Help People Where They Are

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Early in my career I had the good fortune to be offered a life-defining experience by working in the refugee camps in Somalia. Ali Matan was a camp of 20,000 refugees near the town of Lugh within a day’s drive of the Ethiopian and Kenyan borders. The refugees lived in shelters made of bent sticks with tents or mats thrown over the sticks to ward off the near 100 degree daily temperatures and ‘dust devils’ (like a mini-tornado). But the establishment of the camp had created a nearly denuded lunar-like landscape that extended for five kilometers from the camp. My job was to try and stem the arc of devastation by reducing wood use. We started building adobe-like structures and promoted the use of cooking stove designs made from compacted soil.

Within days of my arrival a guy about my age approached me and asked for a job as my translator so he could feed his family. Mohamed Ali Noor became my right-hand man as my initial four-month commitment evolved into a year to almost four years during which I led the creation of a national woodstove program. Most of that time was spent in Mogadishu with Mohamed and a Somali staff that numbered upwards of 100 at times. It was during this time that I realized that if I wanted to make a difference environmentally, I had to integrate my engineering with business (e.g. how to ensure the proper manufacture, distribution, and sale of cookstoves.)

Why do I mention this bit of history?

When I was still in the camps, the executive director of my organization visited me and said something to me that I’ve always taken to heart: “Hank, never forget one thing: Someday you’ll leave this place but these people are stuck here. Your work must improve their lives today and, hopefully, forever.”

As we launch Nature For Justice that advice given to me decades ago still resonates with me as the impacts of climate change increasingly affect those that are bound to a particular place. They cannot walk away. They are part of a community dealing with a rapidly evolving natural context.

Is there a way we can help them through improving their agricultural and other land use practices? If these practices sequester carbon, can we quantity how much and assure buyers of carbon credits that they are helping address climate change but — equally important — helping people, who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, improve their lives?

We don’t know. When I arrived in Ali Matan I was almost overcome with the scene of degradation. We were ultimately quite successful in introducing a cookstove that became the stove of choice. It reduced the need for women to collect firewood as frequently — an incredibly arduous and dangerous task. Although, sadly, Mohamed Ali Noor died not long after I left Somalia and he never got to see the success of his efforts.

On new journeys like N4J you don’t know unless you try. We aim to try. And to succeed for people like Mohamed who could never leave their place.

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