As we publish the final reports from the ECDD project, the Project Coordinator looks back over his last six years in the Comoros.
It seems like another age when I arrived in Anjouan in October 2007 to get the ECDD pilot phase up and running. I’d spent three months in the Comoros in 2005 leading a student project researching the causes and consequences of deforestation, and then worked hard to build the support and partnerships to make a longer-term intervention a reality. So my arrival was both the start of something new and the culmination of a lot of effort.
I remember fondly those early days when everything was new, I was able to spend much more time in the field, and there wasn’t the pressure of substantial funding and a large team and programme to manage. We started work in the first village, Kowé, in January 2008. Both Badrou and Siti were with me then, and both have since had kids that are frighteningly old already! We spent at least a couple of nights each week sleeping in the village, sharing mattresses with those who were generous enough to put us up. And during the day we discussed the livelihood and environmental problems the villagers were facing and planned our first intervention with the creation of a community vegetable garden.
Gradually the team grew as we expanded to our second village Nindri and recruited agricultural experts to manage our livelihood interventions. Moustoifa was another early recruit who is still with us, taking up the role of wise old owl in the team, as well as Misbahou, who evolved into our local coordinator and is now in the UK on a Darwin Initiative Fellowship. The expansion of both our intervention zone and our activities continued, and by 2010 the team was up to 20 and the initial annual budget of £40,000 had grown to over £300,000.
Our work in the field underwent a similar transformation since those early days. Whilst the vegetable garden made a lot of money, a large proportion of it didn’t go where it was meant to, and our participatory analyses were both too long and failed to give us the full understanding that we needed to devise appropriate interventions. It’s been a long process of trial and error evolving from those first stages, and of learning from our partners in the Comoros and in the region, particularly Madagascar.
Now we are justifiably proud of our impact on rural livelihoods and agriculture in the Comoros: over 1800 farmers have been supported to improve their revenues in a sustainable manner, which makes around 10,000 direct beneficiaries when their families are included, and innovations that ECDD introduced are being reproduced by our partners in the Comoros and integrated into agricultural policy. Similarly, the forest maps and species distribution models produced by the ecological team – all unique for the Comoros – have been provided to the authorities for integration into national conservation planning and the creation of protected areas. Our work on collective natural resource management also laid down a first for the Comoros, with the development of a model for collective work based on voluntary labour – I was particularly delighted when we managed to learn from our early mistakes in Kowé to support the villagers in replacing their ageing water supply system and transform water availability for the entire village. Another personal highlight was seeing the impact of the Hadisi ya Ismaël film that was produced at the end of 2012 and drew on a lot of what we had learnt through the project to encourage more farmers to engage with our work and adopt sustainable agricultural practices. The film went viral in our intervention villages as well as winning the second prize at the Comoros inaugural international film festival.
We went through a lot of ups and downs to reach those achievements; working in the Comoros proved more challenging than I could ever have imagined. The large number of failed interventions is both testament to difficulty of working in the Comoros and one of the reasons why it took a long time to gain trust in the villages. The lack of social cohesion and respected power structures made all the work tricky, particularly the efforts at collective management, and the isolation of working in the Comoros produced many challenges. I am hugely grateful for the commitment of the different team members through the life of the project to stick at it through all the difficulties. That commitment and their skills shine through to anyone that meets them, something that never fails to make me proud.
The culmination of ECDD is of course the creation of the new NGO Dahari, which is now coming to the end of its first year of existence. We took a lot of care and time over the development of Dahari, and I think it’s perhaps the one aspect of the work where I can’t see where we could have made big improvements in the process we followed. We have a fantastic set of members who have voted an engaged and competent Conseil d’Administration (the French equivalent of a Board of Trustees). Several of the ECDD team that has benefited from so much training over the last few years have become employees of the NGO at the same time as the opportunity has been taken to bring in some fresh blood. And the NGO is launched with already a strong integration in its initial area of interventions, and key financial and technical partnerships already organised in the Comoros, in the region, and internationally.
The challenge for Dahari in the field is to integrate habitat and biodiversity protection measures into the landscape management model – something that is being explored through the adoption of a payment for environmental services system – whilst developing a better monitoring and evaluation framework and continuing to improve the agricultural support. And institutionally, the key will be to gradually improve the NGO’s functioning to leave it more and more independent of external support whilst continuing to build its profile in-country and in the region. I am confident that the necessary bases have been already laid for Dahari to achieve wide-ranging change in the Comoros into the future, and I aim to accompany Dahari in its first couple of years of existence to solidify those foundations.
So that leaves me with the job of thanking everybody who contributed to the success of ECDD and made the creation of Dahari possible. On behalf of the team I want to thank them all, from the beneficiaries who were patient with us as we learnt, to local and international partners and advisors who stuck with us during the difficult times. We hope that they are as proud as we are of the role they played in ECDD, and as excited about what Dahari can achieve in the future.