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Cameroonian joins global quest for clean water

Tantoh Nforba promotes watershed preservation by education and example.

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In the spring of 2007, Nforba applied to the Tahoe-Baikal Institute’s (TBI) Summer Environmental Exchange. TBI, a Lake Tahoe, Calif.-based nonprofit, teaches American and international students about watershed management. Around the world, watersheds can be found in all states of usage, from the pristine waters of Siberia’s Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest, deepest, and largest freshwater lake – to the streams and rivers piped deep beneath cities. TBI hopes to balance human population growth and demands for development with the ecological health of these drainage areas.

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Founded in 1992 as a student exchange between the polarized superpowers of the Cold War, TBI began hosting students and professionals from around the world in 1996. Nforba was the institute’s first African participant.

“Having Tantoh in the program was huge,” says TBI’s Jon Green, coordinator of the US program. “He really solidified that TBI’s mission is not just about Tahoe or Baikal – it’s about any watershed, anywhere.”

TBI’s Summer Environ­ment­­al Ex­­change (SEE) is unique among en­­vi­ron­­­­­­­mental education programs for its hands-on, “place based” approach. Ex­­posing participants to the effects of high-level development and resource management at Lake Tahoe, and then studying the Lake Baikal area, now moving from an industrial to a tourist-based economy, is a critical comparison for future re­­searchers, lawmakers, and lobbyists, Mr. Green says.

“And for Tantoh’s work in Africa,” Green says, “because he is working at a grass-roots environmental level, the challenge is, ‘How the heck do we get clean, fresh water?’ People like Tantoh gain experience, ideas, expertise, and models they can take back and work with.”

In Tahoe, Nforba conducted a water-quality monitoring project. He quips that policymakers in his own country “would look at the research as useless,” but he put the skills he learned to good use in Cameroon, where he started a campaign to sensitize people on pollution.

In the second half of the SEE program, Nforba studied the impact of tourism on Lake Baikal, evidenced by the recent dramatic increase in litter. Streams in urban Cameroon and even in rural provinces like Nforba’s are often clogged with trash, and he has added recycling and waste re-use to his educational efforts.

Within Cameroon, news of the young environmentalist’s journey traveled fast.

“When I returned from the TBI exchange, I was welcomed back as a hero,” Nforba says. He was interviewed on TV. “People could not believe that just working on the environment could take me though three continents. It has created a lot of awareness, and it is a challenge to the rural community – many people are now talking about the environment, and many young people are taking action.”

Still operating with a very limited budget, Nforba is back at work in his garden, in schools, and in local villages, aided by a rotating cast of international volunteers – he’s hosted 12 so far.
Nforba is also sharing his watershed expertise as a mentor to other African villages struggling to develop local environmental protections through the Nabuur.com global volunteering website. This spring, Nforba and SYFA will begin a two-year partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre, training rural farmers how to sustainably maintain, harvest, and profit from agroforestry products.

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