Laughs, soil-covered hands, and newly rooted trees. I will call this one a win for ELI Africa. On February 16th, twenty of our Roche Bois and Pamplemousses students clambered off a bus onto the simmering asphalt of Sookha Road in Plaine des Roches, as did a photographer for L’Express, the biggest newspaper on the island. Greeting them once they all got settled (I drove up ahead on my scooter to make sure everything was properly prepared), I walked them up the road about 50 meters until we reached the backyard of Vedant’s family home. There, everyone gathered around the 500 endemic trees and shrubs we had procured, our own ‘micro-nursery’ waiting to be planted.
With translation assistance from Cedric, Nea, Basanti, Vedant, and Mesh, I gave a roughly 8 or 9 minute interactive overview of what this project was all about, carrying on from my classroom activities in the center the week before. Soon after I started, we welcomed 6 volunteers from the local student-run NGO Roches Noires Eco-Marine, led by our friend Veer. I switched back and forth from describing the lush forests of old Mauritius, teeming with giant tortoises, dodos, and pink pigeons but all gone after centuries of deforestation, to questioning the students if they could guess which of the 14 trees and shrubs they could identify and how many they thought were in front of them. “VACOAS! EBOOONY!” they shouted. “75…250…100…500??? Monsieur, no! Not possible!” they exclaimed with wide-eyed amazement, all the while as the photographer snapped shots.
Eventually, we got the kids into separate groups by counting off one, two, three, four, five, one, two… (in English), each led by an ELI Corps or RNE-M volunteer. One by one, they walked up towards me to receive a seedling, which they took carefully in their hands, and then followed the rocky path, through the sugarcane field, up the bluff, and towards the eucalyptus trees, where our endemic forest would begin. After all 32 students and volunteers had a seedling (including me) placed near the freshly-dug holes made by local laborers on the ridgeline, I led them down to the mound of sugarcane scum fertilizer, or bagass as its known in Creole. Continuing on in Teicher-Teacher mode, I picked up a handful of the bagass, explained how the fertilizer would help the trees grow, and told them each to do the same before heading back up to the seedlings. After spreading several handfuls in each of their holes, everyone gathered around one hole, just off the path, for the final demonstration. Giving a good example of how NOT to properly remove the plastic (I didn’t account for the wet soil, which all fell away), I was actually able to show how important it was to make sure the roots be kept in the soil, and if exposed, be carefully placed into the surrounding earth and fertilizer.
Now it was their turn, and 31 eager feet scrambled up the rocks to plant their own tree or shrub. Nearly an hour after arriving in Plaine des Roches, 32 new plants were in the earth. But we weren’t quite done yet. Although we were planting in the rainy season, it is very important to ensure that the forest got enough water, and we can’t always rely on the clouds, I explained to the students. “The clouds do not look sick, but it will rain, don’t worry,” as Basoo, one of the laborers told me. Grabbing several buckets, we formed a watering conveyor belt, and soon all the plants had gotten their drink. It was almost time to go, but there was one final thing I wanted to show everyone before lunchtime. Plaine des Roches is in a part of Mauritius that is dense with volcanic rock. Snaking and weaving their way through these sharp black rocks are a network of caves. Although to small for a person to explore, one such cave entrance lies just up the path from where we had been planting. But it was not actually the wondrous cave that I really wanted to show our kids: it was the mound of broken glass and plastic bottles that neighboring residents had dumped over the years. Improperly managed waste and litter is a huge problem on the island, and ELI Africa will be installing trash and recycling bins along the forest path, as well as notices about this problem on our informational signs. This waste not only mars a beautiful landscape, but it poses a public health and safety threat, as well as seriously harms marine ecosystems when it ends up in rivers and washed out to sea, including to coral reefs. This final visit served as a good image for the students, as our environmental classes will soon begin addressing waste management. But our final memory of the new forest was the newly planted trees and shrubs, as each kid and volunteer got to marvel at their handiwork as we walked back down towards the bus.
After snacking on the bus, our gang headed to the nearby forest reserve of Bras d’Eau. One of the few remaining endemic forests in the North (only 2% of the entire country has endemic forests now), our brief visit was a nice shady interlude, allowing everyone the chance to digest, while experiencing a premonition of what we sincerely hope the ELI Forest may look like. We even got to see the remains of some old railway tracks, which actually played a significant role in the country’s deforestation, carrying ebony and other trees from the highlands down to the ports, to be shipped off but never replaced.
Indeed, it was the coast that was our final destination for the day. After such a exciting but tiring day, we decided that the best way to reward the kids was a trip to Poste Lafayette beach. I must say that it is one of my favorite spots in Mauritius. On the northeast of the island, visitors are treated to a spectacular display of greens and blues. A small inlet drags the grassy beach of Poste Lafayette in from the regular coastline. The beach, buffeted in the rear by slender, wind-bent trees, is occasionally dotted with mangroves, which all cover several tiny islands in the bay. And in the distance to the south, green mountain peaks greet the wandering eye. Splashing around with the kids, tossing them in the water or letting them flip off of my shoulders and arms, it was a quite nice place to end a simply magnificent day.
(Since the field trip, over 350 trees and shrubs have been planted, with many more to come. The ELI Forest has taken root. And now, it grows).