FROM VISION TO REALITY – THE STORY BEHIND EDEN
Whilst travelling through the Sahara desert in 1975 for the first time, twenty-year-old Arne Garvi from Norway came across a plant that caught his attention. It amazed him that a plant could grow in the middle of nowhere where nothing seemed to be able to take hold. He was struck by its potential and wondered what the consequences would be if such a plant could give human food. The idea intrigued him for many years to come.
Back in Scandinavia, Arne married the love of his life, Bettan. The couple had three children. Their interest in a healthy, varied diet led to the creation of a Food Fund, where people could buy organic food at affordable prices. The surplus generated by the fund was given to the poor.
PLANTS THAT THRIVE IN THE DESERT WILL CONQUER THE DESERT
In 1983, Arne and Bettan came across an article written by Dr. Norman Myers. It brought attention to the existence of 78,000 edible plants in the world, of which 75,000 had probably never been used for human food before. It was then that the vision of Eden was born, for if properly exploited, what difference would these plants not be able to make for the poorest of the poor?
Triggered by the enormity of this untapped potential, merged with a strong desire to help the poor, Eden Foundation was founded in 1985. “Plants that thrive in the desert will conquer the desert” was the motto. Convinced that the key to self-sustainability in poverty-stricken areas lay in drought tolerant edible trees and bushes, Arne and Bettan decided to set up their project in Niger, West Africa. Out of several West African countries that were in dire need of a sustainable solution, Niger was selected as Eden’s starting point because it had the toughest conditions and was at the time getting least international attention.
Starting from scratch, with no organisation to back them up, Arne and Bettan left all behind and set out to fulfil the vision, never looking back. With Arne’s visions and Bettan’s never-faltering courage, they packed all their belongings and moved their family south to the least developed country in the world – a country they knew practically nothing about, but which was desperately in need of a solution.
Their little Eden caravan – which consisted of three cars (of which only one had a four wheel drive), five adults and three young children – left the comforts of a temporary base in Tunisia in October 1986 and arrived at its final destination five weeks later: Zinder, Niger, a dusty town in the middle of nowhere.
A WORLD APART
Settling in was quite a challenge. The foreign culture, dominated by strong values of fatalism and resignation, was a world apart from where they came from.
Basic things such as electricity and water could not be taken for granted anymore. Meat had to be purchased at the market, which almost took half a day and any drinking water had to be filtered first. They soon found out that there was no adequate schooling available for children after the age of ten. Language barrier was another issue. At the University of Tunis, Arne and Bettan had studied some Arabic – a lingua franca in Africa – but this proved of little use in a country where most people spoke only indigenous languages.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Setting up the Eden project proved problematic. With limited funds, few workers and many practical obstacles to overcome in a country with inadequate water and electricity supplies, Arne and Bettan found themselves struggling with the most basic and absurd problems. In December 1987, both fell seriously ill with hepatitis A. A few weeks later, Zinder suffered from a three month long water shortage, giving them no time to recuperate. The children suffered from malaria, ear infections and other diseases, but although health care in Niger was far from the Scandinavian standards they were used to, there was never question of turning back. Despite the odds, Arne and Bettan were determined to carry on, one step at a time, equipped with a vision that few could see would one day become reality.
THE LEAST DEVELOPED AREA IN THE WORLD’S POOREST COUNTRY
The authorities in Niger however were touched by Eden’s vision right from the start and gave the project a large piece of land in the northernmost agricultural area, not far from the remote town of Tanout.
As one of the least developed areas in the country, the Tanout department lacked the most basic infrastructure and its first paved road was yet to be constructed. Bordering the Sahara Desert, the farmers living there were under the constant threat of desertification and famine. Employing slash and burn practices, farmers in the area were cutting down trees at an alarming rate, causing wind erosion which in turn impoverished the fields. Malnourishment was widespread due to insufficient harvests and a one-sided diet.
The children were growing up in a sea of sand, surrounded by adults who had resigned to what they considered to be their fate; bearing no hope for a better future.
THE FIELD STATION – A SHOP WINDOW
In 1988, Eden set up its field station on a denuded site, and the research began. If Eden was going to help the farmers revegetate their area, they had to see that it was possible to establish trees under the same circumstances as the population, who had neither water nor money to spare. New species were tested under conditions similar to those in the farmers’ fields; without the use of irrigation or fertilizers. The best way to do this was through the method called direct seeding.
PASSIVE TRANSFER – REINFORCING PEOPLE’S DIGNITY
At first, the population did not understand what Eden was all about, but Arne was convinced that in order for Eden’s solution to be properly implemented into the culture, the project would have to take on a so called ‘Passive Transfer’ approach which meant that the farmers had to approach Eden by their own curiosity and initiative in order for Eden to help them.
Despite the harsh climate with ravaging winds and a meagre annual rainfall average of 230mm, the field station was revegetated. At the time of their arrival, the farmers were diligently clearing their fields of trees and bushes that might attract crop-eating birds. This attitude changed when they saw the impact that the Eden perennials had on their annuals crops. In 1992, the farmer east of the field station produced a harvest three times greater than his neighbour. This was the highest yield recorded that year within a 20 km radius. His crops had been shielded from the wind by the Eden trees on the field station, whilst the neighbouring fields lay open and unprotected. With the benefits of Eden’s solution visible for all to see, the first farmers approached Eden and asked for seeds to sow in their own fields. And so the passive transfer was initiated.
OFFERING HOPE AND OPPORTUNITIES
Since then, Eden has served over 3,000 families in 130 villages throughout the Tanout area, helping them establish drought tolerant trees that grow without irrigation and that provide food, even in times of need.
Eden’s solution does not only offer the population a sustainable life; it gives hope and opportunities. When the crops fail, mothers no longer resign to fate as there are Eden fruits to be harvested in the fields. There is a high demand for these fruits at the market and so the Eden trees provide the families with a multitude of options. Because the Eden species have different harvest times, there is something to harvest all year round.
As the population has come to depend on them, the general attitude towards trees has changed. Instead of diligently cutting down the vegetation, the men now allow many species to grow, including those that do not bear human fruit. Branches and straw are used as building material, which are either used by the family or sold at the market, generating a new income.
EDEN’S VISION IS NOW A REALITY
From the very beginning, Eden’s purpose has never been to tell people how to live their lives, but to supply them with options that will enable them to achieve a sustainable life, independent of external assistance.
The results that can be seen today amongst the Eden farmers in Tanout have been reached through much hard work and dedication. More than twenty years have passed since the creation of Eden and a generation of children now lead a better life, despite growing up in the least developed area in the poorest country of the world.
A PERSONAL INVESTMENT
The harshness of the Nigerien climate took its toll on Bettan’s health. Despite a poor heart condition and a high blood pressure, she never yielded. In January 2006 however, in the twentieth year of their coming to Niger, Bettan suffered an acute heart failure and had to be evacuated.
Upon arrival in Sweden, it was discovered that she also suffered from malign breast cancer. She was operated within months and underwent extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Within a year however, the cancer had already spread to her lungs, liver, skeleton and brain.
With his wife seriously ill at hospital, Arne travelled to Niger whenever he could. In September 2007, Bettan’s health deteriorated dramatically just as he was about to leave. Arne wanted to cancel his trip, but Bettan insisted that Eden needed him.
“But what are people going to say, if you die and I’m not at your side?” Arne asked.
“We’ve never cared what people thought about us before,” Bettan replied. Through all her time at the hospital, she never stopped thinking about the people of Niger and dreamed of the day when she would return.
Bettan passed away on February 22nd 2008 at the age of 55. Arne was at her side.
Though the personal investment was high, it was a life lived without regrets. Bettan’s friends and family know that had she lived her life all over again, she would have made the same choices and the same sacrifices, for she never desired a convenient life.
HER LEGACY WILL LIVE ON
Bettan had an eye for people’s needs and hungered for a practical solution that would enable people to lead a sustainable life. Her strong desire for resources to be put to use led to the creation of Eden’s preventive health program, where the population receives advice according to the means available to them on how to avoid major health issues and what they can do once problems occur. In an area that lacks basic infrastructure and health care, child mortality has since been reduced significantly with simple solutions such as salt and sugar mix against diarrhoea.
Had it not been for her courage and dedication, Eden would not be a reality today, and the people of Tanout would not be living off on the numerous Eden species that bear fruit throughout the year. Together with Arne, she laid the foundation for a better and sustainable future for thousands of people.
Eden was started against all odds, but there is now a project to carry on and the loss of Bettan has only strengthened our resolve at Eden to honour her courage and commitment.
Her legacy will live on.