of the capacity of Olkaria II. The power plant was built in 2003 on land where the Maasai had been expelled previously. 14 developed countries are listed as participants, among them Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. A closer look at the documentation shows that Göteborg Energi is the project participant and that Energimyndigheten (the Swedish Energy Agency) approved participation.
When Sveriges Natur calls Göteborg Energi it takes a while to clarify the connection. After some research their Press officer Cecilia Erdalen is able to tell that the project is one of several used for climate compensation (carbon offset) of district heating (“fjärrvärme”) and gas for business customers.
– The ownership is channeled through a fund with various projects, managed by the World Bank. We own two percent of it. The fund itself is not operating, or responsible for, the projects, but it is co-financing them through the CDM.
The Göteborg Energi web site markets carbon offset to corporate customers as ”a way to strengthen your company’s environmental profile”. It also states that the emission reduction units (CERs) are approved according to UN and EU regulations.
– We make no independent scrutiny of projects, apart from the fact that they are authorized by the UN Climate Panel and Energimyndigheten. We follow existing guidelines, but should the fund invest in questionable projects it is of course unfortunate, says Cecilia Erdalen.
It is hard to figure out how much Gothenburg Energy is investing in separate projects and how many tons of carbon emission they represent because figures from different projects are not separated in the fund.
– But carbon offsetting is a small business for us, it just concerns a few corporate clients. One problem is that the system of carbon trading is almost non-functional today, as prices have fallen radically.
Division Manager Erik Eriksson at the Swedish Energy Agency has no insight into the specific case, but explains the system:
– As the national authority we authorize the participation of Swedish companies. But it is the UN that is approving the projects. We always look at the documentation, but do not take decisions on the projects themselves. The host country’s national authority determines whether they contribute to domestic sustainable development, which is a prerequisite.
David Dabass is press officer at the UN Department of carbon trading. He refers to the comprehensive and transparent documentation on the site unfccc.int of all CDM projects:
– We can not comment on particular CDM projects, but each project is assessed and audited by accredited consultants. Their work involves consulting local stakeholders. No project can proceed without approval by the host country’s national authority.
More information on the CDM projects that the World Bank manages can be found on wbcarbonfinance.org. The projects also have social obligations, in this case expansion of an elementary school and measures to improve water supply and roads.
MPIDO (Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization) is supported by the Copenhagen-based NGO IWGIA (International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs). Read more about the situation of the Maasai and the Olkaria case on IWGIAwebsite and MPIDO website.
The World Bank denied involvement in last year’s evictions in Narasha in a separate statement from September last year, which also welcomed the government’s decision to appoint a committee of inquiry. It also stressed that the bank’s ”safeguards”, safety mechanisms, should be applied in all resettlements.
Sveriges Natur has also been in contact with the World Bank in Nairobi. In this matter the Bank only refers to the statement from last year and does not comment further on developments regarding Narasha, other resettlement issues or the general matter of Maasai land rights in the area.
The modern way of life is gradually taking over in Samwel Ole Naikada’s Maasai village. But he will never let go of the Maasai legacy of protecting forests and wildlife. When he leaves Kenya for global climate negotiations the traditions go with him.
We meet with Samwel Naikada in the small town Kilgoris where he studies. A tall, cool guy who sort of surfs on top of the messy street life. Over lunch the photographer Håkan asks that particular question you should never put to a pastoralist, whether Sami in Sweden or Maasai in Kenya or Tanzania: “How many animals do you own?”
Samwel smiles and explains that this is like asking someone how much money he has in the bank. In fact, it’s far more than that. Even the very word Maasai is connected to the animals, cattle stands for life itself.
After a visit to the grocery store, shopping for European stomachs, Samwel folds his tall self into the car he has borrowed from his children’s school teacher and we head south. The first part is decent dirt road, the rains haven’t started yet. Every now and then we meet donkey carts loaded with charcoal for cooking, a sight that Samwel disapproves of. Charcoal burning threatens forests across Africa, but in Maasai areas this hasn’t been a problem.
– For us it is a taboo, a curse. Whoever does it will turn as black as coal himself, it is said. But now the traditions are dwindling, people care less and less …
The last miles are completely off road, we bump through bush landscape, follow narrow cattle trails and pass a broken fence that was demolished by elephants a few days earlier. A herd of zebras disperse in front of the car just as we are about to enter Samwel’s boma (fenced area for livestock and houses).
– They feel safer close to houses since there is less risk of lions here, Samwel says.
The day before a cheetah killed a small antelope at the closest waterhole, and a few days earlier a jackal stole a baby goat. Samwel’s village Olkirreruki is situated right next to the great forest Nyakweri which in turn adjoins the Maasai Mara National Park. No wonder there is an abundance of wildlife nearby, and that Samwel got hooked on nature conservation already as a child.
– You could say that I was an activist from the start. I hated when trees were felled, and when poachers hunted in the woods.
He reported them regularly to the National Park Rangers, and eventually the boy who was so good at speaking English started to get odd jobs for the conservancy.
Håkan and I move into one of the family’s huts, next to the cow enclosure and the small house for the goats, made with interlaced branches. The hut has walls made of dried cow dung just like the others, but is more modern with its square shape, small window-openings and corrugated tin roofs instead of straw. Since a few weeks back there is also a solar panel on the roof that powers small lamps and a device for charging mobiles (previously the family had to walk eight kilometers to a larger village for charging in shops with electricity).
Samwel shifts quilted jacket and jeans to traditional Shuka (blanket to wrap around the upper body) and long rod. This is the way he feels most comfortable, and the animals are most at ease with people who dresses traditionally.
– Still I rarely wear Shuka when I go to town, everybody keeps asking what we are celebrating…
But for the longer trips, to the large cities where the climate negotiations take place, he always brings it. Even if the weather is a bit too cold, like in Copenhagen 2009. Samwel has represented indigenous people in four global climate negotiations. Clothes that stand out make it easier to get attention.
– We often need to make a lot of fuss to be listened to, to make our views part of the process.
Cooperating with indigenous people from different parts of the world is rewarding, and Samwel sees many similarities in attitude and culture. But the general result of the negotiations is disappointing. Top players like the US push their own agendas and fight to minimize their efforts. The indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and affected, but get little sympathy. Samwel has also been working with biodiversity issues under the frame of the Convention for Biological Diversity and he feels the Nagoya Protocol takes better account of the rights of indigenous people.
Samwel specializes in forestry issues. He has presented the local conservancy project Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association at several workshops, one of them in Copenhagen.
– I was participating in the panel discussion along with Wangari Maathai and several Kenyan parliamentarians. At first the people from the government did not want to cooperate, they saw us almost as rivals. But that has changed, in Durban we negotiated out of a common position.
Our arrival is a big event in Olkirreruki where cars (and white people as well) are rare sights. Samwel’s six children are overjoyed as Håkan takes snapshots and show them on the camera screen. Their grandfather Tubula Ole Naikada comes to greet us. He is in his eighties (year of birth unknown), but is still out herding animals every day.
When he was young the local Maasai still lived as nomads. The animals could graze where the grass was greenest. The rains were also longer, the drought periods shorter.
– After independence 1963 the land was subdivided, agriculture became more frequent and national parks formed closed areas. We could not move as we used to. Life became more difficult, says Tubula.
The traditional diet is almost entirely based on milk. Meat is uncommon, Tubula ate it almost only during the period when he was a warrior, Moran. The Morans also prepared and ate herbs that made them brave. Hunting dangerous animals were part of the rites. Tubula has killed two lions and one elephant. And several men.
– I liked to fight …
His son Samwel has undergone the rituals that mark the end of the warrior period and initiate for life as an elder, but just as ceremony. He has never lived the warrior’s life, which lasts for several years.
– To get a good life today young people need education and jobs. There is neither time nor possibilities for pursuing the old way of living all the way.
For his own part, he broke the traditional bonds by eloping from the wedding his father had negotiated for him in order to continue studying in town. He became the first in the area with high school exams (today it is common) and the last few years he has taken up studies again at university level in Kilgoris.
His wife Diana (who is actually the sister of the girl he ran away from) takes responsibility for livestock and family when he is in Kilgoris.
– It works out fine. There are mobile phones…
Nevertheless, preserving the culture is important to Samwel. One suggestion he has put forward is creating a local training center where elders can pass on knowledge to the young Maasai.
– Maasai pastoralism is in harmony with nature, as long as there is enough land for the grazing. The hunting is generally not done for meat but regarded as rites of initiation. The clans have totem animals, a factor that contributes to the will to protect nature. And forests have always been important, for medicine, for the holy sites and for water supply.
The forests are used, but sustainably. When roots or branches are harvested it is important to cover bare areas to ensure survival of the trees. For firewood only dry branches are used.
Early next day Samwel and two young guides accompany us into Nyakweri forest. We are a bit tired as the dogs have been chasing hyenas around the huts during the night, but it is a great experience to walk under the canopy of trees and listen to all the stories. A glade has just been visited by elephant mothers who gather particularly nutritious roots for their kids.
Walking safaris are a way to raise money for the Dupoto organization that Samwel heads. The word Dupoto means benefit: income from ecotourism will ensure the survival of the forest. A large dam has been built (the village can now manage two years of drought without shortage of water), 40 beehives have been set up and Dupoto pays for expansion of the local school.
Dupoto has given the villagers a positive view of protected areas. This has not always been the case. Although the national park Maasai Mara attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, the revenue only marginally benefits local communities. Instead the possibility for grazing is limited and wildlife from the park cause property damage and human injuries and deaths every year.
– The parks protect wildlife but are not helpful to the locals. There are provisions for compensation, but they do not function as they are supposed to, Samwel says.
The Dupoto project has also had conflicts. A British-owned tobacco company was starting up large plantations adjacent to the forest six years ago. Bribery and harassments fragmented the local society for some time.
– I called around to authorities and made a row about it. It took six months of struggle, but finally the Kenyan Environmental Protection Agency said no to the farms. The company really hated me and tried to get at me personally.
But threats do not discourage a Maasai, Samwel concludes.
– We don’t give in, we are still a proud people …
1993 Samwel escapes from the wedding to be able to study for a high school exam (the first in the area). It takes several months before he comes home to meet his father again.
1997 Forming Dupoto Wildlife and Forest Association to protect the Nyakweri forest with its rich flora and fauna.
1998 Moves to Nairobi for tourism education. He works there for a few years but is longing to go back home.
2004 Working on conservation projects in Kilgoris and the areas surrounding Nyakweri forest.
2008 First time Samwel participates in global climate negotiations (Póznan). He has also been to Copenhagen in 2009, Cancún in 2010 and Durban in 2011. “For indigenous people it is important to make a lot of fuss if you are to be heard”, he says.
2012 Begins to study at university level again to gain formal qualification for higher conservation jobs.
Indigenous Information Network is the Kenyan NGO Samwel collaborates with to build a climatically sustainable community in Narok District. IIN has also made it possible for him to participate in the climate negotiations, in part supported by Swedish aid money.
Read more about Dupoto Wildlife & Forestry Association and guided walks in the Nyakweri forest here
This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here.
To cope with a more arid climate, Kenyan women are literally seeking their roots. We follow their journey as relict crops and sacred sites are brought back to life.
As we arrive at the village, the women are preparing a feast. The banquet table is filled with harvests from the surrounding fields: a variety of beans, amaranth, arrowroot, bananas, chapati bread made from sweet potatoes, yams, cassava and sugar-cane juice.
Things were very different just a few years ago, when many locals hardly had a meal on the table, despite the fact that the region has long been among the country’s most productive.
“We couldn’t afford to buy food, or to let our children go to school. And it was tough even for those who had money. The shops were simply empty,” explains Monica Gatobu, a farmer in the village of Kirugua near the city of Meru, to the east of Mount Kenya.
Along with corn, potatoes and wheat, most small-scale farmers had begun to invest more and more in cash crops – foreign crops that could be sold directly for cash on the international market.
Then came the drought, which devastated the most water-intensive species of plants. At the same time that the climate began to shift, the world experienced a crash in the prices of cash crops, particularly for coffee, in which many farmers had invested heavily.
“Most of us had converted the nearby fields to coffee and cleared the forests for our household crops. But we were forced to stop because of the destruction it caused in the forests. Instead, we started to look for the seeds of relict crops that could be grown in a way that conserves moisture,” says Monica.
The forest, which is part of Mount Kenya’s larger forest ecosystem, lies just an hour’s hike from the village. It is a major reason for the region’s plentiful water supply.
Monica and her husband, Joseph, were among the first to take advantage of the opportunity to join a project sponsored by ICE, the Institute for Culture and Ecology, dedicated to the renewal of the village’s traditional practices. Mercy Muleva was one of the advisors who began with a small group of about 30 households.
“Western influences are very strong here. Many people here hardly knew of any crops other than corn, wheat and beans. But as the climate has changed, rain patterns have become increasingly unreliable – and our crops have to tolerate both rain and drought,” explains Mercy.
Together the group managed to find and cultivate a number of relict crops, and their success convinced others to follow their lead. Today, a large portion of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants has joined in the effort.
This shift has not only secured the village’s food supply. It has also affected local gender roles.
“Because so many of the relict crops are traditionally planted by men, they’ve become more and more involved in local agriculture. Bananas and yams demand, for example, that we dig deep into the soil. As women, we’re responsible for the home, which seems easier nowadays. Men and women support each other more,” says Monica.
Traditionally, African men and women have had different tasks and skills in the agricultural system,” explains Gathuru Mburu, general coordinator for the ICE group. “In many cases, women have shouldered much of the burden of this work. And colonization has only increased their workloads.”
When Englishmen employed men at the large tea plantations, many became supervisors, a role they then assumed at home.
“In colonial times, native people were forced to adapt to new systems, new worldviews and a new religion. The local, traditional knowledge and skills were no longer valued, and the government has done nothing to change this since the country’s independence in 1963. We’re trying to help these villages reconstruct their knowledge base.”
A crucial part of this effort is to build awareness of the fact that forests must be protected for society to ensure its water supply. Another is the idea that the earth has been damaged by chemical use and high-yield crops, and must therefore be “healed.”
“It’s about decolonizing people’s thought patterns – to reestablish the feeling of community and restore connections with local ecosystems. In many cases, it’s not that difficult once the work has begun,” says Gathuru.
But it’s not just colonization that has led to these negative developments. Christian missions also played a role, in part by diminishing the social status and protection of ancient sacred sites.
One such place is the sacred forest of Giitune, on a hill beside Ruiga, a village several hours away by car. We stop beside a road sign announcing that we have arrived at the equator. Several older men lead the way along a path through dense vegetation. As we hike, the air is pleasantly cool in the shadows of the towering mukui trees (Newtonia Buchananii).
At the top of the hill we reach a small glade, where several dozen villagers sit in quiet concentration around a fire. The moment we’ve taken our places in the circle, a group of women begins to sing and dance, their loud howls inviting us to join in. Two older men, one in a tattered grey suit and a broad sun hat, the other with a black-and-white fur headdress and tufted staff, emerge from a hut on the far side of the glade carrying a ceremonial drinking horn and a calabash adorned with shells.
The men dance within the circle as they drink the liquid from the calabash, which they then spray from their mouths onto the people surrounding them, and onto a nearby tree. The song has become more rhythmic. We hear a single word repeated: thaai, thaai, thaai. As the liquid sprays in my direction, I notice a faint scent of yeast and honey.
Tetu Maingi sits beside me, whispering that the ceremony is a blessing of the sacred forest, and of the people in the shadow of the great tree. The word thaai means peace and serenity.
Tetu is a coordinator in the environmental organization Porini, which also works to promote traditional knowledge and local autonomy. Together with the UN organization UNDP and the National Museum of Kenya, Porini runs a project aimed at restoring and conserving some two-dozen sacred sites surrounding Mount Kenya.
In many cases their task is urgent: Environmental degradation and exploitation threaten valuable natural and cultural resources, and the older generation’s traditional knowledge is dying out.
As a secular Swede, the ceremony around us feels unfamiliar. But it doesn’t take faith in the local god Murungu to understand the advantages offered by the forest in terms of water, firewood, medicine and more stable weather conditions.
The man in the fur headdress – made from the pelt of the sacred colobus monkey – is M’Riberia Mwongo, a 74-year-old medicine doctor and spiritual adviser in Njur Nceke, the highest council of elders in the province of Meru. The man in the sun hat is the senior village elder George M’Turuchiu, at 84 years of age.
The calabash contains a sacred beer, brewed from sugar cane juice and honey from the foothills of Mount Kenya, and fermented near the fire. Later in the evening I’m offered a taste: It is strong, sweet and cloudy with yeast.
At the end of the ceremony is a Christian prayer, a fact no one seems to see as a contradiction. But when I speak with Mwongo afterwards, he shares his criticism of many of the effects of Christianity:
“The Bible tells us that Jesus forgives. But to be accepted back into the community, and to atone for one’s sins, our tradition requires repentance and a purification ceremony.”
Christian missions paved the way for colonization, broke down traditional systems of rules and severed the connection to nature, he explains.
“The first European arrived in 1901. Before this, the forest was intact, protected by the taboos of the council of elders.”
It wasn’t allowed, for example, to take a knife or axe into the forest. The only acceptable cutting tools were stones. Firewood could only be collected on specific occasions, and then only dried branches. If a living tree was felled, bloodshed would follow. In the forest, the killing of animals was forbidden along with fighting and sex.
As the church became the new holy site, the myths and taboos of the forest faded into the past. Instead, ancient beliefs were associated with forces of evil. Sections of forest were cut for timber, which was then used for building and wood coal. Subvegetation was collected for animal feed, and the forest began to dry out.
“The morals of our society also faded. In one spot in the forest, beer was brewed and sold. The forest was used as a toilet, and for love affairs,” explains Martta Kauthi Gituna, a 42-year-old local.
Janet Ikaria is just over 70 years old and has noticed a resurgence in traditions due to the project:
“Now, the young people listen to their elders again. Streams have begun to flow, harvests have improved and we don’t need to go as far to collect water.”
The turning point was a grand purification ceremony in 2005, when a sheep was sacrificed, according to Julius Gikundi, secretary of the Giitune Environment Conservation Group. The group maintains the forest on behalf of the National Museum of Kenya, which granted the area protection rights in 2003.
“Giitune is proof to the whole world that it’s possible to protect forests through traditional cultural practices. Now, security guards are no longer needed. We plant native trees to restore the parts of the forest that were destroyed,” say Julius. The animal life, however, has yet to recover, with the exception of birds, of which there are still quite many. The elders estimate that about two-dozen species have disappeared, among them several monkeys and antelope.
“Traditional knowledge is passed down through generations. We try to combine the stories of the elders with modern technology, such as GPS mapping. This kind of documentation also makes it easier to gain the attention of authorities,” explains Tetu Maingi of Porini.
A group of young locals tells me that they’ve learned a great deal from their elders. “Of course, many younger people leave the village for work or studies. But we hope to be able to carry on our traditions with the help of research and photographs,” says George Ringera, a teenager in the group.
At other holy sites, less progress has been made. We pass Mbututia, a sacred lake and wetland area endangered by drainage and conversion to croplands. The lake is vital to migratory birds and huge numbers of fish, and its survival has been threatened on several occasions – once, by an Italian priest who proposed leveling the area and replacing it with an airport. More recently, a forced relocation program has led to a number of farmers being allotted land that today is lake bottom.
Wildlife diversity here is enormous, and plans have been developed to use EU aid to turn the lake into a nature preserve. But as long as land rights issues remain unresolved, the threats remain.
Tetu takes us to Karima Hill, a hilltop forest in the province of Nyeri, west of Mount Kenya. “Here, the struggle is still underway. People have become aware of the situation and are beginning to fight to keep their forest. The government sees it only as a source of timber,” he explains.
The forest is 270 hectares in total, although the majority was burned or cut by the British to eliminate what was seen as a refuge for resistance fighters during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Where the forest was once managed locally, the system was later taken over by the city government, which proceeded to set up tea plantations and replace the damaged areas with non-native tree species – mostly water-intensive eucalyptus. None of these projects have brought direct income to the surrounding villages.
Water access, on the other hand, has suffered dramatically.
“The forest is very important for us as women. We’ve been able to collect firewood there, and the water, which has always been near our homes, has given us proper harvests. There were also medicinal herbs, wild fruits and berries for the children,” explains Rachel Wagui, a 75-year-old villager.
“Before, there was water in every valley. Now, 20 of our 26 streams have died out. The rain patterns have also changed, and erosion has increased,” says the village elder, Paul Thuku.
The council of elders is currently working to take back control of the forests from the city government. Despite other setbacks, two sacred sites totaling some 70 hectares have remained untouched, and are now protected by an ordinance from the National Museum. We climb up to one of these sites, first through a steep tea plantation, then past the tall eucalyptus trees at the hill’s crest.
As we approach the site, flashes of movement swish by in the tree canopy overhead. Black-and-white creatures with long tails hop nimbly among the branches. This is the home of the rare colobus monkey.
Paul Thuku and Kamau Mwita, members of the council of elders, discuss local taboos before we’re allowed to follow them to the most sacred site. Are women and whites allowed to come along? And what about abstinence? Anyone who has had sex during the previous week is forbidden from entering the area.
Eventually we’re allowed to follow them into the dense vegetation to join in a ceremony beneath a colossal tree enveloped in the lianas of the strangler fig. That the holy site has managed to survive untouched is something Kamau sees as a gift from the gods: “It gives us hope for the future. This, and the progress being made at other holy sites like Giitune.”
Traditional knowledge is an important part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty which has been ratified in 180 countries.
Porini and ICE are currently working according to a concept known as Community Ecological Governance, or CEG, a model for managing the destructive effects of globalization with the help of traditional knowledge and local influence. Porini and ICE are supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, and cooperate with other environmental organizations in Africa, within the African Biodiversity Network.
This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here.
Natural forests aren’t the only landscapes being taken over by timber plantations. South Africa’s biologically diverse native grasslands are being rapidly replaced by water-intensive monocultures including eucalyptus and tropical pine – trees used for paper pulp exports.
We’re standing at God’s Window, a popular lookout point just at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment in northeastern South Africa. Below us, a 700-meter cliff plunges into a dark sea of foliage. Mile upon mile of forest fans out ahead, stretching all the way to Kruger National Park on the border with Mozambique.
“The problem is that these aren’t forests. They’re gigantic monocultures of foreign origin,” explains Philip Owen, coordinator for Geasphere, an environmental organization supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
When Europeans first arrived here on the low plains, the landscape beneath us was dominated by grassland and savannah, with native forests limited to the river valleys. Today only remnants of this original ecosystem survive.
“Many people see grasslands as uniform landscapes, when they actually contain an enormous range of diversity – 82 plant species per square kilometer and an abundance of insects, birds and small mammals. Only one out of six plant species are grass, whereas most are resilient perennials. In some cases they can survive for thousands of years in one location.”
Over sixty percent of South Africa’s grasslands have disappeared and can never be restored. Here in the Mpumalanga province, the process has continued unabated for generations – so long, in fact, that many today regard Australian eucalyptus and tropical Mexican pines as native tree species. The first of these were planted one hundred years ago as a source of timber for the mining industry.
Timber plantations now cover 1.5 million hectares in South Africa, including 600,000 in Mpumalanga. The road stretching from God’s Window to the capitol of the province, Nelspruit, has the feeling of a forest in northern Sweden. But the perfectly aligned tree rows and exhausted, grayish soil tell another story altogether.
The soil here lacks the microorganisms necessary for pine and eucalyptus leaves to decompose. The canopy above blocks out all light, while the roots stretch all the way down to the water table below.
“These pines absorb 25 liters of water per day, while eucalyptus can consume up to 600. This is significantly more than any of the native tree species,” says Philip Owen.
Philip started Geasphere in 1999 after a large summit on South Africa’s water crisis. In many respects, the damage in Mpumalanga has been done. The plantations are here, and the lack of available land limits their expansion. But Geasphere’s efforts reach far beyond Mpumalanga, spreading information and influence to the neighboring countries of Mozambique and Swaziland, where exotic tree species are rapidly taking root. In tiny Swaziland, they now cover a full ten percent of the country’s area.
“Development is crucial to southern Africa, but additional timber plantations aren’t the right model. They don’t provide a lot of jobs or income, and they drastically impact water access, biological diversity and social structures.”
Philip Owen is particularly upset that over 80 percent of South Africa’s timber plantations have received FSC-certification for responsible forestry. To consumers in the north, this picture is misleading. After all, it is here in industrialized countries that most of the timber is consumed.
West of Nelspruit lies South Africa’s largest papermill, Ngodwana. As we drive into the valley, the air is heavy with the stench of sulphate. A yellowish haze of smog surrounds us long before the smokestacks rise on the horizon.
“The water flow is regarded as sufficient for diluting waste to an ‘acceptable’ level. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that periods of drought are becoming longer, and water flow is diminishing.”
The mill produces 500,000 tons of paper pulp annually, most of which is exported. Demand is high, and the mill’s owner, the multinational Sappi group, plans to increase production by 70 percent. Additional raw materials will be supplied in part by converting plantations from pine to eucalyptus, which offers more rapid growth at the expense of increased water consumption. As production increases, staff levels will remain the same.
As South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, struggles for equality between blacks and whites, the working environment here seems to be frozen in time. The black workers live down in the valley, where we visit Bhamgee, a chaotic shantytown lacking so much as roads and basic conveniences. What was once a small village has now grown to accommodate the arrival of prostitutes, who have made their way to the valley at the prospect of a large population of millworkers and transport drivers. Prostitution, hiv and AIDS are now endemic to the area.
Further up the mountainside, higher-ranking employees live in gated communities. As white visitors, we pass by the armed, black security guard without a problem, despite the fact that we have no official reason for our visit. Only white employees can be seen outside the luxury villas, often with two cars parked in the driveway. Green parks separate the houses. It gives the impression of an affluent Swedish neighborhood.
Philip Owen was raised under apartheid. He describes his school years in Nelspruit as a form of brainwashing quite different from his experiences at home, where racial lines were often less clear. At Geasphere, whites and blacks work side-by-side. Thirty kilometers away, at Philip’s home, I meet Thelma Nkosi and December Ndlovu, both of whom work for the organization.
“The plantations have many negative social effects, and the lack of water affects women most of all. They’re forced to walk much further to collect water and wood,” explains Thelma.
Life has also become less secure. It is dangerous to pass the plantations, where rapists and criminals often hide. The trees cause erosion, soil depletion and threaten the food supply. The effects are also cultural.
“Our identity is threatened when ritual sites are forced out by plantations. Ancestors’ burial places become inaccessible, trees with traditional functions disappear and initiations, among other rites, can no longer take place,” explains December.
These experiences in Mpumalanga are important for less wealthy countries such as Mozambique and Angola.
“They’re crying out for investments because it’s easy to buy the timber companies’ propaganda. The drawbacks aren’t noticeable until later on,” says Thelma.
Philip’s environmental activism was sparked when timber plantations were established on the mountain above Sudwalaskraal. Here Philip lives on the family farm, which was purchased by his grandfather in the 1960s, and is now divided among relatives. The mountainside is covered by native rainforest, the cliffs pocked with three-billion-year-old limestone caves that were inhabited by humans (homo habilis) as long as 1.8 million years ago. The Sudwala caves are historical and geological wonders that attract throngs of visitors each year.
The effects of the plantations were clearly evident. Today, the caves have dried out and are now watered by hose. The springs that supported the rainforest have disappeared during the dry season.
We hike to the remaining grassland at the top of the mountain. The sunset offers a glimpse of the native landscape’s original, sweeping beauty. Philip’s wife, Elsmarie, points out rare herbs, grass species and snakes’ dens, along with the small pine seedlings that constantly creep in from the dark wall of the plantation on the opposite side of the mountain.
“It’s an ongoing battle to prevent the spread of non-native species. In South Africa, as much acreage is covered by tree plantations as by trees that have spread uncontrolled. Pines can be cut down, but to remove eucalyptus you have to poison the roots,” explains Philip.
Portions of blackened grasslands have recently been burned. This needs to happen on a regular basis in order to maintain biodiversity, but when the fires encounter timber plantations the results can be devastating.
“We’ve recently had severe forest fires that have killed many people. Previously, native trees would store humidity and act as buffers, but now it’s too dry. The heat is so extreme that the soil’s surface is baked into a hard crust. Rainwater runs off and evaporates instead of seeping into the earth.”
The next day we follow December to his hometown, Bushbuck Ridge, where the contrast to the white farms is drastic. Here, one million people live in a sprawling shantytown, often without water or electricity. December supports his family by washing cars in an open shed beside his house.
More than 80 percent of South Africans rely on traditional medicines rather than Western techniques. As the grasslands disappear it becomes increasingly difficult for practitioners to find their raw materials. December takes us to Hilda Calinah Manyike, a trained nganga, or herbal healer. She holds an official license for collecting herbs in national parks and preserves. Her reception hut contains a small pharmacy.
“Before, it was easier to find all the herbs I needed. Now I have to travel long distances to find them, and some are no longer there at all.”
Nowadays, Hilda finds it impossible to cure certain ailments such as asthma. Instead, she is forced to send patients to a Western doctor – if they can afford it.
Bushbuck Ridge borders Kruger National Park to the east. Within the park’s fences live the same huge animals that once wandered across the low plains and surrounding savannahs.
As we pass through the gate we are forced to brake for a passing herd of elephants. Gnus, giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope meander along both sides of the road. Here, too, we see baboons, which the forestry companies exterminate in the plantations.
We spend the night inside the park. In the darkness I hear elephants crashing about like pieces of enormous lumber machinery. At dawn, a lion roars.
“The biological diversity of these grasslands has supported human life for thousands of years. In the past one hundred years, it’s been completely transformed,” says Philip, who wants to see a global awakening.
“Grasslands like the North American prairie, the Hungarian puszta and the Russian steppes are the most threatened of all types of vegetation. 80 percent are already gone, and beyond restoration.”
Kokerboom trees are adapted to desert climates, but the water shortage in the wake of climate change makes stocks dwindle.
This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 2 2014.
You might expect specialized desert plants to withstand a warmer and drier climate better than others. But it is not necessarily so. The researchers see the strange kokerboom tree as one of the most obvious examples of how the lack of water in South Africa today is threatening unique plants and ecosystems.
Last autumn we visited the area around the small town Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape for an article about Rooibos tea and Climate (published in issue 5/ 13). One evening we drove through the desolate magnificent landscape to see South Africa’s southernmost kokerboomforest . Though forest … as Scandinavian you find it hard to think of the large succulents spread out unevenly over the rocky mountainside, or forming a crooked parade along a narrow ridge against the sharp blue sky, as a forest.
In Latin the name of the plant is aloe dichotoma, in English they are called quiver trees. The name derives from the San peoples’ usage of branches as quivers for their arrows. The thick stems and starpatterned canopy looks dramatic in golden and brown tones. Up close the size impresses. Some of the trees are ten metres tall and up 250 years old.
Scientists at the South African Institute for Biodiversity notice an increased mortality in the northern range of the trees, a trend which agrees well with the climate change predictions . But persistent giants will not move so easily, and now stocks are going down. A trend the quiver trees share with many of the species in the dry Karoo vegetation type. 40 percent of them are endemic (found only here).
Plants are affected, but South Africa’s growing water stress is already causing trouble also for people. Especially the poorest. Read more about the effects of the water shortage in the large township of Kayelitsha here.
This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 2 2014. You can read the Swedish version here.
Water shortage will become South Africa’s major climate challenge. In the townships it is already a common problem. Leaking pipes gives exorbitant bills and for indebted households access to water is cut.
Driving along the seaside road eastwards from Cape Town we see a landscape of corrugated roofs, television antennas and poles with tangled power lines spread inland. Kayelitsha is one of South Africa ‘s large townships, perhaps the largest. It is difficult to calculate the population of suburbs that grow uncontrollably, but a few years old official figures estimated the population to be over 400,000.
Within Kayelitsha the housing ranges from middle class type small terraced house in the old parts to informal slum shacks on the outer edges. The district Makhaza lies somewhere in between the extremes. Here the SSNC partner organization EMG (Environmental Monitoring Group) is working with water problems at the local level in partnership with a women’s group that started out as a network for backyard farming.
A meeting is taking place in the assembly hall which is located next to the small wetland the project has restored: from highly polluted security risk to a park-like resource for biodiversity, recreation, and water. We plunge straight into heated discussions in Xhosa, a local language with many clicks. Most people who live in Kayelitsha belong to the ethnic group Xhosa and have their roots in the countryside east of Cape town. They talk about farming with compost, leaking pipes and the current situation in the ongoing dialogue with local water authorities.
One of the younger women, Khunjulwa Mtyhida, invites us to visit her little house. The toilet is outside in the front yard and when she opens the door, the floor is partially covered by water.
– There are always leaks. The wires are bad and I can not afford a plumber, she says.
She has no idea of how much water disappears down into the sewers every day. But the bills indicate an excessive consumption for a household of two persons. She and her husband have never been able to pay the debt, which was already high when they moved in 2003 (it came with the house). The latest bill lies unopened on the kitchen table. When she opens the envelope, the sum amounts to 53,889 rand (more than 31 000 SEK).
– It is not uncommon with unpaid bills of 200 000 rand, sums households where many are unemployed can never repay, says Taryn Pereira, who is working with water issues in EMG .
To completely turn off the water would create chaos. The authorities’ approach towards indebted households has instead been to fix the leaks and install so-called Water Managing Devices (WMD): meters that limit the asset to the free minimum allocation of 350 liters per day. Since the leaks often return the water access may be cut off from early in the day, especially in larger households.
Those who are without water may have to walk for miles to public faucets and chemical toilets found in the more informal parts of Kayelitsha. Others go out into the bush to defecate, something that is both unhygienic and poses a risk to women, who may be subjected to rapes.
– Our goal has been to get the authoritities to fix the leaks and reduce the bills without forcing the households to install WMDs. It has been a long battle. The officials are mostly engineers who are not so good at ”soft” social issues, instead they prefer technical solutions. But now we are approaching an agreement. We want the authorities to train local people who can fix the pipes. The pipes are so bad that they will require continued maintenance.
The water problems are partly inherited from the apartheid system. The houses and the infrastructure was built for black workers and as a consequence held low standard. Not paying water bills was a way to protest against oppression, but the accumulated debts followed suit into the new South Africa.
– The culture of not paying is becoming outdated, many people I talk to want to get rid of their debts now. But so far local authorities have not been very accommodating, says Taryn .
Khunjulwas neighbour and fellow fighter in the backyard network, Victoria Taho, 81 has managed to get rid of her debts.
– The water is very expensive, but my last bill was not higher than 90 rand , she says as she proudly displays her crops: lush spinach and carrots behind the house.
Age is no obstacle, as long as you are systematic, prepare the soil well and water the plants with rain water, she says.
ACCORDING TO A REPORT from the South African Water Research Commission from 2012 more than a third of the country’s fresh water is lost before it reaches its destination, mostly because of the leaks. For a country that already counts among the 30 driest in the world this is a serious flaw.
– All climate scientists and policymakers agree that water will become South Africa’s biggest problems associated with climate change. Dry periods will increase and it will be a challenge to balance demand, says Taryn Pereira.
A first hint of the future problems was felt in 2009 when the south coast was hit by the worst drought in recorded history. Since measures to conserve water and improve the efficiency had not been a priority the situation turned critical in many places.
– With state emergency money a number of large and expensive plant for seawater desalination were built. They consume a lot of energy when they run and thus contribute to climate change. The water they produce is too expensive and creates pollutants that harm the marine environment, says Pereira.
In Cape Town, the authorities want to raise the price of water, and additionally differentiate the tariff so that large consumers will pay a lower price per unit. In a country where status is displayed with pools and multiple bathrooms the idea that the rich should pay less for their water than those who only have a tap in the yard available, is a provocation.
– We think it is reasonable that people pay for water, if it is completely free the waste may increase. However, the levels should be fair and not the highest for the poorest, says Taryn Pereira.
PORTRAIT: Emelie Forsberg is the runner girl who showed up as a rookie and won everything that was possible to win in one of the world’s toughest sports. Yet it is not the victories that drives her, but the urge to be moving in nature.
This is a rough English translation of my interview with Swedish Trail Running Champion Emelie Forsberg, published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur. The Swedish version and one of the images is available on this link
Treadmills and asphalt are not to Emelie Forsberg’s liking. If you are to run, you should do it outside, in nature, she thinks. Preferably up and down the wildest mountain sides.
No wonder she has settled here, I think, when we board the car ferry from Tromsø. Since 2013 Emelie’s home is the mountainous Norwegian peninsula Lyngen, with some of the region’s sharpest peaks just around the corner from her house. Insanely beautiful, but hardly possible to take on without ropes and proper climbing equipment. Or?
A pair of good running shoes is quite enough. Or a pair of skis like these ones, says Emelie.
We are standing in the entryway of the house that she rents together with her boyfriend and elite training partner Kilian Jornet, pondering over skis and boots that weighs almost nothing. The sport is called ski mountaineering, and Emelie is among the world’s best in this field as well.
You put skins on the skis and trample off uphill, she explains. At the top you remove the skins and head off down the gutters at full speed.
– I’ve never actually had a fall during racing. It’s all about being comfortable with what you do, even if you’re tired.
To Emelie ski mountaineering is an everyday activity during wintertime: she can’t run when the snow is deep, and it stays that way for a long time this far north of the Arctic Circle. As she doesn’t consider the road an option she won’t have many running days in her body before the season’s first races.
That alone makes her a bit of an exception among the world’s best in trail running (running on small nature trails) and skyrunning (mountain running). In Sweden these are sports that are upcoming, but still has some way to go before reaching the popularity they have in many other parts the world. In the Alps mountain races attract large audiences and Emelie is a celebrity who is met with cheers and applause everywhere.
When she broke through in 2012, it was as a sensation: without coaching and with few previous qualifications she left the rivals behind in race after race. She is particularly fast going downhill, Emelie has a somewhat magical ability to just let go and let her feet find their own path. (Watch video clip of a downhill race) A World Cup victory and 20 podium finishes in 21 races was the improbable outcome of the season.
Last year was even more successful: finishing first in almost every race, including double victories in the European Championships in the Dolomites. The grand final of the season was a race that is considered one of the world’s most difficult: Diagonale des Fous, the Diagonal of fools, is set on the island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar, and winds over high mountains and through rainforests for a distance of more than 160 km. The race goes on for two nights. Although she had a tough time she finished second.
BUT IT’S NOT just the medals that makes her special. It is the way she wins them: with a constant smile. It is easy to see how much she enjoys running.
– Many people say oh, you started racing and won at once. But I had prepared myself with other sports and spent much time in mountainous terrain. I actually don’t think so much about trail running as a sport. To me it is a way of moving in nature the way people have done as long as we have existed as a species, and as other animals do: lightly and quickly, without leaving a footprint.
The forests were the playroom for Emelie when she grew up; she was always on the go in the nature surrounding her home in the Swedish coastal town of Härnösand.
– Me and my sister always went by ourselves to friends, never got driven in a car. When you spend a lot of time outside as a child you begin to enjoy it. Many kids never experience this freedom to move today. I think that is a pity. You have to be in nature to develop a love for it, to start caring.
When she started school different sports became new “playrooms”: orienteering, soccer, skiing, rock climbing, basketball. But trail running ended up as number one.
– Partially because it’s so simple. Anyone can do it, there are no fixed standards except those we create ourselves.
How important is the experiencing of nature to you, compared to winning the races?
– 90-10 maybe. You get to experience so much out in nature, such a respect and understanding. That’s what really drives me. That feeling is so great to share with the others who are competing.
INTERVIEWING EMELIE feels different compared to talking to other sport stars. It may have to do with the sport itself: those who have read Born to Run, the “bible” of ultra- and skyrunning already know that a strong sense of community, freedom and love of nature is prevalent, often more so than fighting for positions and kilometer times.
But Emelie has a directness and a way of thinking slightly outside the box that feels unique even in this context. Just consider the way she won her first mountain marathon in 2010, competing as an unknown exerciser. In the middle of the race she paused for a long coffee break with homemade chocolate cake.
Emelie likes food and pastries and finds it difficult understanding athletes who starve themselves to gain seconds. A specialized running reporter once described Emelie Forsberg’s sursprising formula for success as happiness, non-existent training plan and lots of cinnamon buns.
– Haha, yes, I like bread and baking. I have taken a baking course on Saltå mill and worked as a baker at Storulvåns mountain lodge using a lot of locally grown and organic ingredients. You have to give the baking process time and the ingredients should be the best.
One example of good ingredients is crowberry, which she picks in large amounts in the mountains of Lyngen and uses for juice and bread. A smart way to get vitamins without using too much imported fruit during winter. She prefers organic food, but thinks Norwegian stores are not as good as Swedish supplying it. The prices are also higher.
When she moved to Tromsø in 2011, she first lived in a community with other young people in the city centre. To make ends meet they collected food in waste containers outside the grocery stores.
– We actually got a lot of our food from the containers. Fine food, but with a short shelf life. Sometimes we even got whole Skrei-cods. I think it’s a pity that Swedish stores let so much edible food go to waste instead of giving it away. It is such a waste of resources.
Emelie believes in simplicity, to choose your own way. Scandinavians should be able to make a free choice of life style, she thinks. Maybe work less and avoid getting caught up in the rat race in order to fulfill expectations of high status and buying expensive objects. Emelie herself is not a big time consumer. She rarely buys new clothes, mostly uses sportswear.
– I train a lot but actually don’t take showers so very often either, she says with a giggle.
THINKING SUSTAINABLY has been a habit all the way from childhood. Emelie’s father died when she was a newborn and the early years was a hard period for her mother who worked, studied and cared for two small children.
At school there was a lot of talk about recycling and environmental issues. The Forsberg sisters were much influenced and brought the ideas back home.
– It was our initiative to live more consciously and sustainably. Mom also took to the ideas and made it a way of living in our family.
Environmental issues were also crucial for her choice of profession. She started to train for forester in Umeå, but discovered that the education did not match her ideals. In addition, she did not like to live in a big city. After an interruption of studies she started studying to become biologist, an education she expects to revive and finish, perhaps this autumn.
But for the moment she has full focus on the running. She is a member of Salomon’s international team, she organizes training trips to the Swedish mountains, she is writing for a running magazine and is a frequent blogger.
In the blog she writes about running, but also about living in harmony with nature, about time and about ecology. For the most part, the response is positive, but she has also received some negative comments about the climatic effects of her flights to competitions around the world.
– Right now I live to compete and be a public figure. I know it is not sustainable in the long run, and try to minimize travel and adapt my everyday life. But I think that everything has its time. If I could live on my salary and just keep moving in these mountains, that would be satisfying enough …
Mats Hellmark mats.hellmark(at)snf.se
Trail Running: Running on nature trails and over untrodden ground. Skyrunning: Running at over 2000 meters altitude and with a slope of more than 30 percent. Ultra Running: Running distances longer than the marathon (42 km).
Born in Härnösand, Sweden. Growing up with the forest as a playroom. She tries many sports, for a while basket ball was number one.
Working during the summer at the mountain lodge in Jotunheimen, Norway. Starting to study to become a forester in Umeå.
Work at mountain lodges in Jotunheimen and Storulvån, as a baker.
Studies biology. Runs her first mountain marathon in Vålådalen, Sweden. She won, in spite of a long coffee break with chocolate cake …
Moving to Tromsø, Norway, for studies and for the amazing scenery.
Breakthrough year when Emelie starts competing for real and wins most of the races, including the World Championships in Skyrunning.
Almost exclusively victories in the races, including two European Championship golds in Italy. Campaigning for the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation (Håll Sverige Rent) concerning ”allemansrätten”, the special Swedish system of rules that allow citizens to roam freely in nature.
Two instagram-images I took during Thron Ullberg’s photo session with Emelie:
Some of Thron’s shots from the magazine are published here