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Aired March 16, 2003 - 10:00:00   ET


TUMI MAKGABO, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up on this week's GLOBAL CHALLENGES, a huff and a puff won't blow this house down. Straw houses stand tall in South Africa.
Truism with a twist; a school that's helping to take Costa Rica to the top of the eco-class.

And back to his roots. A health worker in Madagascar who is treating people with plants.

Hello and welcome to this edition of GLOBAL CHALLENGES, from the Western Cape, South Africa. I'm Tumi Makgabo.

Now you may be wondering why it is I am sitting on a roof. Well, it's a very unique roof that's part of a very unusual structure. In fact, it may just remind you of the story of "The Three Little Pigs."

Why? Because it's almost entirely built of straw, a method of construction that, it seems, is becoming hugely popular the world over.


(voice-over): If only the first little pig had known. He lost his bacon to the Big Bad Wolf in the fairytale "The Three Little Pigs," not because he built a straw house, but because he didn't' build it right.

To make it strong, all it takes is some clay, water, and a lot of straw.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see, the beautiful gold inside.

MAKGABO (voice-over): Natural materials that are accessible and inexpensive.

ETIENNE BRUWER, ARCHITECT: So, the cost of this batch, given that your material is for free, is about 50 cents.

MAKGABO: Cape Town architect Etienne Bruwer first heard about straw- built construction 10 years ago. He since built a business around the technique.

Now with the help of his family, he's working on his own home, step by step.

BRUWER: And then you sprinkle it, but you don't want it to make mess. So now we have to use 1/10 of the energy that we would -- the process of matting (ph). You have turn, get the straw to hold in place.

I am totally convinced that the social and the economic and the environmental way of doing straw builds is absolutely the way to go. It makes social sense, because it's utterly something that you do in community. People work together doing this. It creates community. It creates social (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

It makes monumental sense, because you use 1/10 of the energy that you use, and it's all human energy. It's not C02.

And of course it makes economic sense, because it's very, very inexpensive.

MAKGABO: Straw buildings are popping up throughout the Cape Town area, some more elaborate than others, but all embrace creativity, conservation and community spirit.

That's where it expands to the classroom as well. To the north of the city, a new school room is being built for children mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Much of the work is being done by their parents, one of whom is architect and project manager Wilfred Bohm.

Here the technique is different. Straw bales are simply stacked and pegged. Later, they'll be covered with plaster. It's an extremely fast and efficient method.

WILFRED BOHM, ARCHITECT: If you have a team that works nonstop, morning to evening, you could get a building up to the roof level within two, three, four days. In our case, because we were self-help, it may mean that we can take a little bit longer.

MAKGABO: The straw itself comes from nearby fields, but here and in other parts of the world, farmers often don't have any use for it, so they burn it. Greenhouse gasses are released, nearby towns are polluted and an opportunity is lost.

But to use the straw for construction surely would seem to be impractical and potentially dangerous.

BOHM: In the case of a wall like this, because it's very densely packed, and then it is coated with a layer of plaster inside and outside, it's a zero fire hazard.

MAKGABO: And the walls have stood the test of time.

The South African architects take their inspiration from the prairies of the American Midwest. 19th century pioneers had few trees at their disposal, so they improvised, using straw instead. Some of those buildings stand tall to this day. Stories about them are taller still.

BOHM: There's a story of an American barn which was built somewhere in the Midwest in the 19th century, and more than 100 years later, they took down the barn, they had to move it. They took down the roof and they took the plaster off, and they book the hay out and fed it to the cattle. It actually had lasted and preserved in there in an edible condition for 100 years.

MAKGABO: Longevity aside, South Africa needs better housing now. Some homes in townships and informal settlements are build with scraps, and standard materials like brick are expensive and can be impractical.

The answer might lie somewhere in between.


And from South Africa to Costa Rica, after the break, and a program that's encouraging other nations to follow suit.

Don't go away.


MAKGABO: Welcome back to GLOBAL CHALLENGES. I'm Tumi Makgabo.

Now, we all know that tourism is a great source of income for countries round the world. Now Costa Rica has found a way to use that as a tool not just to help preserve the environment, but to keep communities together.

Helena Cavendish De Moura explains.


HELENA CAVENDISH DE MOURA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Costa Rica is a blessed country. In a region that has seen more than its share of conflict, it has been at peace for much of its existence.

This is a country that boasts more professors than policemen, and sometimes it seems more tourists than Costa Ricans.

Few linger in the capitol, San Jose. Costa Rica has pioneered what's now become known as eco-tourism, traveling in harmony with nature. The locals call it "Uda Vida" (ph), "the pure life."

"Uda Vida" (ph) is a mantra here, instilled in schools, tripping off the tongues of every government official, including the president himself.

ABEL PACHECO, COSTA RICAN PRESIDENT: We say "Uda Vida." That's "clear life." That's the words we use a lot. We want -- we love life.

We ask people to come here and have a good time and enjoy the things we have here without destroying nature.

We are not trying to get big multitudes of people to come and take everything from every place. We're not going to favor getting a little money now and destroying our country.

DE MOURA: Not that tourism is "little money" to Costa Rica. It's a lifeline worth more than $1 billion a year.

Some countries might be blinded by such riches and go for the quick profit, but Costa Rica is determined to sustain and support its natural gifts.

Few areas are blessed with more natural gifts than Monte Verde. This tropical rainforest supports one of the most diverse eco-systems anywhere in the world. From humming birds to sloughs, exotic orchids to vermilliads (ph) climbing high into the ancient forest canopy, a region of vibrant colors and the swelling songs of nature.

A three-hour dirt road journey from Monte Verde leads to Santa Lena (ph), a rustic frontier town which just 10 years ago was struggling for survival. Now it's base camp for tourists who come from all over the world to marvel at the rainforest and a living jewel nestled deep inside: the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, one of the first community-owned reserves in Costa Rica.

For the Cloud Forest was nearly sacrificed by locals who try to scratch a living from its slopes.

It took the courage and inspiration of an isolated community to pursue a different and much gentler vision for the spectacular region.

(on camera): 10 years ago, the community of Santa Elena began trying to find ways to use their forest as a source of revenue. Despite conflicting interests among biologists and cattle farmers, they found what they saw as the best compromise between man and nature.

(voice-over): And that compromise was a delicate balancing act. Work for the people of Santa Elena supporting tourism that would help, not harm, it's unique ecology. It's a concept that both locals and visitors understand.

ARNOLDO BEECHE, HOTEL OWNER (through translator): We have not accomplished much if we just preserve a forest while the community that lives around it, it is hungry. If this community has nothing to eat, the forest is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just love the forest. Even when I was really little, I loved green so much. I never knew why.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think what's really cool, what they've done here, is that they've created or started to create a tremendous industry based on eco-tourism, so you can save these places and provide the local people, you know, a decent livelihood.

DE MOURA: The communities high school now owns and manages the Cloud Forest. The revenue it generates is used for the sensitive development of tourism and to educate the next generation of forest guardians.

In the shadow of the mountains, teenagers at the Santa Elena High School learn about their precious inheritance, about the warm, moist trade winds that sweep from the Atlantic to sustain and renew life in the Cloud Forest, which thrives outside their classroom window.

Many of the schools graduates who used to leave the area in droves have now returned to become tour guides or hoteliers. Above all, they now understand that prosperity and preservation are not opposing forces, but goals that can peacefully co-exist.

BEECHE (through translator): When I used to work with cattle, I never even dreamed that my children would ever even see a university. Now my children are graduating, but they are only graduating thanks to environmental tourism. And they are seeing better opportunities.

DE MOURA: One recent graduate of the school now shows off nature's dazzling pageant to all awe-struck visitors.

JOHNNY PEREZ ARTAVILA, TOUR GUIDE: This area for me is very, very special and one of the really amazing things that we have here in the Cloud Forest.

Look at the size of the trees, the kind of vegetation that we have right now. This is the secondary growth.

DE MOURA (on camera): Now, just a quick question. Now, this forest gives you a job. Tell me about that.

ARTAVILA: Yes, well, I work here because I love this place. I have 10 years working for the reserve, from the beginning of '93, and I love so much this place, because we are trying to make money for the location. This is part of the part of the high school. The students come up for working, for study, and I feel so luck to work here because I love this place.

DE MOURA (voice-over): Beyond the Cloud Forest, farmers like Jorge Rodriguez have turned their back on diary farming, corn and coffee. Rodriguez has transformed his land into an eco-farm where tourists pay a fee to see the abundant wildlife in his own backyard.

JORGE RODRIGUEZ (through translator), ECO-FARM OWNER: My family used to say you're losing your mind, this is never going to work, I was wasting my time, that the best thing to do was to move somewhere to find a job. But I said no.

I had my mind set on building these trails because I wanted to see if one day the tourists will come.

DE MOURA: And they did. Now they can choose among scores of activities, such as the canopy tour, yet another way to contemplate nature while leaving it intact.

As one of the tour guides put it, we just used what nature offered us. And that's what this is all about, an offering from nature and in return a promise to nurture it.

Helena Cavendish De Moura, Santa Elena, Costa Rica.


MAKGABO: And still ahead on GLOBAL CHALLENGES, what Ghana, Madagascar and ethnobotany have in common.

Stay with us.


MAKGABO: Hello again from the Western Cape, South Africa.

Ethnobotany, according to "Webster's Dictionary," is the plant lore of a people and the study thereof. Here in the Cape, the indigenous flora is known as (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but we'd like to take you to Madagascar to meet a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who is using ethnobotany as an essential element in providing healthcare.

Gary Strieker has more.


GARY STRIEKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the forest on the island of Madagascar there are countless species of plants and animals, many found nowhere else on earth.

And in every forest, a kind of natural pharmacy.

NAT QUANSAH, ETHNO-BOTANIST: This is montillia (ph), montillia (ph), an important plant for the local community. They use the back of this plant for lower back pains and for general fatigue. And that's kili (ph). The kili (ph) is an important plant because people use the fruits as a laxative and then the leaves and the bark are put together with papaya for yellow fever.

STRIEKER: Using plants to heal, what's known as traditional medicine, is common here, and in many developing countries.

Originally from Ghana, ethno-botanist Nat Quansah has made a life-long study of medicinal plants, especially those on this island.

QUANSAH: And the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is an interesting plant. Why? Because the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the bark is used for lower back pains.

STRIEKER: Morondava is a town on Madagascar's west coast, where Quansah plans a new project combining healthcare and nature conservation.

QUANSAH: Most of the people here still use traditional medicine.

These are the people who sell the different plants, as we can see, also some things that they have. They have honey. Honey is used in a mixture of different compositions for making different medicines.

This is what the ladies use to protect their faces from sunburn, and it makes their faces also smooth.

STRIEKER: Quansah says a market like this shows how people still depend on plant products for much of their primary healthcare needs.

QUANSAH: This lady also is selling different plants, and the young lady comes to buy something for fever.

STRIEKER: Here there's a plant to treat almost any ailment: fever, diarrhea, coughs, fatigue, muscular pain, stomach ulcers, skin rashes and wounds.

This market is like a drug store. These women know what they're selling and their advice is respected.

But they're not professional healers, like Edmond Rapatsolati (ph).

On this morning, he had two patients in his office, Rensolasi (ph), with recurring menstrual problems, and Marie (ph), with asthma and a wound on her leg that has not healed.

After both of them had been treated unsuccessfully at the local government hospital, they followed advice from friends and came here. The healer has given Rensolasi (ph) a liquid to drink and a washing solution containing powdered leaves from two kinds of plants.

She says she first came here two weeks ago and she's already seen her condition improve.

Marie says she came here for the first time yesterday.

Rapatsolati (ph) says he learned traditional healing from his grandfather, but since the colonial period, authorities have tried to suppress traditional medicine, forcing many healers to practice secretly.

In spite of that, he says traditional healers are still found almost everywhere on this island, providing much more affordable and accessible healthcare than modern medicine with its expensive drugs and too few doctors.

That's the reason for Nat Quansah's campaign to bring traditional healers and medical doctors together in a system of clinics whose goal would be to give effective primary healthcare to everyone who needs it.

QUANSAH: The modern medical system has its good parts. The traditional medical system has its good parts. And I don't see why there should be a conflict. There is no conflict. Both sides, the good parts, should be taken and worked in a complimentary manner.

STRIEKER: Nine years ago, Quansah started a pilot project in a remote village, opening a healthcare center where a traditional healer and a medical doctor treated thousands of patients, a project that earned him the internationally recognized Goldman (ph) Environmental Prize.

Now he plans a similar project here in Morondava. He says a nationwide system combining traditional and modern medicine would bring not only improved healthcare but also public support for saving Madagascar's biodiversity. The Web of life that shelters the island's medicinal plants.

QUANSAH: Because they are using the plants directly, they see the direct benefit from the biodiversity around them. And it makes more sense, gives them a better reason, to want to save the plants that they are using.

STRIEKER: Madagascar's forests are quickly disappearing because of uncontrolled logging and destructive agricultural practices, and Quansah spends much of his time explaining to people why it's important to save the forests and countless species of useful plants.

QUANSAH: She's asking whether the plant (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is not effective. Yes, they are effective.

What actually touched him is (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He now knows that his country is one of the richest places on earth in terms of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), so he is very, very pleased about that.

STRIEKER: Quansah says this is the only way Madagascar's unique plant and animal species can be saved, by reconnecting people to nature.

(on camera): Conservation organizations seem to regard Nat Quansah as something of a maverick. The standard way to protect a threatened area has been to build a fence around it and keep people out. Quansah's approach is just the opposite. He believes that by strengthening the practical and beneficial connections between a local community and the biodiversity around it, people will have a stronger incentive to protect nature instead of destroying it.

(voice-over): In his view, traditional medicine and nature conservation cannot be separated and people should be allowed to harvest plants sustainably, even in protected areas where it's usually illegal, like national parks.

QUANSAH: If it works in Madagascar, I believe it will work anywhere in the world. Wherever there is biodiversity, wherever there is traditional healing, wherever there is medical offices, I believe there are certain Western trained medical offices and certain traditional healers who are prepared to work in a complimentary manner to help humanity.

STRIEKER: If Nat Quansah is right, the survival of Madagascar's forest could still be assured while the people at long last get the healthcare they've been missing.

Gary Strieker, CNN, in Morondava, Madagascar.


MAKGABO: And that's it for this edition of GLOBAL CHALLENGES from Cape Town, South Africa, until next time. I'm Tumi Makgabo.



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