If you intresting in sport {steroids|http://rxsportmeds.com|buy steroids only here it true } you find place where you can find information about steroids Also we can help you win nandrolone decanoate here link for it {nandrolone decanoate | nandrolone decanoate cycle } it realy nice product , also here information about steroids and all nandrolone decanoate products We can recommend this product Deca Durabolin here link for it {Deca Durabolin | buy Deca Durabolin cycle } it realy nice product , also here information about steroids and all Deca Durabolin products We find nice website where you can find many fresh dj mp3 , and other nice music {Fresh mp3 | Download mp3 | Listen music } it realy nice page , you can like it on faceboke , listen music online or download tru torrent or website we can recommend it!

Entries Tagged as 'NRM/environment'

Earth Day 2017: Let’s stop industrial-scale burning of wood for energy

EarthDay2017This year’s Earth Day (22 April 2017) has as its theme “Environmental & Climate Literacy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that environmental and climate literacy require attention to the impact of industrial scale burning of forests, and the question of whether it makes sense as an investment in reducing carbon emissions.

Yesterday there were articles in the press celebrating Britain’s first full day of energy without burning coal since 1882. You have to dig in some articles (not all) to find out that they’re still doing a lot of burning to produce energy, including of imported pelletized wood, which comes mainly from a combination of waste wood (which is limited in quantity) and cutting forests in the southeast United States.

The rationale for cutting, processing, transporting, and burning massive amounts of wood to generate electricity is that it is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning the wood can be accounted as part of a cycle with growing trees (which captures carbon, as part of the natural plant growth process).

But is burning wood on this scale really carbon neutral? And are other externalities, such as environmental impact at points of harvest, adequately taken into account? Should industrialized countries, which otherwise have been pretty good about managing forests – and have been preaching to developing nations about forest conservation and management – be exploiting its forest resources as “nature’s powerhouse” (in the terms of FAO‘s unfortunate slogan for International Day of Forests last month)?

In a recent article entitled “Can We Have Our Forests and Burn Them Too?,” former CIFOR director-general Frances Seymour questions the rush to use wood for power generation based on the current approach to carbon accounting. and points out that the carbon cycle for trees is a very long one. A study by Chatham House, “The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests,” analyzes the accounting issues in more detail, concluding among other things, that “a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.” Similar issues are summarized in a paper on the Friends of the Earth-UK site entitled “Burning Wood for Power Generation The Key Issues Explained.”

The push to burn wood to generate energy, in short, is policy-driven (the science of the matter being read in a way favorable to certain outcomes), and may actually be worse in total impact than cleaner fossil fuels.

Big plants, big impact, small energy?

Among the big biomass/wood burning energy plants in Britain are Drax and Steven’s Croft. (BiofuelWatch has a map of all plants). Taken together, they seem to be having a big impact on forests and the “biomass market” (see for instance this EU press release about the potential impact of Drax), but surprisingly not accounting for that big a proportion of Britain’s overall energy – only 6.7% on the coal-free day, according to the UK Electricity National Control Centre (thanks to Steve Patterson for the pointer):

And the conversion of facilities from coal-burning to wood-burning was expensive (again regarding Drax, see this critical opinion piece). Might it not have made more sense to convert to gas and/or invest in other non-burning renewables?

“Transgenic” forests in the future?

As bad as the pelletizing of forests for electricity generation is today, it could get worse. Research on genetically engineered trees aims to enhance growth and change wood characteristics, with one of the main aims being production for energy (pellets but also biofuel). The continued use of wood to generate power on an industrial scale will generate funds and interest in further developing and planting these organisms, unfortunately probably without regard to impacts on the environment.  (Two older pieces give some perspectives – in The Guardian, 2012, and Earth Island via Salon, 2013.)

Missing the “sweet spot” for wood energy

I have some small experience with wood energy, and my perspective on the larger issues comes in part from two sources. The first began with work on forestry projects in Mali and Guinea which had as part of their purpose, helping rural people grow trees for firewood to use in cooking, rather than cutting natural growth. I’ve maintained an interest and awareness of the problems involved in this source of energy, and various programs and proposals to ameliorate environmental, health, and other problems associated with it. The second is installing and using a fireplace insert in our home, which uses purchased local firewood (coming from cleared and fallen trees in the region), as well as smaller branches and in a couple of instances fallen trees near our residence.

Five key concepts are involved here (I discussed four of these – not transfer – in more detail in the post, “Biofuels reconsidered“):

  1. local;
  2. small scale;
  3. minimal processing;
  4. more direct transfer of heat energy; and
  5. use of waste – that is wood that would otherwise go into a landfill, I am told.

When you get these five together, that’s what I’d consider the “sweet spot” for wood energy, the optimal position for energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable wood use. Sometimes it is hard to stay in that spot, or next to impossible, such as in communities in West Africa I have known – so small scale plantations, and medium-distance transport of wood becomes necessary. Or in the US, the market drives producing wood for fireplaces and firepits (those small mesh-packaged batches of split wood for sale outside supermarkets).

On the scale of, say, Drax and its suppliers, however, they’re off on all counts, pretty much by design: long distance between supply and use; very large scale; medium processing (not as bad as wood to liquid biofuel); indirect transfer (the heat released from burning only indirectly produces electricity, so there is energy loss); and due to the scale of demand, live trees are harvested and plantations made, with all kinds of externalities. Industrial scale burning of wood for energy in advanced economies, in other words, misses all the five criteria for optimal energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. So, if the “carbon neutrality” of this practice is also contested, why are we doing this?

Decoupling forests and energy

Which brings me back to the FAO’s disheartening – from the point of a former (re)forester and lifelong environmentalist – slogan for International Day of Forests (IDoF) on March 21: “The forest: nature’s powerhouse.” Their effort to link the small-scale household use of firewood (which for many is a simple necessity, not a preference) with industrial scale power generation from pelletized forests was misguided, in my opinion (and I believe that of many others). Their attempt to point to a long-term role of forests in energy generation and need for policy support to that end seems shortsighted. Do we really expect to devote a significant percentage of our dwindling forest lands to inefficient energy generation? (I annotated their infographic, which is included at the end of this post.)

Wood energy is a reality for many today, but it is not a vision for long-term development. It is time to plan for the gradual split between energy – the technology for which is “ephemeralizing” away from burning and combustion – and forests – which have critically important climatic roles in addition to supplying wood and other forest products for our use.

Of course, we will always like to sit by a wood fire on a cold night or at a campsite, or to grill over charcoal, but that kind of use should be as close to the “sweet spot” of optimization as possible.

Ms. Seymour in her article cited above had a memorable summation of the arguments she made (it’s not a long read, and highly recommended): “Whether temperate or tropical, we can’t have our forests and burn them too.” Hopefully FAO and other major agencies and organizations concerned with the future of forests and/or energy will take that assessment to heart.

Comments on FAO infographic “Forests and Energy” from IDoF 2017.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Settlements on Mars? Start in Earth’s deserts

Elon Musk’s introduction of SpaceX’s plans to go to Mars was long on the how to get there, but short on the “now what?” once passengers land. What would cities on Mars look like, and how would they solve the material and social challenges they would encounter from the moment they arrive at their destination?

351medium

    OXO Architectes “Tour des sables” concept

A practical place to start looking – and planning – would be Earth’s driest deserts. It’s not by whim that scenes in the 2015 movie The Martian were filmed in the barren Wadi Rum of southern Jordan. While no place on Earth is really comparable to Mars, the most arid areas are as close as one can get in many respects.

Urbanization in sparsely populated “deep deserts” – areas away from water sources where most ancient and modern desert cities are located – is a path we will have to consider in the wake of population growth and environmental change. But such urbanization will need to be much more concerned with water conservation and efficient protection from the harsh climate than say Las Vegas or Dubai.

The technologies necessary for creating sustainable communities in these harsh arid environments exist, such as solar and wind power, water recycling, thermal insulation, and food production in controlled and even vertical environments. Their combination and application in deep desert cities would have benefits for humanity on Earth – and potentially on Mars.

In fact, if SpaceX’s (or any other) Mars venture really is to take flight, its organizers would do well to have first collaborated on development of cities in deep deserts. Many technical issues could be worked out which could both be scaled on Earth and implemented in Mars colonies.

Examples of potential candidates for such collaboration might include the French architectural firm Manal Rachdi OXO Architectes which has a concept for a city-in-a-tower in the Moroccan Sahara, and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates which has a plan for a sustainable city in the desert there.

Beyond the relatively straightforward (which is not to say easy) engineering problems of getting to Mars or creating a sustainable built environment, are a range of social, cultural, linguistic, health, and governance issues that will arise where hundreds or thousands of people are housed in a more-or-less self-contained habitat. Better to have a practical experience dealing with such issues closer to home before attempting to do the same on an another planet.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Biofuels reconsidered

CPL Press, Biochemical routes to liquid biofuelsBiofuels – fuel derived from organic matter – are generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels in that they are renewable and, in theory at least, “carbon neutral.” However there are downsides to biofuel, such as the energy and resources to produce them, and in the case of fuel produced from food and oil crops, potential impacts on food markets. The picture is more complex.

Are some biofuels more environmentally friendly and beneficial to the socio-economy than others? What is the place of biofuels in the overall energy equation of the future? Without going into a long discussion, here are a few proposed maxims that may be useful in considering such questions. These are derived from some discussions a few years back and intended as relative measures rather than absolute binary choices:

  1. Gathered is better than purpose grown. For example deadwood chopped into firewood is less costly to produce (land, water, inputs, energy) than crops grown for biofuel. Waste matter is a potential energy source that could be “gathered” for that purpose, although requiring processing. Jatropha seeds collected from hedgerows costs little in land compared to a plantation of jatropha created for seed production. Production of algae for conversion to biofuels requires infrastructure and much water. One problem with gathering biomass suitable for energy from nature or human activity is that it tends to be diffuse and limited (with the possible exception of human waste products). For example wood waste as a byproduct from logging and sawmills is a source of energy but the volume produced (which can be collected) is a function of other activities and not one easily increased.
  2. Less processing is generally better. Processing does have the advantage of yielding a more concentrated and often more portable energy source, but it has energy costs and externalities. A simple example is turning firewood into charcoal, which involves burning off the volatile constituents (energy generally wasted) but yielding a lighter and more concentrated energy source. Towards the other extreme, fuel ethanol production from corn (maize) is a multi-step process. The energy balance (output from a given input) of such processes is a matter of some controversy, but probably all would agree that if it were possible to produce a given unit of biofuel with less steps and inputs, the outcome would be more positive.
  3. Less distance is generally better. Getting firewood locally (as we do in our home for a fireplace insert) involves less cost, and in theory at least, more potential for responsible management, than shipping firewood around the world. Of course no one proposes import-export of firewood, but other diverse biomass is exported for production of biofuels. One example is palm oil from Southeast Asia to make biodiesel in Europe. A big part of this is transportation, which of course is part of the fossil fuel market too, but with less flexibility in the case of biofuels (one can find petroleum sources in various locations, but some types of biomass inputs like palm oil are very region-specific and possibly not substitutable).
  4. Small is beautiful. Smaller scale production of biofuels has less of an impact on the environment and economy than larger scale operations. A big issue is use of finite land and water resources. Some years back I worked on a project in Mali which had as a major goal promotion of planting woodlots with villages which could then, so the thinking went, harvest wood from those lots for their their cooking needs. Small and local, this might seem to make sense, but in fact it meant taking land out of agricultural rotation for an uncertain future outcome. An even smaller and apparently more successful approach in another region of the same country a few years later was planting of jatropha in lines along roads and field boundaries – no lot required. Contrast with large plantations of annual biofuel crops which can have enormous impact in an area to serve needs far away (impacts being potentially both positive and negative, but with clear opportunity costs for types of land use and agriculture).

Another perspective on biofuels is worth adding to the mix here. Generally biofuels are considered along with technologies such as solar, wind, and wave energy as cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. However biofuels work on the same paradigm as fossil fuels – burning something to release energy (with byproducts such as carbon dioxide). It can be argued therefore that biofuels are actually more like fossil fuels except for the premise that they are carbon neutral, and the fact that diverse biomass sources for biofuel production are arguably less substitutable than say crude petroleum from diverse locations.

Again the picture is complex, and all this is not to say that biofuels as a whole are bad. Rather there may be some types of biofuel and approaches to incorporating them into the larger energy equation that make more sense than others. Conversion of waste into fuel would be elegant – turning a problem into a resource. On the other hand, devoting land and water to growing crops or other biomass specifically to process and ultimately burn doesn’t seem sustainable in a world faced with a growing population and impending climate changes.

Longer term, the energy market will certainly follow Buckminster Fuller‘s observation about the “ephemeralization” of technology, which we see the beginnings of already with advances in utilizing solar and wind power. Eventually the burning of substances for energy will become marginal in the global energy equation.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Terralingua’s Langscape, CFP extended

Terralingua has extended the deadline for submission of proposed articles for the next edition of its Langscape magazine until 1 August 2016.

Terralingua's Langscape logoThis is for a second issue on the theme of “Voices of the Earth” (Vol. 5, #2, Winter 2016). See earlier post on this blog about the previous issue for discussion of the theme.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mountainbiking in the Futa Jalon, 1986-87 (a Peace Corps retrospective)

A recent story in Wired magazine, “The Roots of Dirt: How Mountain Bikes Went From Clunkers to Global Phenomenon,” brings to mind a brief personal experience with the genre in Guinea, West Africa in the mid-1980s. Since bicycling in the Vienna, Virginia area was a topic on this blog previously, I thought it would be interesting to recount this rather different bicycling scenario. And because this also coincided with the restarting of Peace Corps in Guinea, it additionally provides an opportunity to relate some of that history, which I did not find elsewhere on the web.1

BMX-Mongoose-ATBpro-1985

In January 1986 I brought a new BMX Mongoose ATB Pro (picture on left from the BMX 1985 catalog, via VintageMongoose.com) to my new Peace Corps post in Pita, a town in the middle of the Futa Jalon2 highlands – perfect country for cross-country biking.

At the time, this Mongoose had very favorable reviews. I purchased mine in suburban Chicago for something on the order of US$300, including a rack for the back (this was to be used for work) and mud guards (I knew the roads & weather). Before discussing how I got it there, and used it, here is some context on how I came to Peace Corps Guinea and had the opportunity to choose a bicycle to take along.

Peace Corps’ return to Guinea

map-africa-guinea-EBIn 1984, following the death of Guinea’s long-time dictator, Sékou Touré, that country’s government requested that Peace Corps be re-established in the country. (The story I heard was that this interest was first conveyed to then US Vice-President Bush during the latter’s short visit to Conakry for Touré’s funeral.) Peace Corps had been in Guinea during two brief periods in the 1960s, and despite having to leave due to political issues related to Touré’s rule, had apparently retained a positive image.

So the Peace Corps administration fast-tracked its return to Guinea. The normal Peace Corps procedure for (re)entering a country, as I learned much later, was to first have a team evaluate the potential based on several criteria, and then to bring in limited staff to set up an office and identify volunteer work assignments and posts, and then to bring in new Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). In this case the sequence was sort of reversed, bringing experienced PCVs in first.

Carroll Bouchard, who was at about this time transitioning from serving as Peace Corps Country Director in Burkina Faso to filling the same position in Senegal, was asked to lead the process. Somewhere along the line, a specialist named R.J. Benn was brought in to research and report on aspects of getting Peace Corps going there again, including specifics of the volunteer assignments. Chris Kopp, the Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for forestry in Senegal also participated in the process.

So, sometime during the rainy season of 1985, four volunteers responded to the internal Peace Corps offer to extend their service to go to Guinea – three from Senegal, and me from Mali. We were convened for a week-long orientation in the beginning of October at the PC/Senegal training site in Thiès. The plan was for two of the group with more agronomic background to work with a USAID-funded agriculture research station in Faranah, and the two others with reforestation background, including me, to work with a “community forestry“/agroforestry project in Pita, whose USAID funding was coming to an end. Prior to the conclusion of the orientation, however, the two scheduled to go to Faranah dropped out, each for their own reasons.

The two remaining – Phil Comte and I – then went to Guinea to start work with the USAID “Projet Forêts Communautaires.” The plan was to meet all the principals in the forestry service (including the director, Kalidou Diallo), USAID (including Mark Wentling and Bob Hellyer), the US Embassy, and of course the project in Pita (including David Laframboise, the outgoing USAID project head, and M. Sangaré, the Guinean project director). After 6 weeks there was a break – the home leave given extending volunteers plus vacation time to cover from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day – and then return to Guinea.

The mountain bike idea

Personally I was primed to the idea of a bicycle even though I enjoyed the dirt bikes that we rural development volunteers were assigned in those days. When in Djenné, Mali, I fixed up the unused bicycle of the neighbor family I ate with (the household of Madani Koné in Kanafa), and and used it from time to time to go to work in the project nursery on the other side of town (rather a long walk, but also kind of short for a motorcycle every day). Also, there was a PCV in another part of Mali – Koulikoro as I recall – who brought a mountain bike back from a US vacation break. It should be noted that PCV teachers based in towns were assigned bicycles as a matter of course, so volunteers on bikes was by no means a novelty, but mountain bikes were.

I do not recall any specific conversations on the topic with Phil or anyone else at the end of 1985, but two main factors made bringing mountain bikes back to Pita an attractive idea:

  • the Futa Jalon, a beautiful rolling plateau region, was ideal for that kind of biking – all roads off the main highway from Mamou to Labé were unpaved and unimproved, but mostly hard clay as opposed to sand or other loose material, and there were not nearly as many thorny tree species as in the Sahel; and
  • the project’s CJ-7 and CJ-8 Jeeps were a scary proposition to run on a regular basis – despite their image they were not built for rough roads, and needed frequent repairs often without proper parts or “Jeep special tools” (one of the vehicles with brake problems was involved in the death of a child before we arrived).

So Phil and I each decided to bring mountain bikes back with us.

International travel with bicycles

My return flight originated at Chicago O’Hare airport o/a January 2, 1986. The procedure for traveling with a bicycle, in those days at least, was fairly easy and straightforward. Narrow bicycle boxes were available from the airline, and to fit one in, it was necessary to loosen and turn the handlebars. Fortunately the airline (which one, I forget now) had tools available for the latter task when people forgot to bring their own.

I met up with Phil at JFK International in New York for the flight to Dakar and then Conakry. At Conakry airport we actually had to go out onto the tarmac to call the baggage handlers’ attention to the bike boxes that hadn’t been offloaded.

Mountain bikes and Peace Corps/Guinea

We were met in Conakry by the new Peace Corps Country Director for Guinea, Jerry Pasela, who was already busy finding an office and residence location. It was during this time that the formal agreement was signed to re-establish Peace Corps in Guinea after a 19-year absence.

On my first spin on the Mongoose in Conakry I shifted gears and something unexpected happened. The rear rack had been retrofitted with the screw in such an orientation that it would snag the chain, in this case pulling the derailleur and bending the flange on which it was mounted (that was done at the shop, but I should have checked). Fortunately it was possible to bend it back without the alloy cracking, so the bike needed no serious repair and worked fine.

Before going up to Pita, Phil decided to terminate his stay for personal reasons. (He sold his bike – as I recall, to one of the Marine guards at the embassy in Conakry.) That meant that for the next nine months or so, I was the only PCV in country.

Mongoose in Futa Jalon

In Pita, a small upcountry town in a nation that had been largely closed off for years, no one had seen a bike like this. But then, folks were already used to seeing things they hadn’t before. Still, an obvious foreigner on a bike of novel design naturally got attention.

It was probably not just coincidence that shortly after moving in, a nice thin-tired racing bike appeared briefly on the streets (I never met the owner – probably the father of the rider I saw from a distance – who must have had it in storage).3 The Mongoose, however, was made for all the unpaved sidestreets of Pita and roads beyond.

I took the bike on several trips related to work, the longest of which was to Timbi Madina about 30 kilometers to the west. It was a really nice experience taking roads on bike that I had previously taken in a Jeep – with the slower pace you take in a lot more of the nature, visually as well as aurally. A totally different appreciation of the environment. And of distance and terrain. These were not easy jaunts as the terrain is mostly hilly. I remember one road to a village whose name I forget being basically a series of hard climbs and careful descents. The way to Timbi Madina was more like the top of the plateau, or perhaps it seemed more level because the route chosen for that frequently-used road minimized steep passages.

The main problem with using the bike, however, turned out to be that as a mode of transportation it did not facilitate involvement of my counterparts in field visits.

Honda vs. BMX (vs. Jeep)

Not too much later, my Peace Corps issue motorcycle – a Honda 125cc dirt bike – was delivered.4 This changed the transportation and work equation. The Jeeps in theory could now be reserved for instances involving transport of multiple staff, materials for nurseries, or seedlings for outplanting. For regular extension and monitoring of activities, I could go with one of the Pita-based staff on the moto.

So, soon after the moto arrived, the mountain bike was relegated mainly to in-town travel.

As a practical matter, my work as the only PCV attached to the project (instead of one of two) expanded over a wider area than originally foreseen. That territory, as it were, then expanded further with site selection in preparation for a new group of volunteers, and my subsequent decision to stay on as volunteer-leader when they were posted in September 1986.

Jerry was during this time building the Peace Corps administrative staff with local hires from Guinea – including an APCD for administration, Tafsir Thiam, and at least one third-country national – but there was no programming APCD until after I left in July 1987, so in some ways I served as kind of a brevet APCD.

On to other roads

All in all, this BMX Mongoose was a worthwhile investment. Even with regular use only on the hills and unpaved roads of Pita, and a limited number of trips out of town, it was a nice way to get around. And often the best way to do so.

On leaving Pita, I sold it to Jan Cerny, a Czech forestry expert with the FAO project also based in Pita, who apparently had done bicycle racing in the past.

Much later, Peace Corps worldwide moved in a big way to mountain bikes for volunteers as it scaled back use of motorcycles. I have not seen any documents about that decision or ensuing transition, which was well underway by the time I joined the Peace Corps staff as an APCD in Niger. In any event, Peace Corps’ use of mountain bikes fits in a less-noticed utilitarian dimension of the “global phenomenon” that the Wired article alludes to.

My next bike was in East Lansing, Michigan a few years later, when my wife and I bought a pair of used bicycles for use on Michigan State University campus. The next one after was a hybrid that I purchased to take to Niger, which got minimal use in Niamey then went into storage when we relocated to China (in Chengdu I borrowed my wife’s bicycle sometimes to commute to work). I’m still using that same bike that went to Niger – with a couple of new wheel rims to replace the ones bent in the Vienna accident.

(Thanks to Carroll Bouchard, Bob Hellyer, and Mark Wentling for their help with information. Needless to say, any errors in this blog article are mine.)


1. Other accounts of PC/Guinea history, such as on the Friends of Guinea site, do not go into any detail about this period. This blog article is not intended to fully cover that gap.
2. The region name is also spelled Fouta Djallon or Fouta Djalon in French, and Fuuta Jaloo or Fuuta Jalon in Pular.
3. It is tempting to make a superficial comparison with Conakry for the occasional out-of-the-ordinary vehicles one used to spot on its streets back then.
4. This was planned, and typical for rural development PCVs in that era. Many Americans familiar with motorcycles scoff at a 100cc or 125 cc, but this size and power was ideal for rural development work. Even carrying a passenger. I hope to discuss Peace Corps and motorcycles in depth at another time.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Sumbala, and the shifting worlds of locust beans & soybeans in West Africa

One of the two foods highlighted in my chapter about soybeans in Africa in The World of Soy (published already 8 years ago now) was a pungent West African condiment, traditionally made with “African locust beans” but increasingly with soybeans, and known by various names such as: sumbala, sunbala, or sungala (in Manding); daddawa or dawadawa (in Hausa); iru (in Yoruba); netetu (in Wolof); and ojji (in Fula). The other food was tofu, which is also an interesting development, but here I’ll focus only on the condiment, and the ongoing natural resource issues behind a shift in its main ingredient.

Increasing use of soybeans is a good story, but the decrease in use of locust beans is not, reflecting declining numbers of African locust bean trees due to loss, low regeneration, and little planting, and decreasing production by existing trees where rainfall levels have gone down.

What is sumbala…?

Sumbala – I’ll use the term from Manding here, although I used the Hausa term in the book chapter – is widely used across West Africa to season sauces. The process of making sumbala centers on fermentation of seeds, most commonly those of the African locust bean tree, Parkia biglobosa (among the traditional alternatives is a close relative of the more humid tropics, P. bicolor). More about the tree and what’s happening with it in a moment, but about its seeds – evidently they are quite nutritious. Locust beans have high protein (like distantly related beans) and various other nutrients. The fermentation process, aside from changing taste, also affects the profile of available nutrients.

Production of sumbala – generally done by women as a home-based industry – is a multi-step process from preparing the seeds to boiling them to setting them aside in the proper conditions to ferment (without innoculent to get the fermentation started). The bacteria of the fermentation are in the Bacillus group, primarily Bacillis subtilis (a variety of the latter is also used to ferment soybeans in a somewhat different process to make a Japanese food called nattō  納豆).

The final sumbala product can be seen in local markets as a ball or patty. These may be traded at some distance within the region. Nowadays it is also packaged in a crumbled form for sale in urban markets and for export.

African locust bean tree, or nere

Parkia biglobosa, often called in English African locust bean tree, or more rarely African carob, is common in Africa, and especially West Africa, roughly between 5°N and 15° N latitude – from the edge of tropical forests to the edge of the desert (“mean annual rainfall” of 400-700mm). The tree of course has names in the various languages of the region such as: nɛrɛ or nɛtɛ (Manding); ɗorawa (Hausa); irugba (Yoruba); uul (Wolof); and nareewi or netehi (Fula). “Néré” in French and English comes from the Manding, as evidently do the Fula terms.

The tree is valuable for its seeds, of course, and also for other products, such as the nutritous yellow pulp of the pods. Lost Crops of Africa, Vol. IIThe Lost Crops of Africa (vol. 2) chapter on the African locust bean tree discuses some of those uses. In terms of traditional medicine, bark and leaves are apparently effective in treatment of some infectious diseases.

Due to its value, the locust bean tree is usually conserved in fields when most other woody plants would be cleared. However it has been noted for a while that natural regeneration is apparently not sufficient to replenish the population – which recent studies from Burkina Faso and Nigeria confirm. Reasons given for this include the harvest of the seeds for sumbala, and loss of seedlings to drought or browsing livestock.

Efforts to plant African locust bean trees are apparently few, even though it is simple to seed directly or produce in nurseries.* One example of planting in southern Burkina Faso is interesting but seems to be limited in scope. It is not clear whether planting this species is part of any large scale project or extension effort, although it was mentioned in a 2010 recommendation of species for the Great Green Wall project.

WAF-nere-leaf-pod

Pods, yellow pulp & leaf (Source: Anthony Simons via World Agroforestry)

Another challenge is lower rainfall levels, which aside from affecting survival of seedlings also lower production of seed pods – as observed in another example from Burkina Faso.

Soybeans to the rescue?

It is in this environment, with generally declining availability of locust beans but increasing markets for sumbala, that soybeans emerged as an alternative. This substitution is described in more detail in the book chapter, but it appears to have been an innovation by Nigerian women in the 1980s. I am not aware of any studies of its dissemination – by local networks or projects, nor whether it may have been an innovation in several locations experiencing the same shortage of locust beans. I first learned of this substitution in 1999 while in Mali, and it  was treated as a new development – indeed a project had introduced the use of soybeans for sumbala a couple of years earlier.

Soybeans have a couple of advantages for making sumbala, notably as a field crop they can be produced quickly enough to respond to demand, and having thinner seed coats, require less boiling time (hence less firewood in typical production) to prepare for fermentation. On the other hand, soybeans as a field crop require more labor to produce than locust beans, which are simply harvested from trees, and the soy sumbala deteriorates faster in storage.

In terms of taste, opinions I heard were that soy sumbala was comparable to that made with locust beans. However Margaret Shao, in a master’s thesis referencing her research in northern Ghana, found that locust bean sumbala was preferred. And further that because of this, soybeans were sometimes used as filler with locust beans in making sumbala to combine the advantages of both. Beyond that, I have not seen any studies of preferences.

Looking to the future

The Africa locust bean tree is valuable in many ways, of which the use of its seeds for making of sumbala is particularly important. Soybeans are established as a valuable crop and food in West Africa, and have added an important option to producers of sumbala in the face of increased demand for their product and decreased supply of locust beans. The two – soybeans and locust beans – are in a substitution relationship that is relatively novel. But the emergence of soybeans and decline of locust beans does not mean that the former should be expected to supplant the latter as the main ingredient of this West African condiment.

Use of soybeans to produce sumbala, by helping meet demand for the condiment, may actually help reduce pressure on supply of locust beans, thus perhaps indirectly favoring regeneration of the African locust bean tree. However, various factors make reliance on natural regeneration of the African locust bean tree unrealistic. The main hope for maintaining this tree as a component of African dry forests and sustainable source of seeds and other products will have to be its deliberate production and planting both as a tree crop in reforestation projects and as a “food tree” crop in community-level agroforestry.

In memoriam

I would like to add a brief remembrance of Prof. Sidney Mintz, one of the editors of The World of Soy, and of course a distinguished scholar whose work profoundly influenced his field of anthropology, as well as the lives of many. Prof. Mintz passed away last December after an unfortunate accident. The New York Times obituary called him the “father of food anthropology” and indeed his work on the project that resulted in The World of Soy was in this vein. According to his website, his next project was “looking at fermentation, a too little-noticed subject, when we consider that as much as one third of the food we eat is fermented.” He had a tireless intellect and genuinely inspiring approach to scholarship and to life.

My only connections with Prof. Mintz were as an undergraduate student years ago in an intro to anthropology course he taught at Johns Hopkins entitled “Human: Being and Becoming,” and of course in the soy project, including a panel presentation at the 8th Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture in Chengdu. There are many more fitting tributes to his life and work. I can only say I was privileged to have learned from him.


* The thick seed coat may require some treatment – “scarification” – to facilitate penetration of water and germination. Manuals recommend several methods including boiling briefly, soaking in sulfuric acid, or physically nicking the seed cover (one study, for example, compares methods).  For a moderate production, on the order of 100 as I recall, I used the following simple method in Djenné, Mali during the early 1980s: Soak seeds in water overnight, remove swollen seeds for planting (we produced them in plastic pots in the nursery for later outplanting), return non-swollen seeds to fresh water to soak, with option to nick the outside of the seeds with a pocket-knife to hasten the process.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail