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From the rubble of a Kenyan quarry comes a lush, green park. Swiss agronomist has spent 25 years making barren limestone bloom

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 1985



Mombasa, Kenya

THE Land-Rover jolts and crunches over a desolate moonscape of splintered rock. Devoid of anything green, the area reminds me of the eroded, barren wastes of northern Ethiopia, Sudan, or Somalia. Only worse. Our Land-Rover comes to a halt and Ren'e Haller, a stocky, pragmatic Swiss agronomist who has spent 25 years in East Africa, climbs out. Around him lie acres of hard, splintered coral and silica refuse, the remains of the process by which limestone is removed for use in the making of cement.

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Since 1954 the Bamburi Portland Cement Company has laid waste vast tracts of bushland as it excavates millions of tons of limestone along Kenya's beautiful Indian Ocean coast just north of Mombasa. It is difficult to imagine anything having grown in the landscape created by the excavation -- or anything ever growing there again.

Yet Mr. Haller, a purposeful and orderly man who speaks with a slight Swiss-German accent, bends down to cradle gingerly a six-inch-high seedling with his hand. ``Casuarina equisetifolia,'' he declares, using the scientific name for an extraordinary tree known variously as the Australian pine, she-oak, or beefwood. ``The start of a new forest.''

Only then does a visitor see thousands more young trees, each protected from the sun and wind by a cluster of two or three rocks, growing all over this man-made desert.

A forest? I find that hard to believe. Nevertheless, less than half a mile away is thriving evidence -- mature evidence -- of what Haller has just shown me: a 70-acre experimental reforestation project that, only 14 years ago, was also a dross of coral and silica.

Today, it is a varied woodland of 100-foot trees, teeming fish ponds, and flush meadows. A wasteland has been transformed into a harmonious refuge with a public nature trail. Along that trail there are more than 130 species of birds; countless butterflies, beetles, and other insects; antelope, bushbuck, eland, oryx, several crocodile, and a hippopotamus called Sally.

For a journalist used to reporting desperate refugee situations in the Horn of Africa or the war in Afghanistan, it is uplifting to discover a genuine environmental success story. It is rare enough to come across an idea that has proven its feasibility. But it is even rarer to find one with a potential for solutions to the problems faced by the developing world.

As far as Haller is concerned, no matter how devastated the terrain, something can be done about it. ``It's absolute nonsense to say that a situation is hopeless,'' he argues, disputing the views of some development specialists that desertifi-cation, erosion, or the cutting of trees for fuel in some regions is final.

``There is always a way of working with nature, helping her along,'' he explains as we tour other sections of the Bamburi project: an agricultural estate and seed research center, a highly profitable fish farm, an earthworm culture, eland and oryx herd, and a crocodile ranch. ``It need not even be expensive or complicated,'' he adds. ``One just needs a bit of imagination.''

Haller is in every sense an environmental architect. Coming from Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) as a young man in 1959, he was first hired by the Bamburi Portland Cement Company to turn coral scrubland into a farm to help feed the workers. Within a short time, Haller and his team were cultivating maize, sorghum, garden vegetables, and fruit, but also grazing cattle in the surrounding bush. Later, they developed what is today a major poultry enterprise.

From the beginning, Haller had the idea of turning the Baobab Farm, as it became known, into a model. ``We try to use local resources in everything we do,'' he explains. The chicken coops, for example, are easy to build and look like traditional huts. He refuses to use insecticides or chemical fertilizers.

In 1971, Bamburi, embarrassed by public criticism of excavation operations easily seen from the main highway, asked Haller to do something about it.

``Basically, they wanted me to hide it -- build a wall around it,'' he muses. ``But when we began to show results, proving that private enterprise could do something worthwhile about the environment, they got excited.''

The problem was how to get something to grow on salt-encrusted rock with absolutely no soil and few nutrients. ``For many hours, I strolled through the oldest part of the quarry looking for hints among the rocks, to find out what types of plants could tolerate such harsh and inhospitable conditions,'' recalls Haller.