How Haidar el Ali became one of Africa’s best-known environmentalists

Haidar el Ali started out in his family’s furniture business but then dedicated his life to protecting the oceans and other habitats.

Amanda Fortier
Haidar el Ali’s projects include reforestation efforts, especially the replanting of mangroves.

At 25 years old, Haidar el Ali had a vision that changed his life.

Like most Lebanese in Senegal, Mr. Ali came from an entrepreneurial family. It had several furniture stores and workshops spread across Dakar’s densely packed Médina neighborhood. Every morning at 7 o’clock, Ali would join his father for a quick cup of coffee and chat before they started work. But one morning, while crossing the street, Ali had a moment he can only describe as “mystical.”

“Suddenly I saw myself sitting in my dad’s place waiting for my own son. My entire life as a businessman flashed before my eyes,” he explains. “By the time I reached my dad, I told him I needed to change my life. The next day I quit. Everyone was asking what happened to me, but honestly, I didn’t know.”

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that Ali understood. He had always been drawn to nature. It wasn’t unheard-of for him to spend weeks on end in the forest, away from the consumerism attending urban life back in Dakar. So Ali made a decision. He turned his passion for the environment into a vocation for life.

To some, his next steps might not seem to make sense: He got trained as a professional scuba diving instructor in France, and shortly thereafter he opened a diving company in Dakar. But as Ali describes it, the move makes perfect sense.

“What I really wanted to do was speak out against how we were destroying our ocean,” he says. “Fishermen were, at this time, still using explosives to catch their food, and I started to film what I was seeing underwater – how the natural ecosystems were being destroyed and degraded by human activity. I took these images to villages and then to the media, which ended up getting a lot of attention. This ultimately gave me the courage to follow my dreams.”

Ali’s parents were immigrants from Lebanon who “got stuck” in this small West African country en route to the United States in the 1930s, and it took them some time to understand why their son would abandon a life of security and comfort. But Ali says he was simply being true to himself.

And he has become one of Africa’s best-known environmentalists, holding several notable positions. He has been indispensable to the work of Oceanium, an environmental nongovernmental organization based in Dakar that he joined in 1985. Almost three decades later, from 2012 to 2014, Ali served in Senegal’s government, as minister of environment and then as minister of fisheries. He also heads the country’s Green Party (FEDES).

Ali is passionate when talking about the planet, raising the alarm about its future.

“Our environment is being attacked. And it’s so easy to kill, because trees don’t cry and branches don’t fall on traffickers,” says Ali, who is now in his 60s. “Unfortunately for us, we are headed towards a place of no return. Time is not on our side.”

Of course, he has not sat idly by. In addition to trying to protect the underwater world, he has also taken up land management and reforestation projects, which he has done with Oceanium. Ali served as the organization’s president for several years, and he is now an honorary member.

The challenges for forests

Senegal’s forests have faced multiple challenges. Severe droughts hit the country in the 1970s and ’80s, and the rise in urbanization cleared thousands of acres of trees. Mangroves – one of the richest ecosystems in the world – have been especially affected.

Approximately 133,000 acres of mangroves disappeared in Senegal between 1980 and 2005, according to a study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The study estimates that as of 2005, about 284,000 acres were left, mostly in the country’s lush and tropical southern Casamance region. These tidal shrublike trees help deter land erosion; provide homes to numerous fish, mollusks, and crabs; and have carbon-sequestering capabilities greater than those of rainforests.

To help fight against mangrove degradation, Ali, through Oceanium, organized massive replanting efforts with hundreds of villages in Casamance, where he is now based. This region is the greenest part of Senegal and was once referred to as the country’s breadbasket, but it’s been far from immune from environmental problems.

Between 2006 and 2012, countless villagers helped replant about 35,000 acres in Casamance, and another 2,500 or so acres were replanted elsewhere in Senegal. It’s one of the largest mangrove replanting efforts in the world.

Ali has worked with coordinators spread across the country who help organize seed distribution among residents.

“Before Haidar came, we didn’t have nearly the number of fish or birds that we do now,” says Aliou Badiane, a planting coordinator with Ali since 2008 who’s based in a Casamance village with no running water or electricity. “The hardest part [for us] is collecting seeds, but now we have a planting system in place that’s saving us.”

Denouncing loggers

Ali and his network have also devoted attention to a forest restoration project to protect rosewood trees. They’re denouncing the loggers who are illegally transporting these trunks into neighboring Gambia, where they’re shipped to China. As a result of the scrutiny, tree-cutters are not able to cut as much wood, which has driven up the cost of it. A year ago, a 6-1/2-foot trunk sold for 10,000 CFA francs ($17). Today, the same size runs 10 times that price.

“The increase in the selling price proves we are making their work harder,” says Ali, who says forest rangers alert the network two or three times a day about any environmental threats they witness. “Just today, for example, I got an alert of some 5,000 tree trunks found. I’ll first send some other people over to look; then I will go back myself. If this is verified, I’ll call the press to denounce it.”

According to Ali, politicians might say they’re against illegal logging, but on the ground nothing ever changes. “The government is quick to say they encourage me [in my work], but it ends there,” he says. “In my mind it’s never a question of means. It’s one of human determination and will.”

“Haidar is a man of his word,” attests Jean-Michel Kornprobst, professor emeritus of science at the University of Nantes in France, who established Oceanium in 1984, a year before Ali joined. “He has never used his environmental efforts – for which he is so strongly physically and intellectually-linked – for his own personal gain.... [He] is fundamentally honest and is genuinely fighting for future generations...,” says Professor Kornprobst, who commented via email.

Going the extra mile

Ali’s tree planting is fueled today as much by personal conviction as by the desire to ensure that the trees, butterflies, and fish are around for “his greatest successes” – his two youngest children, ages 1 and 3. And not only does Ali practice what he preaches, but he also goes the extra mile to compel others to follow suit.

“I’m someone who can’t tell people to plant trees if I’m not doing it myself,” he says. “In my tree nursery [just outside Casamance’s capital city, Ziguinchor], I planted some 20,000 trees of all different types – from mahogany and rosewood to orange, grapefruit, avocado, and palmyra palms. And when I travel from Dakar to Ziguinchor [about 280 miles], I take the car just so that I can personally give out seeds in every village I go through. It’s a fastidious job, but it works.”

According to Ali, Senegal can be a role model for the rest of the region, and even the world, on how people can fight to preserve a natural way of life.

“I’m an optimist because I believe in humanity and the force of humans to react,” he says. “I believe in a nonviolent citizen revolution that is aware of our power to change things and is aware of our potential as the solution. And I see this movement taking hold a bit all over the world. People are starting to become more aware that having a love for all that is living is primordial for the survival of humanity.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups promoting conservation or agricultural efforts:

Pandas International works to ensure the preservation and propagation of the endangered giant panda. Take action: Donate funds to purchase formula for cubs and older pandas.

Miracles in Action provides Guatemalans living in extreme poverty with opportunities to help themselves through sustainable development projects. Take action: Enable a family to have livestock.

One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Contribute funds for the training of Ugandan farmers in sustainable agriculture techniques.

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