Dr Rene Haller: the naturalist teaching people to look after themselves and their environment

More than 50 years have passed since Dr Rene Haller had a vision for giving nature a chance to reclaim her stake in the wake of the man-made industrial decimation of a coastal strip of Kenya, near the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa. Switzerland's answer to Sir David Attenborough describes his foundation’s aims and achievements to Saga’s Andy Stevens.

There, the Swiss naturalist, with what now seems extraordinary prescience in the light of modern environmentalism, set about transforming over many years a barren cement quarry into a thriving natural paradise now known as Haller Park.

The world-renowned project has had a massive impact in reshaping the future for the poor inland communities of coastal Kenya. Major spin-off, non-profit enterprises committed to environmental conservation and self-sustainable, eco-friendly communities are handing the initiative back to the local population, through health, education, farming, alternative energy, self-management and water programmes.

This is Dr Haller's modern legacy that still drives his passion for creating a better future in sub-Saharan Africa in his 79th year.

Working mainly in the drought-ravaged Kisuani district, local communities are re-introduced to simple but sustainable principles of farming, through improved soil and food producing, and recycling where nothing in the food chain goes to waste. The foundation also provides communities access to basic healthcare and illness prevention, an education centre including a children's library plus, crucially, a programme of digging wells and rain-fed dams, all created by local people, providing water security for the people themselves.

Dr Haller's aim in all these projects is so create a self-sustaining ecosystem where the community reaps the tangible benefits of working in tandem with the environment at hand, while managing their own affairs.

Food and clean water are a hard matter of survival here, as is the foundation's health programme that goes along with this. And it was Dr Haller's setting up of the Baobab Trust in 1991, which kick-started the development of these particular projects for creating sustainable livelihoods, of which the Saga Charitable Trust has become a central part.

Funds raised by SCT since 2008 have included the building of wells and irrigation farm training in the Mitedi community, and more recently a rain-fed dam in the Mitseremene community.

Dr Haller says that encouraging a sense of self-sufficiency is among the project's biggest challenges.

"It is important to get people doing these things themselves. That has been a difficult thing," he says. "For many years, especially at the coast, people have had this 'give me' culture. Only recently has this started to change, with people helping us put the dams in.

"You must remember that 70 per cent of the people have no job, particularly in the outback. The projects have totally changed things; now, the women suddenly have some money, as we have helped them set up small businesses. Then, they can buy a sewing machine, to help them make their own clothes. All at once, they are able to help themselves."

This self-starter ethos being forged in this part of Kenya has instilled a self-imposed sense of distance from organisations who may not, for whatever reasons, directly seek to benefit the people at the sharp end whose needs are greatest.

"Have we had much support from government or government organisations there? No, and in fact I am reluctant to accept it," says Dr Haller. "I am sceptical too about some top-down forms of foreign aid. There is so much more that people can do themselves. I am never certain how much aid and know-how actually trickles down to the bottom, especially through what I call the 'clay-layer' of middle-management."

Proof of this pragmatic, hands-on approach is there for all to see, in clear, practical achievements. Dr Haller spells them out. "More than 50 dams, or rather water-catchments, have been built. Here, the people are taught how to fish again. A valuable source of protein. This is survival.

"We have three pre-schools. We don't just teach the children 'ABC': they learn how to plant things. Food planting in tyres. And you should see them, the pride when for the first time they grow a bunch of tomatoes or spinach and present it to their parents. They will never forget that, nor that skill.

"The key stage to catch the children's imaginations is between three and six years of age. So we also teach the children about the trees, plants and animals around them, in a play form; the environment remains very close to my heart. Through this, we are hopefully giving them a sense of purpose and a sense of survival, so they no longer have to go 'gimme, gimme, I have no food'."

Dr Haller says failure can occasionally be the unwelcome bedfellow of these successes, but it's the positives that spur the projects and himself as an individual after so many years.

"People ask why we do this, but much progress is being made; this is progress for future generations. With our training programmes for farmers we go right to the heart of where it's needed. The farmers: they come to our demonstration farm, they see what we're doing, they go home, and they do it.

"We have students coming from the University of Nairobi too, helping with modern management skills as well as the grassroots. And people from all along the coast also come along to see the work that we're doing. This is why we do it."

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