The year 2016 was full of political upheaval across the world. However, many individuals, organisations and small businesses took small steps to make the world a better place. As the year comes to a close, we take a look back at five projects led by individuals in different countries who took action to protect the environment, develop their local economy and help their community. We featured all these projects — which are from Africa, Latin America and Asia — in our “Observers Take Action” section in 2016.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team launched Observers Take Action this year, in order to shine a light on small-scale, local initiatives that have a positive impact on the environment, the local economy and/or society.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: How you can join 'The Observers Take Action'
In the past few decades, numerous companies have set up shop on the Indonesian island of Borneo to exploit the riches of its tropical forest, which is a paradise of biodiversity. The result: an estimated 30% of the forest has disappeared since 1973.
Several activists wanted to find a way to monitor the activities of these exploitative industries. In 2013, they teamed up with researchers at the Swandiri Institute, a local environmental organisation with the aim of testing several different ways of holding these big businesses to account. One of their most successful programmes uses drones, built by members of the team, to photograph and film the forest. This constant stream of photos allows the researchers and activities to monitor how the forest is evolving in real time and to map these changes.
The information provided by this program has produced real results. Two years ago, activists used images gathered by the drones to prove that a mining company was operating outside the perimeter established by its contract. As a result, the company lost its permit.
This monitoring project has progressively increased in scale. About a hundred drones now fly over the forest on a daily basis and numerous local communities are lending a hand.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: How drones are helping save forests in Borneo
Many Cameroonian women die during pregnancy or childbirth because they don’t have proper medical care. A study carried out by the World Health Organisation found that, in 2011, Cameroon's maternal mortality rate stood at 782 deaths for every 100,000 births, a figure well above the global average.
In an effort to reduce these preventable tragedies, a young Cameroonian engineer teamed up with a doctor to create an app called “GiftedMom”. This app gives pregnant women and young mothers access to free pre- and post-natal care.
If a woman would like to sign up for the app, all she has to do is to send a simple text stating how far along she is in her pregnancy. Once she is signed up, she will receive messages that will help her know how to look after herself and her child. For example, as her pregnancy progresses, the app will send reminders about when she should schedule a check-up with her doctor as well as information about nursing and a list of the vaccines recommended for babies. Women can also text questions to a doctor, free of charge.
About 10,000 women already use this application. The creators of the app have also formed partnerships with health centres in rural areas in order to inform as many people as possible about this free resource.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Cameroonian engineer invents app to reduce maternal death rate
In Bangladesh, the temperature often rises above 30°C (86°F). These high temperatures are especially problematic in rural areas, where about 70% of the population lives in homes made of corrugated metal. When the sun beats down on these structures, they heat up like a furnace and the temperature inside becomes unbearable.
Employees at the Bangladeshi branch of Grey Group -- an ad agency whose headquarters are based in New York -- decided to look into how they could provide rural people with a little relief from the heat. They developed a simple air conditioner that they call the “Eco-cooler”.
The first step is to gather a bunch of empty plastic bottles and cut them in half. Then you drill rows of large holes in a flat piece of wood. Next, take your cut-up bottles and push the bottle necks through the holes in the plank. Then, put the wood plank in a window frame with the bottlenecks facing inside the house. The air pressure changes when air flows into the bottles and this process cools the room.
Even though this air conditioner functions without electricity, it can immediately bring down the temperature in a room by 5°C. Since February, more than 25,000 households in rural Bangladesh have been equipped with these air conditioners for free. Moreover, employees at Grey Group make sure to teach people living in these communities how to make the Eco-coolers themselves.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: How Bangladeshi inventors are making eco-friendly air conditioners from plastic bottles
Many families in Colombia don’t have proper housing.This problem is acute in rural areas, where many people were displaced by the armed conflict that has ravaged the country for more than half a century.
Colombia also has a rubbish problem: each year, hundreds of tons of plastic are thrown away, with no thought to recycling.
A local business called “Conceptos Plasticos” came up with a way to work towards addressing these two different issues. For the past two years, they’ve been recycling plastic to transform it into bricks, which are then used to build houses. The process is incredibly simple — people can be taught the method in a half-day of training. They can then build a house in just five days. That same house can be taken down in three days.
Since 2014, Conceptos Plasticos has constructed more than 1,400 m2 of houses, many of them for people who have been displaced by the armed conflicts.
>> ON THE OBSERVERS (in French): Une entreprise colombienne fabrique des logements en plastique recyclé
In 2013, people living in the Kinama neighbourhood in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, launched a small business called "Tugwanye umwavu mu gusukura aho tubaye" ("Let’s fight rubbish by making our home clean”).
Employees of the company sort the city’s rubbish, using it to produce compost and eco-friendly charcoal, which are then sold for low prices in the neighbourhood.
The seemingly simple work carried out by this small business is pioneering in Burundi. Environmental stewardship is not a priority there, especially because the country has been engulfed in a serious political crisis since April 2015. Another plus: this small business has also created 20 full-time jobs.
>> ON THE OBSERVERS (In French): Au Burundi, malgré la crise, le recyclage à tout prix pour faire vivre un quartier