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Day 6Preserving the forest
Day Six - Preserving the forest

At 6 a.m., the fishing village of Elmina bursts with life. We set out early to visit one of Ghana's wildlife preserves. But, before leaving the coast, we stopped by the beach.

Crews of men pushed their fishing boats out to sea, working in teams to roll the hand-carved canoes along pipes laid in the sand. Calling back and forth in Twi, they pushed and pulled the boats into the water, then jumped in and rowed together, crashing into and powering their way through the waves. Far from shore, they cast their nets. Meanwhile, other crews played tug-of-war with the ocean, as strings of men pulled in nets cast the night before.

launching a boat
Men and the sea: fishermen work along Ghana's pristine coast.
© 2000 Tim Zielenbach/Contact Press Images

The town's harbor was a beehive of activity, as boats approached, loaded with fish. Market women waded into the water to buy, carrying crates stacked three high on their heads. Canoes pulled alongside larger boats to claim herring, anchovies, sardines and shrimp. People on the wharf shouted to the fishermen, haggling over prices. Stalls were quickly assembled to sell the fresh catch, its smell hanging on everything.

One guide book attributes Elmina's eclectic feel to "a mood so inherently African juxtaposed against an urban landscape molded almost entirely by exotic influences." Elmina was founded some 700 years ago as a fishing and salt-producing village. The town later became the Portuguese and then Dutch headquarters of West Africa. The large whitewashed castle overlooking the harbor is the oldest European building in the region.

We soon discovered that fishing nets are put to a very different use just an hour's drive inland. Whoever had the bright idea to dangle a net 44 yards above the forest and invite tourists to walk across it is a genius. Thousands of people each year plunk down $10 apiece - a sizeable sum in Ghana, where per capita income is little more than $1 per day - to suspend themselves in the tree tops and stroll next to birds and butterflies.

Brightly painted fishing boats are a source of pride and income.
© 2000 Tim Zielenbach/Contact Press Images

The bridge is 380 yards long, divided into seven sections that grant visitors the chance to start breathing again each time they "land" on a tree. Only one person is allowed on each section at a time, balancing on a one-foot-wide plank of wood that is stretched across a series of ladders held up by fishing nets and cables. The Kakum National Park bridge is the only one of its kind in Africa.

As CARE's Samuel Oduro Sarpong says: "This is not an experience you would like to have twice."

The vantage point offers an incomparable view. The park is home to 600 species of butterflies, 300 species of birds, 80 types of monkeys and eight species of snakes, including the black cobra and the python. The 360-square-kilometer park also houses elephants, antelopes and leopards. You're not likely to see any of them, but there's something fantastic about being suspended in their midst, bouncing through their world.

The Upper Guinean forest stretches across West Africa and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on the earth. Mainly an evergreen forest, it includes a variety of habitats, from swamps to dry ridge. For thousands of years, the forest lived undisturbed. Since the turn of the century, however, people have increasingly encroached. Needing food and fuel, they have cut down trees, farmed and hunted the animals.

Lynn walking
Africa's only hanging rope walkway offers brave tourists an unparalleled view of Ghana's flora and fauna.
© 2000 Tim Zielenbach/Contact Press Images

One hundred years ago, there were 8.2 million hectares of forest in Ghana. There are now 1.7 million. Between 1960-1990, people cleared 1/5 of the earth's tropical forest. Each year, another 15.9 million hectares - the size of Ghana - are destroyed. If trends continue, one-quarter of all species may become extinct in the next 30 years.

To stem the tide, CARE works with farmers in the southwestern part of Ghana to preserve the existing natural forest, promote sustainable agricultural practices and develop alternative income-generating activities. In short, the farmers find long-term ways to meet their needs for food and fuel without sacrificing their forest and rich farmland.

CARE helps 400 farm families cultivate new types of cash crops, such as black pepper and kola nuts, that grow in shade. They share techniques about improving soil fertility. Farmers develop new ways to make money, such as beekeeping and growing snails.

The Gwira Banso Project involves many partners, including the landowners of Gwira Banso, the forestry department, a Ghanaian timber firm and a Danish timber trading firm.

"We want to try to protect what is left of the forest," said Eddie Prah, project coordinator, who works for the Danish DLH Group. "We are trying to encourage the farmers to do better agricultural practices, so they will not feel the need to clear the forest. In the long run, their standard of living should become better."

Finding long-term solutions that benefit many is a common thread throughout CARE's work in Ghana. Everywhere we went, we met people like Francis Konadu of the kente factory, whose gift I'll never forget. People who are working hard to improve their own lives, but who also know the importance of doing for others.

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