NGOZI — In the north of Burundi, only the wealthiest farmers have the means to buy state-subsidized fertilizer. Poorer farmers make do with the garbage they can collect in the city — to the great delight of urban dwellers.
Nsengimana Evariste is a poor pygmy farmer who collects garbage in the city of Ngozi. If he wants to fertilize his fields, as the agricultural advisors who criss-cross the country’s hills have been advising for the past two years, he has no other choice. Though the Ministry of Agriculture does provide a 40% subsidy on chemical fertilizers for the first agricultural season, a 25-kilo sack of fertilizer still costs around $20.
“I can't afford buying manure,” he says. “I have a small field, which doesn’t even provide me with enough to eat, so you can understand that I’m not going to find something to sell in order to pay for fertilizer.”
Waste collection in Rutana, Burundi — Photo: SuSanA Secretariat
To buy the subsidized fertilizer, $4 is required in advance to reserve a bag, and another $15 is due when a farmer picks it up. Initially, some farmers tried to band together to buy a bag and then share its contents — but the poorest farmers who managed to pay the advance often couldn’t pay the balance and had to sell their portions to the rich farmers, who thus got even more subsidized fertilizer. For the very poor, city waste is the only available resource.
A clean city
This dilemma for farmers is a godsend for city residents, who can now easily dispose of garbage. “We don’t see mountains of waste in our neighborhoods anymore,” says one official in the center of Ngozi — which does not have any municipal garbage service.
The farmers collect household waste daily. And when it isn’t farmers looking for compost to fertilize their fields, it’s livestock owners, who use banana peels, leftover cabbage and potato skins to feed their cows, goats and pigs. For the past year, livestock have no longer been allowed to graze outside the city.
Bizamina Stany is one of many residents who is happy because his neighborhood has become healthier. “I used to dig holes to bury my garbage, but I don’t do that anymore,” he says.
“I don’t spend any money anymore to get rid of my waste,” adds Jean Ciza, the manager of the Kayanza hotel in the north of Burundi who used to spend $13 every week to pay a truck to pick up the hotel waste and dispose of it. “Some take vegetable peels, and others take leftover cooked foods that they use to feed pigs.”
The system has even stopped the proliferation of plastic bags that used to litter the area. The farmers remove all of the plastic bags before spreading the organic waste on their fields, and then burn the bags so that they don’t pollute the land.
Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.
PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?
In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.
This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.
Addictions to sex and social media
Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'
Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.
No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.
Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image
According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.
Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.
Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.
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