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.
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.
He found two species of ferns, some bulrushes, tamarisks, a pluchea bush, and a number of young casuarina trees, a few of which had already grown to a respectable size. It was the latter, he said, that gave him hope. The tree grows well in coastal areas, survives salty spray, and colonizes easily on windblown sands. In addition, its root system fixes atmospheric nitrogen, compensating for an otherwise nitrogen-deficient soil.
Nevertheless, Haller realized that a single tree species was not enough to create a balanced forest ecosystem. He built a small hut with a palmthatch roof in the middle of the desert he had been ``assigned'' by the company. It was a place where he could ``sit and think in the shade.''
Nearby, he planted an experimental plot with 27 tree species collected from the coastal region, digging holes in the rock with a crowbar and using several shovelfuls of cattle manure as fertilizer. He also persuaded the company to lend him a bulldozer to dig the first of many fishponds where he carried out aquatic studies in the brackish groundwater.
The casuarina and a conocarpus tree from Somalia grew best of all. Encouraged, Haller and his men planted some 3,000 trees. They grew quickly -- an extraordinary seven feet in the first 12 months. In the following years, Haller's crew put in 40,000 more trees.
The long, needle-like branchlets of the casuarina, which fall continuously, began to form a dense matting on the limestone floor. To hasten decomposition, Haller introduced hundreds of ``Mombasa trains,'' a local species of millipede, which fed on the needles and soon helped create bits of soil with their droppings.
``It was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle,'' says Haller. At first he worked on his own, but then others, including visiting students, began contributing ideas. ``Everything was based on trial and error, much of it haphazard. Only when we had succeeded in a certain field did we seek a scientific explanation.''
Like Johnnie Appleseed, Haller would wander the plantations, his pockets full of seeds of different grasses, herbs, and bushes, sowing them at random and letting natural selection take its course.
The acidic humus started to dissolve the limestone. Earthworms, introduced to the newly developing system, turned over the loam and soil, while termites helped digest the hard cellulose of dry branches.
At one point the rapidly growing forest faced disaster. Haller found heaps of tell-tale sawdust at the base of some of the casuarina trees whose foliage was turning yellow. A certain species of beetle larva was attacking the trees.
A pesticide would have done the job, Haller comments. ``But I wanted to see a biological answer.'' Apparently by chance, he discovered eagle owl pellets containing the remains of the beetle. ``We introduced one of the owls, which in turn attracted four more, to hunt the pest.'' The damage was halted and the trees slowly recovered.
Over the years other plants and trees appeared. Some were brought in. Others showed up on their own. The newly formed microclimate attracted numerous animals, but some were specifically introduced to enhance the ecological balance. Sally, the hippo, was brought in to graze on pond grasses. Oryx and waterbuck to graze in the meadows; warthogs to forage in the forest; bees to pollinate flowers; snakes to control the frogs, and dung beetles to remove excess manure.
``The idea,'' stipulates Haller with a smile, ``is that every plant and animal must contribute to the environment. No freeloaders. They've got to earn their keep.'' The casuarina, for example, has now served its purpose and is being cut down and sold for timber and replaced by other tree species.
Haller, now an independent adviser to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and other organizations, is expanding his experimentation with alternative wasteland utilization and ``harmonious'' agricultural projects. What the Bamburi-Baobab system has shown, he maintains, is that it is possible to operate a viable concern while contributing to environmental management.
The project has produced some very practical ideas. Several Bamburi trees would be ideal for reforestation and fuel purposes in desert areas, particularly around refugee camps. They grow rapidly, produce shade, and can survive on only 20 inches of rain a year.
``I also don't believe in green belts,'' concludes Haller. ``They don't spread on their own.'' What he proposes instead is to scatter an array of small, concentrated island ecosystems of flora and fauna.
``They will need care in the beginning, but they will soon expand by themselves, eventually joining up with each other. Then you have a forest.''