Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Looking down at the tray table in front of me, I see the wad of neatly folded American dollars peaking out of my bra. For two and a half years I have guarded my money this way. In Guinea, Mali and Cape Verde, this improvised wallet had done good by me.
But what’s there is crisp and green now, the color of money spent in a country where currency is placed unthinkingly in wallets, where unclasp purses are swung carelessly on city streets at night, where crime happens but I do not stand out, and where abundance—so unfair among nations and so destructive to the environment—is uplifting to behold. I am going home, home to America!
Escalators, hallways, baggage carousels. Things are vast, shiny and efficient. The softly lilting Cape Verdean Creole of the other passengers mixes with the harsh Boston accent of my language spoken everywhere. English, you all speak English! I watch customs officials and janitors. “Tudo bom?” escapes every time I try to greet someone.
“Hi, how are you?” I say as the customs official takes my passport.
“Good. You?”
“I am so good!” I breathe. “I’ve been in the Peace Corps in Africa for two and a half years and I am so happy to be back in America!”
“You sound like your nose is stopped up,” he says, turning to another official with a look of “crazy”.
Don’t be too warm with strangers in America
In the baggage room, a stream of antsy passengers circulates from the carousal to the Dunkin’ Donuts. Its 10 pm. Could the Americans be hungry? Or do they eat because they can’t sit still?
I approach the check-in counter for my flight to Austin. An idle attendant directs me to a row of computers. You’re human, and unoccupied. Can’t you help me? The computers, manipulated expertly by travelers, are daunting.
“Good morning,” my machine says disarmingly. “You will need your airplane ticket, license, or passport to proceed.”
I have all of those! I am totally gonna rock this.
Grasping all three documents, I pass them under the machine’s red-lit scanner. Nothing. I flip them over, alternating circular motions with left-to-right jazz-hand movements. A few travelers glance over, but my machine relentlessly wishes me a “good morning.”
You see, I’m not from here. It’s a lie, but it doesn’t seem like it is.
We board, and Massachusetts’ deep forests, curving rivers and neat suburbs open up below us. New England---not even our nation’s greatest environmental treasure--is astoundingly vast and lush, dwarfing the images of Cape Verde’s miniature barren peaks and sandy planes that slip into my head.
But surprisingly, instead of awe, I am reminded of an essay question from US History class: How was the North’s civil war victory predestined from before the war? The North, enfeebled by its comparative agricultural weakness, was forced to develop the industry—for roads, railroads, arms—that allowed it to prevail in the war. The South, blessed with long growing seasons and abundant harvests, was never compelled to build the technology necessary for military success.
Cape Verde—barely larger than Rhode Island, with a population smaller than Albuquerque’s, whose list of natural resources is topped off with “salt and basalt rock”---is investing in renewable energies. Its government has pledged to attain 50% renewable energy by 2020. The US has not signed the Kyoto protocol. Renewable energy accounts for 6% of total US energy consumption. Has American timber, hydraulic power, oil, and arable land rendered us complacent, an ironic victim of incidental gifts, as the long summers rendered the Civil War South?

Ag, Energy and Water: A Brief Overview for Cape Verde

“Salt, basalt rock, limestone, kaolin, fish, clay, gypsum.” So reads the finite list of Cape Verde’s natural resources, giving insight into the tremendous challenge that existence here has always posed. And yet, in a world where the price of fossil fuels climbs ever higher, Cape Verde has at least been blessed with the need to innovate. Critical deficiencies in water, agriculture and energy are compelling the country to become an innovator, and maybe a leader, in exciting new technologies, from growing plants without soil, to capturing water from the fog.
But the difficulties are formidable, and the lack of water is perhaps the most. Rainfall averages 200mm per year, barely enough to replenish the natural springs that supply much of the rural population with water. As the springs slowly dry up, salt water is seeping into the aquifers, contaminating the sources that remain.
Desalinisation technologies provide water to the majority of urban residents but is very expensive (see box).Agriculture presents challenges also. Throughout Cape Verdean history, severe droughts have caused epic famines, killing thousands and driving many abroad. Erosion, caused by agriculture, grazing, and wood-gathering in a delicate ecosystem, has decreased the quality of the soil, while much of the country was originally sand and rocky mountain slope anyway. Indeed, only 10% of Cape Verde’s 4,033km2[[?]] of land mass is arable and home-grown food provides only 10-20% of what is consumed. Nevertheless, a large number of Cape Verdeans are still involved in agricultural activities, planting corn, beans, peanuts, squash, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, bananas and other crops each year. Some farmers plant corn only for animal fodder, knowing it will not reach maturity.
The rest of Cape Verde's food is imported, and transportation requires energy --another scarce commodity for a country with no fuel reserves. The country also needs fuel for depends on electricity, for cooking (butane gas) and for desalinsation (see box). Cape Verde spent EE54.4m on petroleum derivatives in 2007 alone, and domestic fuel taxes are high compared with other African nations. When local prices for gas and diesel climbed to EE1.28 and 1.32 per litre [[?]]respectively in early 2008, hiace drivers on Santiago called a strike, protesting at the government’s high gas tax. In the meantime, rural Cape Verdeans rely largely on dwindling forest resources for their cooking needs to supplement expensive butane gas. This constitutes a great pressure on Cape Verde’s fragile ecosystem. With the rising tourism, and population growth of about 2% the demand for cheap, abundant energy will only rise.
Precisely because of the gravity of these challenges, Cape Verde, with the help of foreign governments and NGOs, is trying to pioneer green technologies. The country has promised to achieve 25% renewable energies by 2010, a figure that should rise to 50% by 2020. Cape Verde also hopes to have one island with 100% renewable electricity by 2020. It is offering tax deductions for expenses related to renewable energies.
With 3,000 hours of sunlight per year, Cape Verde has promoted solar energy to pump and heat water, and to illuminate homes in remote areas. The Cape Verdean government and the European Union have begun a campaign to disseminate solar water pumps to 30 rural communities on Santiago. That will go far to help rural Cape Verdeans, most of whom make up the 40% of the population that still lacks electricity.
In one rural community in Serra Malagueta, a pilot project sponsored by the Protected Areas Programme is underway to disseminate more efficient wood stoves. It aims to reduce wood use among residents who can’t afford butane gas for cooking, thereby protecting the endangered forests.
Wind energy is another promising technology (see box). In consultation with the Danish company Wave Star, the government also began exploring the possibility of wave technology for electrical power generation. Still in the test phase, Wave Star’s machine consists of 20 half submerged hemisphere-shaped floats that float upward when a wave passes. Ocean waves offer a more potent and constant energy than wind. Still, wave technology must overcome the formidable challenge of keeping costs low while resisting storms and salt damage over the long term.
The government has also begun considering a floating nuclear island to supply 70 megawatts of energy, which would meet Santiago and Maio’s total energy needs. The nuclear material would be provided by the Russian Company Rosenergoatom, who would also be responsible for removing and treating the waste. Though it would provide cheap and abundant energy, the proposal is vcontroversial and still in the early stages.
Cape Verde is also innovating in water, in part, through fog collectors (see box).
Agricultural innovations are perhaps even more promising, with the advent of hydroponics and the spread of drip irrigation. Drip irrigation, called gota-gota or “drip-drip” locally, utilises a series of plastic tubes running the length of plant bed. They feature tiny holes that allow water to pinpoint the plant roots alone, bringing water use down by 80%, and diminishing weed growth. Materials are somewhat expensive and must be replaced after 3--5 years. However, the technology allows for year-round cultivation, and local governments and NGOs are helping to fund it so, of the 17% of farming families who use some sort of irrigation, 45% use gota-gota.
Soilless culture, or hydroponics, incurs astronomical start-up costs but cuts water use by 90--95% percent, land use by 90%, and produces much healthier crops (see box). Cape Verde is still far from the paragon of green technologies it could be, and may need to become, to deal effectively with rising fuel prices and its own historic lack of resources. Hopefully by 2020, the efforts underway now will be paying off.