What did this place look like fifty years ago? That’s what my fellow volunteer and friend, Anna Travers, was thinking as she looked out across the ephemeral river valley that floods each rainy season at her site in Saare Fode, just outside of the city of Kolda.
Today, the valley is mostly used for rice cultivation, but a scattering of oil palm trees hints at its past. Fifty years ago, before the rice fields extended the length of the floodplain, before the trees were cut or tapped for palm wine, oil palms, Elaeis guineensis, would have lined this valley. Discussions with community members about the former presence of oil palms in the area confirmed that the valley could support a greater number of palms. And the villagers were eager to bring them back. Anna’s imaginative back-tracking grew into the Kolda Palm Reforestation Project, spanning two kilometers of floodplain shared by Saare Badji, Saare Fode, Saare Mamacoly, and Saare Bocary Sellou..
Yet, any reforestation project will not succeed unless the community is willing to protect the planted trees. The oil extracted from the fruit pulp and kernel had to be lucrative enough to deter people from tapping for palm wine or removing the trees. Fortunately, Agroforesty APCD Demba Sidibe and Peace Corps Response Volunteer Hans Spalholz located a nursery in Ziguinchor stocked with improved varieties of E. guineensis. The improved seed originated from Togo and mature plants produce a kernel three times the size of palm kernels found in Senegal. More oil can be extracted from the improved palm kernel, making the tree more valuable for its fruit than its bark or fermented insides. Working closely with Demba and Hans, Anna purchased 520 these improved and hybrid varieties of oil palm starts using funds from a Small Project Assistance grant.
Meanwhile, Anna and her counterpart, Boca Balde, planned the project to suit the needs and demands of the community members of the four villages. They generated a list of over 60 households along the valley who were willing to outplant and protect the oil palms. To determine how many trees to distribute, Anna and Boca divided the households up by size: small households (less than 10 members) received six palm starts, medium households (10-20 members) received nine palm starts, and large households (more than 20 members) received eleven palm starts. In Saare Badji and Saare Fode, the community decided to plant trees own their personal plots. The smaller communitieis of Saare Mamacoly and Saare Bocary Sellou opted to plant their palms in a collective.
The destribution of the palm starts took place on July 14-15 at the primary school in Saare Badji. Demba had secured the transportation and delivery of the oil palm starts to the school. Representatives from each household gathered to watch Demba’s demonstration of outplanting and protecting the palm start. Then, Boca and Anna began distributing the trees to the waiting crowd with the help of seven Kolda PCVs.
The enthusiasm for the project motivated the community to show up in droves and plant most of the 520 palm starts in just one afternoon. Only one village could not transport the trees until the following day. After distribution, volunteers visited the sites along the valley to assist the community in outplanting and to ensure that all the palms were enclosed by protective fencing. The local Eaux et Forets (Senegalese Forestry Agency) agent, Momat Dianka, kept the remaining 26 palm starts to plant in the community on Senegalese National Tree Day, August 3.
The high level of motivation made the Kolda Palm Reforestation Project a success. It suggests that similar reforestation projects can succeed along other floodplains in the region. However, the cost and accessibility of improved varieties of palm starts remains a difficult obstacle. Importing improved seed and creating local palm nurseries would greatly reduce the cost and travel of the palm starts to outplanting sites. Sounds like a new project for me!