August 12, 2003 - Dickinson College: Mission in Mozambique: Poverty alleviation, nature preservation are aims of Swaziland RPCV Peter Bechtel's new national park

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Mozambique: Peace Corps Mozambique : The Peace Corps in Mozambique: August 12, 2003 - Dickinson College: Mission in Mozambique: Poverty alleviation, nature preservation are aims of Swaziland RPCV Peter Bechtel's new national park

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Mission in Mozambique: Poverty alleviation, nature preservation are aims of Swaziland RPCV Peter Bechtel's new national park

Mission in Mozambique: Poverty alleviation, nature preservation are aims of Swaziland RPCV Peter Bechtel's new national park

Mission in Mozambique
Poverty alleviation, nature preservation are aims of Peter Bechtel ’81’s new national park

By Barbara Snyder

This story is about a man with a wild, quixotic idea. His adventure is set in a faraway land, but the Republic of Mozambique is more than an exotic backdrop—it’s essential to the plot. Often such a tale is the triumph of man against nature. Not this time. This one is the triumph of man for nature.

Once upon a time—20 years ago—Peter Bechtel ’81 went to Africa. He had first tried working on an American inner-city project. “But I needed more elbow room in the Daniel-Boone sense of the phrase,” he says, “and Africa seemed like the place to get it.”

He joined the Peace Corps and flew off to Swaziland. Southern Africa has been his home ever since, and he has undertaken some massive “home” improvements. Most people plant a shrub to improve their landscapes. Bechtel created a national park.

He didn’t plan to stay so long in Africa; a series of linked events kept him there. At first, the biology major thought he would return to the states after a few years, maybe go to veterinary school. But he found himself teaching agriculture, and he loved it so much that, when his stint with the Peace Corps ended, he nixed graduate school. Instead, he stayed and started a beekeeping program for poor, rural women.

During the process he met Ruth, who then worked in Swaziland’s Women’s Extension Department. They married and soon adopted “a pile of kids,” he says, adding parenthetically, “if you open the door in Africa they just come in.”

Bechtel was given a piece of land when he was initiated into the Swazi Kings traditional-warrior regiments. So he built rondavels (round huts with thatched roofs), planted 300 litchi trees and installed an irrigation system. Then he and Ruth found a beautiful farm to buy with a river, high cliffs and good soil.

Time passed; each event led to the next, and one day he woke up thinking, “Gee, I guess I live in Africa.”

He has stayed despite years of southern-African civil war and economic decay, working for organizations that provide services to poor, rural communities. But he became disenchanted with most institutional efforts at poverty alleviation, calling them “minefields of potential errors.”

The Bechtels in traditional dress at the New Year’s Incwala ceremony.

For example, Bechtel’s work for nearly 20 years included providing technological improvements, like fishing nets. This “support” resulted in such efficiency that most fisheries had reached the final stages of exhaustion in Mozambique, the country just north of Swaziland. In addition, Bechtel says, he got tired of treating people “as if they had nothing to offer,” and he realized that there were better ways to help than “simply giving them things.”

Bechtel concluded that what the poor really needed was investment. “I don’t mean just roads and bridges, although these help. I mean everything, including education and planting trees. Anyone can invest. Even the poorest people have something to offer, even if it is only their time, energy and ideas.”

He shifted his focus away from handing out buckets of donor support. He wanted to alleviate poverty and still save the natural resources. Bechtel wanted to create partnerships with the people and the environment. But how, in this land where troubles ran impossibly deep?

He came up with a wild, starry-eyed idea.

Following in the footsteps of American naturalist John Muir, one of his heroes, Bechtel set out to establish a national park in Mozambique. (There, the coast on the Indian Ocean is longer than California’s, but strikingly unscathed.) The park would be established for the good of all—for local residents, visitors, elephants, lions, whales, fish—everyone and everything, he decided, would win.

Bechtel found support from fishermen, government employees, tourism investors and even politicians. What he could not find was donor support. Plenty of people told him the park would never happen; it was too big an undertaking.
“ So, willy-nilly, I left the sphere of gainful employment,” Bechtel says, “and set out without any resources (except a lot of friends) to see what could be done.”

The hardships were intense.

“We went broke,” he says. He managed to keep from literally betting the farm through a loan from his parents, Professor Emeritus of Religion Daniel Bechtel and Librarian Emerita Joan Bechtel, who proudly supported their son’s mission from their home in Carlisle and visited him in Africa when they could.

But the worst hardship may have been distance. “I was up north in the bush, trying to put a park together with no transport and no idea of how it ought to be done,” he says, “and Ruth was down in Swaziland, trying to run the farm and keep the kids in school.” To make matters worse, Ruth’s eyesight was failing.

“We used to say that if everything flopped, we could go back to the farm and eat what we grew,” Bechtel says.

But this story has a happy ending. After 18 months, Bechtel’s gamble paid off. He convinced the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to come on board with financing. And in June, the Mozambican government officially created Quirimbas National Park. At nearly 3,000 square miles, it is the largest marine-protected area in all of Africa. There are mountains, islands, lakes, estuaries, open seas, mangroves, coral, sea grasses, sharks, elephants, eagles, flamingoes, an historic slave-trading town (now in ruins) and, yes, people live in the park, too.

In September, the park officially opened, along with the Quilálea Marine Sanctuary, an eco-tourism venture inside the park, which Bechtel created with two partners. And already, the park’s positive effects are being felt in the local economy and through the availability of resources, like fish.

Bechtel’s official title with the WWF is Quirimbas National Park’s project executant, so he has yet another good reason to stay put.

“Africa has given me everything I love,” he says. “Ruth and I are a little spread out between Swaziland and Mozambique, but we love both.” The malnutrition, cholera and poverty are difficult to witness. “But we get to make a difference,” he says.

Mozambique is beautiful and wild. Bechtel says it has opportunities that don’t exist anywhere else.

“You pay for what you get in life, though. I was just down for five weeks with malaria. And good whiskey costs like sin.”•

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Story Source: Dickinson University

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS- Mozambique; COS - Swaziland; National Parks; Wildlife



By xaba sandile ( - on Friday, November 24, 2006 - 7:51 am: Edit Post

please help liberate this beautiful country. the people will never develop for as long as the country's limited resources are controlled and concerntrated around a few. 69% lives below the poverty line, yet there a few individuals living like multi millionaires. no disrespect to anyone but we all want change and development and nobody shall speak on behalf of the poor they don't represnt the because they have never been poor.

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