Tag Archives: Mauritius

Reflections on Farming and Food

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do. ~Leonardo da Vinci

(This is a slightly abbreviated version of the presentation that I gave in Ethiopia in May, 2016 for the SCUPAD conference)

This reflection, I think, speaks to the power of individuals, to our growing processes, and to the way we help each other. This is a story about listening and learning how to listen and about working with people to address problems on their own terms. It’s about creating space for these little experiments that create a sense of possibility and then watching them grow.

The work I am presenting is my process of discovering agriculture and building community and I’m sharing it with you because I think what I’ve learned can help in your work and because these are the stories that I want to tell. Stories that I can embody and share for people who don’t have a voice.

I went into urban agriculture because I saw its potential to change landscapes and engage people, but it changed me more than anything. I cried with people, laughed with people, ate with people, grew with people across projects, across continents, across languages. I went into urban agriculture because I had this big glorious dream that it could change the world. It can. It does. But it is also just a tool in the larger scheme of giving people a space to be people. In these spaces I’ve seen people realizing that we belong to each other and we will take care of each other. I saw this across projects, across continents, across faces.

How does this work? What is the power in these spaces? Food brings people to the table. It’s a good starting point. Dirt grounds people. Gives them something to root into. A little space that is theirs in a world that often doesn’t provide much space. Plants make people a little more tender and a little stronger. You have to be gentle but you can also see how much plants can endure. It’s a relationship. We give them water and protection and love. They give us food. Agriculture gives you a space to experiment, to learn non attachment, to learn commitment, to learn responsibility, to learn consistency, to learn how to work with people, how to share with people, how to empower people, how to pacify people, how to choose your battles.

What we are facing is huge and I think we are all seeing it. Over 50 percent of humanity lives in cities right now and this is projected to grow. Seven out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050. As cities grow, land is consumed for development, with detrimental effects to urban and periurban agriculture.

And urbanization is not going hand-in-hand with widespread economic growth. With urban dwellers more dependent than rural populations on whatever food they can afford to buy, it’s tied closely to livelihoods. The amount spent on food in urban areas is 30% more than in rural areas but for less calories. Living in an urban area now seems to mean we lack access to land, natural systems and food. All of these are commoditized and instead of food being a right, it becomes a privilege.

So, what follows are projects that I’ve seen working to create these more resilient communities and food systems. These spaces of possibility and these spaces where we can support each other in the act of survival.

Salt Lake City


Photo credit: Wasatch Community Gardens

My work in urban agriculture began in Salt Lake City with a series of projects. I went into my projects with all of this data on urban agriculture and food and income security and a love and smattering of knowledge of plants. Straight out of school. I was prepared! I was in charge! It was all great and much of it totally useless. Agriculture is just a catalyst for something bigger. The food security I’ve seen came from people meeting each other and sharing food. The income security came from people making connections in the garden and getting each other jobs.

As a student, I sat down with the clients at a homeless shelter and asked them what they needed. I was not even totally sold on the idea of urban agriculture yet. But over and over it came up that they were concerned about the quality of food they were feeding their children. There were no vegetables. There were no fruits. So we started to grow them. It was a small project. We had no space so we adapted and used pots. Any interested residents could have a pot and a plant and start learning to grow. It gave people something that was theirs in a transitional time, something to grow into, and a seed of possibility to carry with them.

IMG_0457I pursued two other projects in Salt Lake City. At Neighborhood House, a nonprofit daycare, preschool and senior center, I organized stakeholder meetings, garnered support from the community and local nonprofits, worked with students to develop a design and plan, and had loads of support in all aspects of the project… except for funding. I received one small grant and spent a few months begging for materials. We decided on building the raised beds out of straw bales both because they were cheap and so we could mulch them back into the soil each growing season to start restoring the land. I spent $500 on this entire project that has since evolved into a thriving farm.

In 2009, we built the People’s Portable Garden. The City government has a tendency to buy land and hold it for development for years without doing anything with it. So there was a large plot of this covered in weeds in the middle of a low income neighborhood where people took good care of their houses and yards. Blight is a word that came up often in my first meetings with the neighborhood. The city was creating blight. So we changed it. I partnered with a local nonprofit, we petitioned for $50,000 in funding, a pie in the sky number, and got it. We spent a month doing a community design process, spent 20 hour days building garden beds, leveling the property and approximately one day and 100 volunteers putting it all together. It is called the People’s Portable Garden because it was meant to be temporary. We assembled everything so it could be taken apart and moved. It should have moved in 2013 and is still there and does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

The gardeners are long term residents from the surrounding neighborhood and, prior to the project, many did not know each other. Johnnie Mae and the Coopers had lived a block away from each other for a decade and had never met. While we were building the project, Johnnie Mae’s husband’s health started failing. They lived alone in a corner house and as soon as word got around they were inundated with food and offers to help. The Coopers in particular reached out and would come over at a moments notice to help Johnnie Mae with whatever she needed. Her husband passed and the community was there. Soon the Coopers started having health problems and again, the community was there. The goals of this project centered around beautification and food security but I saw that what we created was much bigger than that, much stronger, and much more pervasive. If this project does eventually move, those connections will remain.

This was my first experience with this type of social capital and networks of relationships that occur in these communal spaces. It sounds romantic. It is. And I’ve seen in happen over and over again…



Shortly after this project I moved to Guatemala. I went for a visit and ended up staying for a year and a half. I worked with two different agriculture and food security nonprofits. I learned a few good things and mostly that I didn’t want anything to do with the world of international development. I saw more awful projects than good. I saw people entering communities and telling them that their way of living was wrong. But mostly I met a lot of amazing Guatemalans. We talked, laughed, ate mangoes. I planted corn and sesame with them, and made tortillas. All very much to their detriment since my rows of corn were diagonal and my tortillas were roughly the size of a nacho.

Campesino a Campesino

One important technique that I learned in Guatemala is the Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) methodology. This methodology pushes against the condescending nature of how most community and NGO work is done. It is a simple, people-centered approach that makes this radical assumption that the people you are working with can learn by doing and come up with their own theories. It teaches them how to set up experiments, analyze them, and share the results.

The situation in rural Guatemala has been dire for years. After a 33-year civil war that essentially amounted to attempted genocide of indigenous populations, the country seems to have found some semblance of peace. The tension is still there and the distrust is palpable. People are understandably afraid to organize, speak out, and trust the government. This history is layered upon newer, interconnected problems of gangs, drugs, the unending march of sugarcane, and the third highest child mortality rate in the hemisphere.

Campesino a Campesino is a movement that is trying to bring more autonomy to farming communities. That it gives smallholder farmers the ability to access, adapt, create, use, and defend their knowledge on their own terms is huge in a myriad of ways. It empowers people on this base level of controlling their lives. It gives them information to fight against the encroaching threats of Monsanto, sugarcane, and climate change. Agriculture is a practice that is constantly needing to change and adapt to fit our changing world. It is all just one big experiment in humanity and how we feed ourselves. It is hyper local, it is sensitive, it is evolving. Campesino a Campesino gives people a voice in how this evolution happens.

So what it does is teach people how to set up experiments. But what is experimenting? If you only went to a few years of school would you know what it means to experiment? If your entire livelihood depended on a few acres would you feel comfortable with this idea of experimenting? Many of the farmers we worked with had only gone to a few years of primary school. The concept was foreign and frightening despite the fact that we do it fairly instinctively. You are always experimenting in agriculture. Trying, failing, trying, succeeding, continuing and then starting over. So we would talk with them about this process, how to do it methodologically on a small test plot, and then give them a forum to voice their results.

What this typically looked like in practice was organizing group plantings where farmers could learn about or propose experiments and help each other with planting their fields. We would follow up throughout the season and then organize a group harvest and a conference in each community where the farmers could come and ask questions, give results and suggestions. Then we would plan for the following season. If a test plot was successful, we would help them to expand it. If it failed, we would help them try something else.

In this Guatemalan context we were competing with Monsanto and government representatives who would travel from village to village and hand out seeds and free fertilizer or pesticide. For awhile their seeds and inputs would outperform other methods. But it is difficult to go back once you start. The balanced ecosystem of your soil is thrown off, leading to huge infestations of pests and weeds that can only be fought with additional Monsanto chemicals. I saw this cycle and saw farmers hooked on the inputs that often cost more than they make in the season. We would encourage them to try methods that could transition them off of chemical intensive agriculture.

This work was inspiring in many ways but most importantly how it inspired farmers to build their own knowledge and know how to use it. We would start the process in a community, ensure it was working, be there as support, and then step back and watch it grow. It again came back to this idea of building networks of knowledge and support that allowed people to imagine and implement new possibilities.

I think what this work confirmed for me is that I am not seeing industrial farming as a solution to the problems we’re facing. Farming is not and cannot be mining and we are treating it like an extractive industry. We can’t continuously deplete the soil and replace what we take with chemicals. It is not a solution and it is not something that can sustain us. Growing food in depleted soils leads to food depleted of nutrients. We get what we give and we have not been giving much. We need to see farming and do farming in a way that contributes to the environment and builds the soil. We need to hold on to the particular knowledge of our particular places because this is beyond the competence of any large agribusiness or centralized power. We need small farmers.

Women’s Groups

I also worked with women’s groups in Guatemala. Both groups of women were confined almost exclusively to the home. Both groups were able to attend our meetings because their husbands were also working with the organization. Beyond any food security measures or agricultural techniques that came across in these meetings, these women were given a voice, a support group and a life outside of the home.

We would work on whatever the women’s groups identified as an issue. Cook stoves, community improvements, healthcare and agriculture were the main themes while I was there. One women’s group I was sent to work with had requested techniques to grow without “poison.” They recognized the effect on their homes and families. Their husbands came home sick from the fields. Their children developed skin disorders. Kidney failure was a common aspect of life. The men were less likely to experiment since their crops were their livelihood. The women chose to try different methods. We built a greenhouse so the highland women could farm their own vegetables and create local markets. They worked to develop techniques without pesticides or herbicides. Collectively they grew medicinal herbs, tomatoes, greens and chilies to supplement the families’ diets and to sell excess locally.

Information was exchanged, new techniques were learned but I think the most important realization for all of us was that these women were strong alone and stronger together. They helped each other start businesses with the new crops and recipes. They supported each other through problems at home. These meetings were a place to talk, process, grow. For all of us. I again saw projects acting as a catalyst for building social capital and giving people a space to support each other.

East New York


I left Guatemala for a job in New York City to build community gardens and urban farms in East New York. I applied for the job on a whim and then had two weeks to make the transition. I was given access to four lots of 2500-5000 square feet and told to turn them into growing spaces. When I arrived, I went to check them out and found 6 lots full of years of garbage and I found a community that was ready to take them over.

So we began to build. I coordinated materials, volunteers, and cleanups. I learned more about the New York City waste disposal system than I care to know. Picture a demolished house that is plowed into its own basement and then covered with 15-30 years of garbage. We found bones, bricks, swimming pools infested with spiders. And little by little, we cleaned them up. We capped them with landscape fabric and a thick layer of mulch. We built raised beds using recycled scaffolding lumber from NYC construction. We did this together as a community, and we planted together as a community.

IMG_0244I had grant reports that would require me to weigh the quantity of food we were growing when it felt like what we were growing couldn’t be quantified. We had 26 chickens in an urban area where the most animal life kids will see is a rat or cockroach. We had immigrants from Latin America working alongside immigrants from Bangladesh. Neither of which spoke a word of English. Both would consider the other a friend. Sure there were misunderstandings and arguments. Sometimes a chicken would disappear because it was “sick” and that chicken without a doubt never recover. Read: ended up as dinner. And we worked through these issues as a community. We supported each other through mental illness, family strife, breakups, losing jobs. We celebrated each other and our achievements.

A big part of our goals in East New York was food security. One in four of the city’s children – nearly half a million – live in households that lack sufficient food. One in 10 seniors struggles against hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens are running out of food, and the food they do have is often heavily processed with high levels of high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and sugar. Healthier food tends to be more expensive, harder to find in low income neighborhoods, and more time consuming to prepare, thus forcing many food insecure families to rely upon cheaper, more highly processed, less healthy food. The economic and physical barriers to fresh food access have contributed to citywide increases in obesity and diabetes.

What I saw in East New York, and what I saw our projects addressing, was a lack of access to food. The only places available to buy food were corner stores that carried highly processed foods and perhaps a banana or two. In order to buy produce, residents would need to take the subway or bus in a lengthy commute to a supermarket. Once they arrive, the food is often too expensive. We worked with corner stores to try to get more produce into the neighborhood at affordable prices, and then grew our own. Another organization with similar goals started a neighborhood market where local gardeners could sell their produce and value added products every weekend. We were building a community food system because people don’t just need food “security”, they need food dignity. The ability to choose the food that they need to feed their families, not just settling for what they can get from the local pantry or corner store but having the ability to choose nutritious, healthy, real food.



From New York, I received a Fulbright grant to go to Mauritius. I was trying to do a community based mapping project around climate change and the felt impacts of climate change on a small island. I was there for a big goal that I placed a lot of expectations on but what I was seeing was very different. I saw that talking about climate change at a community level was not productive. I saw that if we spoke of pollution and food, that people connected. With pollution they could see the problems and see the solutions, and it honestly addresses a lot of the same issues we come across with climate change. In the end it is an over-consumption, a delusion that we can take whatever we want and it will all work out.

In Mauritius, there are these really literal examples of over-consumption that we could point to. Sugarcane for instance. This crop that is not even food that consumes all of the land and is then exported. Mauritius literally exports the sweetness of its land. There is pollution at a grand scale with one of the highest per capita pesticide use in the world, an overfilled landfill, and mountains of plastic that wash ashore. The idea is that the ocean can take it, and she does. She churns it up and breaks it down as best she can, and then sends it back ashore. The future beaches of our world are made of plastic. For me, Mauritius took all of the world’s issues and put them in miniature. These were the reasons my project shifted and I was lucky enough to have the flexibility to let it.

What I ultimately ended up doing was cleanups, community film screenings, community photography projects, presentations at schools, building gardens out of recycled materials, community based mapping workshops, consulting on green roofs and sustainability projects, writing for local magazines, and helping with a food sharing program.

The food sharing program Manzer Partazer is the work of some of my favorite people that I met in Mauritius and I was lucky to be able to contribute in small ways to this inspirational project. In Mauritius there was a break in the food distribution chain. It’s a similar problem everywhere. The rich take more than they need, they throw the rest away. Roughly 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally (1.3 million tons). We saw this everywhere. Hotels, supermarkets, etc. And we saw these areas of poverty. I worked with kids to build gardens at their schools and was told most of the kids got their food at the school, not from home. They were very quietly subsidized by the school employees. So Manzer Partazer connected the dots and closed the loop. They worked with NGOs who knew the stories that would break your heart and who knew how to distribute the food. They connected them with hotels and supermarkets through existing transport networks. So the hotels, in vehicles they used to bring employees home after work, also brought food. The NGO representative met them at a designated drop off location and collected and distributed the food. It is essentially a zero cost initiative beyond the time it takes to coordinate the connections.

This was a different aspect of food security and creating connections. Seeing a need, seeing a glut, connecting the dots. The effect was powerful. Food in bellies, people seeing that others cared, the wealthy witnessing their waste.


What I’ve seen and what I hope to leave you with is this idea of the power of building relationships. How can we use our fields and our practice to create these spaces of possibility and inclusion? How can we use our skills to inspire people to take care of each other? How can we be catalysts to start the changes we need to see in the world?

It so often feels like many of the world’s problems are too big, too complex, too scientific sometimes for any solution. But really the only way we have to tackle these issues is together, probably with a series of small steps that turn into big leaps that turn into a more equitable planet. It sounds romantic, and it is. But survival isn’t romantic and relationships are what we need to adapt to the world’s complex issues.

I’ve been overwhelmed over and over again… across projects, across continents. But I want to leave you with this: don’t be daunted by sophisticated arguments that tell you that small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow’s problems. I have seen the power and the meaning of small actions by small groups. We are given a brief moment to grow and to make things better and more equitable. So start where you are, use what you have, go, do.



People’s Portable Garden


Neighborhood House








Finding a Printer on Cavadee

We hopped on the motorcycle with our usual sense of rushed purpose. I had been working a bit more than usual and was starting to feel stressed about an approaching workshop on sustainability mapping. I had never met the students I was going to work with, was unclear on whether or not they could read a map or if they would speak English, and I was partnering with a woman who had a very “do everything at the very last minute” mentality. Preparations for something this vague felt a little tense, and we had waited until the day before the workshop to print out the set of materials.

And, as often happens to me in Mauritius, I was unaware that a large holiday was approaching. Someone mentioned a festival called ‘cavity’ the week prior, and something about piercings and people pulling carts. This was the extent of my knowledge about Cavadee, the Hindu festival to honor Maruga, the god of war, which turned out to be very pink, very pretty and very gruesome.

Cavadee PiercingsTraffic was stalled in all directions when we reached the main road. People were lining the streets. I felt momentarily anxious that this task was going to end up taking so long. Then we saw the first part of the procession. Large, colorful wooden structures dwarfed the barefooted, pink clad men carrying them on their bare shoulders. Some of the men were flanked by two stoic helpers who would occasionally lift the structure and allow the clearly exhausted carrier to adjust before putting the burden back on his shoulders. Children carried smaller versions of the structures, building up their strength for future Cavadees.

A water truck liberally dumped water on the street for the barefooted worshipers who followed. It did not look like it helped very much as it immediately evaporated in the mid morning sun. Residents and business owners along the street would pull out their garden hoses and set them on the street to contribute a small stream to the procession in an extremely touching offering. Those in the procession would pause in briefly, cooling their feet until the next garden hose.

Photo credit: islandcrisis.netRows of women filed by with cloths tied over their mouths to keep a complete silence. More men followed with spears through their cheeks, arms and backs. The sound of idling cars was punctuated with rhythmic drum beats. Work suddenly felt really insignificant while watching this moment of self-inflicted group pain- bare feet on hot pavement, newly pierced skin dripping with lime juice, heavy offerings carried on bare shoulders. This was clearly more important than my short-sighted printing goal.

My time here in Mauritius often feels like these brief periods of focused work, with plenty of the typical frustrations, delays, lack of responses from partners and last minute changes… all punctuated by things that feel significantly more important.

The traffic started moving again and we slowly passed the remainder of the procession. The last devotee had piercings throughout his back, with limes attached, that were pulling a trailer the size of a small car. Barefoot and trudging slowly, head down, he kept pace with the rest of the procession while we zoomed off in the other direction.

Photo credit: islandcrisis.net

(All photos in this post credited to islandcrisis.net)

Beginner’s Mind

When I first arrive in a new country, my brain works on overtime trying to figure everything out. It takes unfamiliar villages, streets, apartments, situations and compares them to any and all other places that I have lived and experiences that I have had, trying to make things familiar in a place where nothing is.

Mangoes for days! I started my time in Mauritius living in Péreybère, a tourist haven for Mauritians and Europeans. Everything felt new and exciting. Mangoes were falling from the sky. Buying produce was a thrilling practice of language skills. I struggled to determine street and development patterns and if there were village centers or just endless circles of coastal roads.

It was peaceful, quiet, and confusing in Péreybère. When I first arrived, the apartment building of 16 units had three occupied. I knew little to nothing about how Mauritians live. I did not know if it was normal to have concrete palaces surrounded by overgrown forests and electric razor wire, apartments decorated with 3D artwork and fake (but somehow wilted) flowers, mongooses, packs of wandering dogs and cows, streets that abruptly devolve into dirt pathways, trees full of yellow weaver birds and their intricate basket-like nests, walls covered in gecko poop, a turquoise ocean that seemed as calm as a bathtub.

Alex compared a recent meeting to a Wes Anderson movie and this seemed to put everything in perspective. Mauritius feels vivid, distinctive, slightly absurd and full of capers, characters and staged scenery. It is never really explained why we are meeting at a cave, or in the basement of a parking garage. The Chairman of the District Council did not answer any of my questions but served delicious tea and spoke at length about his time in China. It took six employees to help with the purchase of a bicycle. Our stoic security guard in Péreybère always responded to the question “how are you?” with “I am still alive.” Cell phone towers are poorly disguised as the tallest and most awkward looking palm trees on the island.

These first few months of my grant period were challenging. I felt very isolated. I wanted to give up a few times, after starting on countless ideas and plans that I just could not get rolling. I have never done community organizing around a topic as nebulous as climate change, and in a place that I know so little about with so little support. I get overwhelmed.

The hardest part is the moments when there is nothing I can do. When the holidays have gone on for a month and I have read all of the articles that I can read and reached out to everyone who will respond during the celebrations. These were the times when the apartment in the empty vacation land of Péreybère felt particularly remote.

Things are changing now. Alex and I moved to Triolet, a place where people live and not just vacation. There is a resident rooster, or what sounds like 50 of them, that make their presence known at all hours. We can walk onto the balcony and pick mangoes.Rooster/Demon Groups of people occupy a few logs at the street intersection, in front of the football field, to talk, pass the time, observe passersby and yell jovially to neighbors. We live with the best family in the country who teaches us about shortcuts to the store and fruit vendors and how to cook incredible Mauritian food. There is a two year old who teaches us Creole, French and the importance of bonbons. It feels more like a home.

I am also beginning to like the the challenge and realize how much I believe in the research. Learning about the perceptions of people experiencing the localized burden of climate change is important. Puzzling through the cultural barriers and tools that can be used to engage people in this discussion is humbling and enlightening.

Plus, I have met some great people during the challenge of getting the project going. People who not only met with me to discuss my research, but have spent their whole day showing Alex and I around their villages and favorite places. Most recently, we explored some caves with someone IMG_2026who had grown up playing hide and seek in the extensive network. We went snorkeling in mangroves, with a fisherman to catch octopi, to a beach at night to look for over-hunted crabs. Others have invited us into their homes to meet their families and share meals. I have met some amazing young people who are creating inspiring projects in Mauritius. They are filling gaps in green building, conservation and recycling with sheer willpower and most without payment.

Sometimes my critical eye goes too far and fails to recognize the beauty of this ‘beginners mind’ aspect of being a foreigner in a new place. There is a lot of beauty and relief that comes with admitting you know nothing. Simply allowing yourself to absorb and learn without all of the judgements that come with trying to fit observations into familiar compartments. It feels important to be okay with not knowing for awhile and being open to the possibilities of how this opportunity can unfold.

Is it Climate Change?

Everyone wants to talk about the flash floods. The rains have always been fairly torrential. The water has always come on pretty quickly. But these were different.

In March of 2013, 11 people were killed in a flash flood in the capital city of Port Louis when 152 mm (6.1in) of rain fell in less than an hour. When the rain started, offices closed. People went to parking garages to retrieve vehicles and, tragically, found themselves stuck. Others left their offices and were trapped in flooded underground tunnels. Many went to the bus terminal, though no buses were running. The radio stations had no information. No one seemed to have information.

Nearly everyone that I have spoke to about climate change in Mauritius mentions the floods. Rightly so. It is a huge, climatic disaster. It is something tangible and terrible to point to and say “that is climate change.” But it is more than that. It is what happens when the changing climate meets our development choices.

Port Louis is a coastal city surrounded by largely deforested mountains. When it rains, the water drains along the quickest path toward the sea. In Mauritius, like many places, new development means impervious surfaces. To develop that new, modern look while cutting down on costs, you don’t plant trees, you don’t landscape, you create a huge slab of asphalt and top it with a huge boxy concrete building. With these conditions, drainage is going to be a problem.

Water always finds the path of least resistance. In a natural setting, flash floods occur when the soil is too dry to absorb water or over-saturated. The runoff collects in gullies and streams and joins to form a fast flowing front of water and debris. In urban areas, this path is usually pavement, and instead of gullies and streams, the water is funneled by walls and buildings. There is so little soil and permeable surfaces that nearly all of the precipitation is swept into the quickly overburdened stormwater and sewage systems. The high intensity rainfall that is frequently experienced in Mauritius causes flooding when the city sewage system and drainage canals do not have the necessary capacity to drain away the amounts of rain that are falling. The results are tragic.

Another impact of the type of development occurring in Port Louis is the urban heat island effect. This is an impact of urban development that is felt in the increased temperatures in major cities around the world and is simplistically explained in our material choices. The concrete and asphalt that make up our cities store heat energy much more effectively than the surrounding natural environment. The temperature increase that is expected in Mauritius will be more dramatic in these areas without green spaces and shade.

Climate change is a broad, complicated, all-encompassing issue. You can talk about everything from agriculture to tidal patterns under the auspices of climate change. But lets simplify the conversation. We can talk about real, doable solutions to some of the problems we are seeing. We have choices.

The interventions do not need to be huge. They do need to be handled with long-term plans. Here is what I propose: requirements for permeable surfaces and plant coverage with new developments; green roofs and/or reflective roofs and the building codes and incentives to replace and create them; replacing as much non-porous surfaces with green space as possible; expanding areas of parkland where the flooding occurs for the purpose of water diversion; gutters, canals, and drainage that can handle the water flow; no-build areas along sensitive coastal areas and natural flood plains; and more trees.

The results of these actions would be less stormwater runoff, leading to less flooding. The same actions that create permeable surfaces and reduce the urban heat island effect could also create amazing green spaces in vacant areas, along streets, and on rooftops. Even the drainage areas could be something of an attraction. Think of canals, perhaps with public artwork, shady spaces, and pathways to enjoy the area when the weather is more promising.

I am slowly realizing that all of the climate change adaptation actions are actions that we should be taking whether you frame it as climate change or not. Nature-based solutions, like planting mangroves, forests, and coral restoration projects, create a more sustainable environment and ecosystem. Development-based solutions create a more pleasant living environment with less pollution.

We do not seem to be able to get mitigation under control. We can barely wrap our heads around sea level rise, drought, or a myriad of other lurking impacts. But planning our cities and developments for a future with more pleasant surroundings and fewer disasters may be something that we can do.

New Realities

I arrived here in Mauritius with few expectations and a big plan: to do research on climate change resilience on this small island nation. I hopped off of a plane, pleaded with immigration, and then found myself in the semi-functioning car of a fellow Fulbrighter heading North.

My initial impressions of the island are a blur of sugar cane fields, mountains that look like a child’s art project, and traffic jams of belching trucks. The Northern end of the island, where I am living now, seemed a sort of serene sugar-cane/beach paradise interspersed with sprawling, western-style malls. I noticed that the extinct Dodo appears as some sort of tourist emblem emblazoned on restaurants, hotels, and brightly colored t-shirts. It became apparent that concrete is the building material of choice, though there is no shortage of sheet metal accoutrements. I heard people speak Mauritian Creole, a lovely blend of French, English, and Asian and African languages.

The history of this serene locale is unique. Mauritius is considered a developing economy. It is apparently developing quite successfully and is frequently referred to (or compared with) Singapore. It is a relatively stable (elections are happening now so I’ll keep you posted!) small island nation. The population is well educated and there is a high level of information and communication systems. (For a more detailed look at the country, read this blog). And last but not least, Mauritius is an active voice in the international climate change community.

Mauritius is already seeing many impacts of climate change and is faced with a frightening future of increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, sea level rise, coastal erosion, spread of vector-borne infectious diseases such as chikungunya and dengue, drought and rising air and sea surface temperatures. The particularly pressing vulnerabilities that Mauritius is facing has created more awareness around climate change, and the discussion has recently shifted from mitigation and prevention to adaptation strategies. This is a country where climate change is not just a theory to be debated. It is a reality that is being lived and felt. Decisions need to be made around how to save coasts, habitats, properties, and people.

At the governmental level, Mauritius started preparing for climate-related issues much earlier than many countries. Climate change has been on the agenda for 20 + years… so what has been done?

Seemingly a lot! If you ever lack lengthy and slightly drab reading materials, Google “Mauritius and Climate Change”. The Mauritian government created Maurice Ile Durable (MID), an office under the Prime Minister that is in charge of sustainability initiatives, that is implementing 140+ climate change projects of varying degrees of applicability (“deer ranching”, for instance, is questionable in my opinion).

They are very top heavy though. It seems that very little money filters down to the community or organizational levels. A very small portion of MID funding has gone to organizations outside of the government and MID projects appear to be very centralized and predominantly focused upon energy.  There are initiatives focused on “sensitization”, a term I had not heard used until reaching Mauritius. Sensitization campaigns are akin to education campaigns and this seems to be the extent of community engagement in government climate change projects.

This leads to my research. What I want to look into is what is happening at the community and at the individual levels? How are people experiencing, engaging with and living with climate change? How are they addressing it?

By looking into these questions I am working to find areas of resilience: innovative projects, early adopters (or early adapters!), nature-based solutions. Maybe in seeking these answers, I can also help to identify links between the problems in one community and the solutions that were discovered in another. Or create links between the issues people are facing and the organizations that work on these issues.

Overall, this first phase of the project has been slow. I have been trying to reach out to government officials and organizations during elections and the holiday season. When I talk to Mauritians about this they tell me to wait until January. They have been saying this since mid-November. The best tactic, inspired by my tenacious German roommate, is to just show up, smile, and hope people want to talk to you.

This was the strategy for the Climate Change Information Center in the capital. The Center is a government office that is open to the public whose purpose is to be a clearing house for climate change information in the country. We apparently arrived during lunch and most of the office was empty. I feel like I am always arriving during some sort of break period though. I am told that you really need to catch government workers during the productive hours of 10 am to 12 pm Tuesday through Thursday. All other days and times are a gamble.

So we arrived at the wrong time, but the employees who were there were very kind in pointing out their shelves of reports, informational posters, and walking us through their online system. When I asked about other organizations working on climate change, I got blank stares and, with further prompting, a printed list of government offices. If the Climate Change Information Center doesn’t know who else is working on climate change, who does?

This is symptomatic of what I keep finding through all of this networking and research: that the work being done here seems to happen in silos. Organizations and government offices are isolated in their work. They steal ideas, are extremely secretive, compete for funding, and can be pretty ruthless when they talk about one another. One of the most absurd examples is from an NGO on the west coast seeking information from an NGO in the east who is working on the exact same thing but not sharing information because they “have not published their results yet.” I have also heard of several instances where mapping data and models were needed and were unavailable, particularly relating to areas that are vulnerable to landslides and floods. It is stated in many reports that this information exists, but is being held from dissemination for reasons that are unclear.

Another key observation that has come up in this first month in Mauritius is the stories that are emerging around climate change. I have heard countless stories about beach erosion, coral bleaching and reef destruction, and the recovery efforts being done in these areas. And there is collaboration happening in these areas, giving hope to the idea of creating resilience. Schools get involved, hotels provide office space, fishermen volunteer to help monitor reef restoration work, or communities show up at an NGO’s meeting just to learn more about sea turtles. It gives power to the idea that organizations and community groups are more effective in reaching the public and generating a true participatory element in their projects.

After only a month in Mauritius, I cannot pretend to understand the intricacies and complications of the work being done here. What is clear to me though is that climate change resilience does not come from creating silos, stealing ideas, hoarding research or fiercely competing for funding while losing site of your goal: helping people.