Report #4: Lessons Learned, Locally


By Justin Nobel, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

My time here is coming to an end and I still can't determine if development will prove sustainable for Sauri's bird population. The goal of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is to help Sauri, and several other villages in sub-Saharan Africa, develop economically. The hard question, and where my master's project fits in, is: Can development happen in a way that is sustainable for the environment?

This will require someone to repeat my surveys over the course of several more years. Ultimately, my project will only be a small part of the eventual answer, but for now I can share some of the lessons I've learned.

Fuel comes from the same dead trees that birds such as barbets, woodpeckers and hornbills use for nesting sites. Improved cookstoves need less firewood, leaving more for the birds.

Photo credit: Justin Nobel

Lesson 1: What's fuel for one is home for another
Most villagers cook their meals over open fires surrounded by three large stones that support a cooking pot. Fuel comes from the same dead trees that birds such as barbets, woodpeckers and hornbills use for nesting sites. These woodland species feed on fruit and insects, which are plentiful in Sauri, but I've noted very few of these birds on my transects, indicating that the lack of nesting sites may be keeping their numbers low. One MVP initiative is to introduce cook-stoves that reduce the amount of wood needed, meaning more dead trees left for hornbill homes.

Lesson 2: Environmental realism is a must
In explaining to Sauri residents the bird-feeder I put up in a tree outside the guest house, one inevitable question is: Which birds are you trying to catch? Filling a plastic bottle with crushed corn to attract birds simply to look at them doesn't make sense to people who are trying to survive and often look upon birds as their next meal.

This perspective was echoed in responses to a survey about birds I handed out to Sauri middle-school students. My final question asks: "Is it important for you to have birds in Sauri?" Most kids said birds should be kept because they provide food for people, in addition to serving as pets and attracting tourists.

Journalist Justin Nobel (right) with local naturalist Ben Okalo in a cornfield in Sauri, Kenya. Adding nitrogen to the soil was a simple intervention that helped to produce the towering stalks behind them, just one of the many interventions facilitated by the Millennium Villages Project.

Lesson 3: Eat locally
In Sauri I watched the food I eat growing in the fields and heard it mooing and clucking from within homesteads. The menu is determined by what farmers have stored from last year or what has recently been harvested. Though sometimes bland, this diet is generally much more sustainable than New York City's seemingly endless dinner options. By spending so much money and energy to ship produce in from across the country or overseas, New Yorkers are not restricted to what is in season or produced locally.

Today I savored what will likely be one of the last pieces of roasted corn I'll eat fresh from the field for some time. The older Sauri women who sell it often ask me if I eat corn in the U.S. I tell them I used to when I was young, and that I grew up near a farm in New York where my father used to roast it on the barbeque in the summer. Having just spent two months getting stung, bitten and sun-burned surrounded by fields of it, however, I have to admit the corn in Sauri tastes much sweeter than anything in my memory.

Related Links:

The Millennium Villages Project
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (on

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