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ERITREA: The man who conquered famine- Gordon Sato

Australasia, 23 Aug, 2004 - THE SIGHT of starving, war- traumatised Eritrean families unlocked painful memories in Gordon Sato. He remembered when he and his family were outcasts too, slung behind barbed wire in their own country along with thousands of fellow Americans of Japanese descent.

Today that bitter seed has flowered into one of the world's most remarkable humanitarian projects - farming the sea, greening a desert, turning weapons into food, building industries, work and new hope around them. Sato, 77, a retired molecular biologist, has declared a personal crusade against suffering, drought and desertification. Equipped with only his life savings and a deep knowledge of plants, he has set out to beat them.

In the process he has pioneered a radical new way of producing food - using seawater for irrigation, and emulating the natural processes of desert coastlines to grow plants - a technique with vast potential and relevance to places such as Western Australia.

An eminent researcher with more than 150 scientific papers to his name, Gordon Sato has spent the past decade, and $A550,000 of his own money, establishing a complex program in Eritrea around the cultivation of mangroves.

For his efforts to help the Eritreans make positive use of their hostile environment, he received global recognition when he was chosen as a laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

During World War II, the United States Government held Sato - a teenager at the time - in Manzanar, an internment camp in the Californian desert. Forty years later, towards the end of Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence, Sato saw similarities in the way Ethiopia dealt with its Eritrean minority and the treatment meted out on racial lines to his own people in the war. Eager to help the Eritreans, and prompted by news reports of a new famine, Sato went to Eritrea in 1985 and set up a small fish-farm in the north of the country. This scheme, which he named Manzanar in memory of his family's war-time internment, provided wounded troops with a much- needed source of protein. When he first arrived in Eritrea, Sato's initial reaction was outrage at the injustice of the situation: ''The Eritreans were being starved and massacred. Upon meeting the Eritrean leadership for the first time, I was impressed by their intelligence and highly principled commitment to freedom for Eritreans.'' From then on, Sato returned frequently to the small country on the Horn of Africa. On his retirement in 1992, he decided to devote half of every year, and his own life savings, to providing the Eritreans with a reliable food supply. Since then the Manzanar project has grown to where it is providing fodder to raise enough animals to feed 2000 people.

Eritreans are proud people, highly selective in the development projects they allow into their country and Sato admits it takes nearly as much time to cultivate the authorities as it does his mangroves. The Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries initially allowed him to use small plots of unwanted land for mangroves. Now, thanks to his unrelenting diplomacy and determination, he has at his disposal large expanses of barren inter-tidal land along the Red Sea coast for the cultivation of mangroves and salt- tolerant grasses.

Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is one of the world's poorest countries, with an annual per-capita income of only $A280. The lands which lie along its 1000km coastline are especially poor. The harbour town of Massawa, where Sato runs the Manzanar project, is also one of the driest places on Earth, with an annual rainfall of less than 20mm.

Mangroves, which tolerate salt water, grow along 15 per cent of Eritrea's coastline, forming a narrow fringe no more than 100m wide. They grow particularly well in mersas, creek mouths along the arid coastline where seasonal rains collect for just a few days of the year and flow into the sea, carrying large amounts of sediment. Investigating these areas, Sato and his team of young Eritrean biologists and agriculture graduates made a vital discovery. They realised that the floodwaters carried nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, a shot of nutrition essential to plant survival. These elements are present in seawater, but at levels too low to grow plants in areas not fed by the land.

After many experiments they devised a low-tech way of slowly releasing nitrogen and phosphorus directly into seawater - by burying small plastic bags of fertiliser below the surface of the sand, next to young trees in tidal areas. The nutrients trickle through tiny holes in one side of the bag. Then, in a scientific version of ''swords into ploughshares'' iron, the third vital element, is provided by wire netting and pieces of metal, often salvaged from the abandoned tanks, trucks and other military wreckage which litters the landscape near Massawa. Providing this combination of nutrients mimics the natural processes of the mersas, enabling mangroves to flourish on otherwise-barren inter- tidal areas. The team is using the native African mangrove Avicennia marina, which provides excellent fodder for livestock.

It is also planting out a second native mangrove species, Rhizophora mucronata, which had become almost extinct in the region because of its value as building timber. This species is also used for firewood - vital in a country where three-quarters of household energy comes from burning wood.

After creating a successful farming system in the tidal zone, Sato and his team set about fertilising and cultivating sterile areas above the high- water mark. They are now planting mangroves in places they never grew before, irrigating them with seawater pumped inland through a network of pipes. Animal-feed trials showed that while goats can survive on a diet of Avicennia marina leaves alone, a varied diet is better for their health. So they planted two salt-tolerant grasses, Distichlis spicata and Spartina. Both can be irrigated with seawater and make excellent fodder. They also plan to cultivate the desert saltbush Atriplex - widespread in Western Australia - which is high in protein and can be used as fodder.

Robert Twilley, a professor of biology at the University of Louisiana, says mangrove leaves provide a good food source for livestock in a desert environment. He adds that mangroves can be cultivated in Eritrea, ''as long as Sato can keep the saltwater input constant and allow large amounts of evaporation to overcome the salt balance''. Sato says he is ''absolutely confident'' that this can be done. ''Most of the planting is in the inter-tidal zone, which is awash with seawater,'' he says. And in the areas of cultivation further inland, the seawater irrigation system is working well.

In 2001, workers on the Manzanar project grew about 60,000 mangrove seedlings at various nurseries near Massawa, later successfully replanting them near the coast. Since then, Sato has shown that mangroves can be directly seeded into the sand of coastal plantations.

The following year, the local Eritrean community planted another 250,000 mangroves, mostly at the village of Hargigo, 10km south of Massawa. Sato and the Eritrean biologists provided technical advice and training. The workers, mainly women, were paid for their labour.

In 2003 the same workers became farmers, continuing to grow mangroves and harvesting them to feed livestock. Without commitment by local people, the scheme will fail, so they are fully engaged in the whole agricultural cycle. Today the total plantings at Manzanar exceed 600,000 trees - and Sato is well on his way to his ultimate goal of 3-5 million trees in 2007. He is using the $US100,000 he received for the Rolex Award to expand the project and relieve the Eritrean Government of any need to support it.

The project has not been without controversy - scientists who had never been to the site accused Sato of ''polluting'' the sterile waters of the Red Sea with his fertilisers. But in reply Sato was able to prove scientifically that the tiny amounts of nutrients he was releasing were almost immediately taken up and used by the growing mangroves. As a bonus, a great many crabs, shrimps and baby fish are now appearing in the mangrove plantation, helping to restore the local fishery.

Today Gordon Sato is confident that the idea will catch on around the Eritrean coast once local people understand the technology behind the Manzanar project and its potential impact. ''These people are fishermen and shepherds,'' he says, ''and they know the value of trees.'' His plans include a 5ha feedlot for animals on a mangrove plantation near to Massawa, so people can see the simple effectiveness of this technology for themselves. He also believes the Manzanar project has had a profound effect on the thinking of his young African colleagues. ''The simple methods they have developed can be applied to desert coastlines areas worldwide - so countries like Somalia need never suffer famine again,'' he says.

''Manzanar serves two main purposes: it contributes to economic development and it also enhances the environment. '' The originality of the Manzanar project stems from Gordon Sato's simple but effective scientific methods, born of a lifetime of confronting and systematically overcoming all manner of difficulties. ''I just keep going,'' he admits. ''I am unusually persistent.'' Julian Cribb is a freelance science writer-  CT