The Kakimbo forest is suffocating. Conakry’s former green lung has been seriously degraded by the unchecked, massive urbanization of the Guinean capital. Eaten away by pollution, it now occupies just ten hectares, or 10% of what it was 50 years ago. Oumou Hawa Diallo, 24 years old, wants to revive this languishing body.
The environmental activist leads us to the foot of a retaining wall overlooking an almost dry riverbed. “Before, the elders used to come and bathe here,” the young woman says. The trees’ roots are laced with plastic bags brought by sewer pipes from the neighborhoods upstream from the forest, which overflow during heavy rains. “It’s a constant battle to save what’s left of this space,” she says.
The area around the forest gives an immediate idea of the dangers threatening it. The Koloma district is a vast construction site. The Transverse road number 2 cuts across the width of the peninsula, from Sékou-Touré International Airport in the south to the northern coast road along the Atlantic Ocean. At the edge of the forest, excavators are digging the foundations of the future national assembly and several ministries.
A few years ago, a gigantic US embassy was erected in this neighborhood, encroaching on the forest. Then Chinese investors built the Weily Kakimbo residence, a pair of twin 27-story towers housing 220 luxury apartments, according to its website. Through an open pipe in a retaining wall, the complex discharges some of its wastewater along with large quantities of sand into the dried-up bed of the river that once generously irrigated the now moribund Kakimbo forest.
“The president of the transition [Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, head of the junta that took power by force in September 2021] has promised in his speeches to protect the environment. This is encouraging, but we must remain vigilant,” Diallo warns. It is not easy to curb land speculation in this city under intense demographic pressure.
This battle to resurrect the forest has been ongoing since 2018 by the climate association Agir Contre le Réchauffement Climatique (ACOREC), which Diallo co-founded. She also runs digital development for a company specializing in eco-tourism and holds a degree in computer science. When asked what made her decide to take up arms, she delves into her childhood memories: “I grew up in a house full of plants and flowers that we treated like babies, like members of the family. And then in the village, we started to see the effects of global warming, the streams drying up, the rivers drying up. That’s how it all started in my head.”
The reforestation of the Kakimbo, theoretically protected by its national heritage status, has become her objective. She and her friends at ACOREC are working with some 30 nursery specialists who have formed a cooperative and are working on the site. They germinate seedlings and care for replanted trees, as part of an awareness-raising campaign called “A birthday, a tree,” devised by the association to encourage Guineans to plant a tree on special days. “Starting here, the operation has spread to other countries and 5,000 trees have been planted,” says the young woman proudly.
It is a drop in the bucket given the scale of deforestation, but the activist sees this result as a source of hope. “Guineans are becoming more aware of their responsibility for pollution,” she says. “We have to stop kidding ourselves, saying that deforestation, soil erosion, flooding and all that are White people’s things, or that it’s God’s will, but it’s not us…”
To convince people, Diallo goes to preach the good word in elementary, middle and high schools. “We need to turn every child into a climate ambassador in his or her own family,” she explains. One of ACOREC’s projects for 2023 is to set up a “climate club” bringing together academics to raise awareness and train students on the urgent need to reduce the consumption of charcoal in the home, one of the main sources of deforestation (the government has promised to subsidize butane gas so that it can be used by as many people as possible), and on the need to recycle household waste.
“We have to do something, Conakry is suffocating,” she says. “You doubt it? Follow me!” You don’t have to go far from the Kakimbo forest. A five-minute motorcycle taxi ride from the former green lung takes you to a surreptitiously lethal artificial hill made of waste built up over the years. This is the landfill site of Dar-es-Salam, one of the districts of Ratoma, a commune of Conakry.
Day and night, garbage trucks jostle their way along dangerous roads, depositing the detritus of the capital’s 2 million inhabitants over several hectares. Monstrous machines that look as if they have emerged from the bowels of the earth burn tires all day long, salvaging their metal reinforcements and melting them down. Nearby, children sort plastic bottles.
“Sometimes at night, when the landfill is burning, it looks like a volcano,” says Diallo, plugging her nose. It is a foul-smelling volcano whose fumes, blown by the prevailing winds coming from the ocean bordering the Conakry peninsula, poison the environment far beyond the neighborhoods adjacent to the landfill. There are plans to remove it and build a new modern landfill center, partly financed by the French Development Agency (AFD). “But not until five years from now,” said an expert. The toxic sludge from the waste, loaded with heavy metals and bacteria, will continue to run off into the water tables and all the way to the ocean.
“Sometimes sections of the hill collapse under the violence of the tropical rains,” says Diallo. “There are landslides, people buried under garbage.” “Plastic doesn’t die, it kills,” she says thoughtfully from atop this mountain of rubbish.
At the beginning of May, the young activist was in Dakar. A member of UNICEF’s “Young Voices from the Sahel on Climate Change” initiative, she was also taking part in the sixth edition of the World Forum on the Social Solidarity Economy. “She works for a living, she’s an activist, she’s everywhere,” said an admiring acquaintance at the UN agency. Diallo enjoys it – there is no time to rest. “In Dakar, we’ll be sharing our experiences and knowledge. It’s an opportunity to network, to create joint projects to save the planet. We have to go,” she explained before her departure, eager to continue her relentless struggle.