Tag Archives: development

Restoring degraded tropical landscapes with trees

By: Aida Bargues Tobella, Postdoctor at the Department of Forest Ecology and Management; Tropical Forestry and Land Use Management Unit 

Land degradation is a major problem in the tropics. Such degradation entails a decline in the capacity of the land to produce and provide ecosystem goods and services, with negative impacts for human livelihoods, food security and the environment at large. 

Land degradation is a widespread phenomenon across the tropics. The Nyando River Basin (Western Kenya) is a regional erosion hotspot and one of the main sources of sediment and phosphorous into Lake Victoria. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

The establishment of trees on degraded lands is considered a fundamental tool in landscape restoration. Establishing trees is about more than just planting trees, and can include assisted natural regeneration (ANR) of forests, farmer-managed natural regeneration or direct seeding among other techniques. Similarly, the concept of landscape restoration is not limited to re-establishing lost forests and should be seen on a broader perspective, taking into consideration, for instance, the incorporation of trees into farming systems (agroforestry).

Faidherbia albida is a popular agroforestry tree which generates numerous provisioning and regulating ecosystem services. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

The potential benefits from tree-based restoration include enhanced water quality, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil fertility, and food and nutrition security. But, how much do we know about tree-based restoration? What are the trade-offs and synergies among ecosystem services from trees? What management practices and tree traits contribute most to promote specific ecosystem services? As we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, answering such questions is pressing. 

Sesbania sesban improved fallows have a great potential to restore soil fertility and increase crop yields. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

In the research group on Tropical Forestry and Land Use Management at the Department of Forest Ecology and Management in SLU, we work towards advancing our understanding of tree-based restoration of degraded landscapes in the tropics. Currently, we have projects in six countries across the global tropics: Malaysia, Thailand, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Mozambique.

We currently have on-going research projects in six different countries across the global tropics

Rainforest degradation and restoration

The group has been doing research on rainforest degradation and restoration in Borneo for over 35 years. The INIKEA Sow-a-Seed rainforest restoration project in the Malaysian state of Sabah is a collaboration between the Sabah Foundation, SLU and the Swedish furniture company IKEA andit is unique in that it is one of the largest and most successful tropical rainforest restoration projects in the world. Since the startof the project in 1998, we have planted more than three millionseedlings, consisting of ca. 80 different indigenous tree species, and roughly14,000 ha of forest have been restored with assisted natural regeneration and enrichment plantings. 

In connection with the project, we have established a number of scientific experiments: 

  • In the SUAS experiment, established already in 1992, we aim to develop silvicultural methods that make management of natural forests environmentally and economically sustainable.
  •  In our three different species/genetic common gardens we seek to advance the present lack of knowledge on the economic and environmental values of indigenous species. Here we also study the importance of genetic variation in traits within and among species.
  •  In the Rainforest Restoration Experiment,we have established 84 plots in various forest types to evaluate where each of our four different approaches of restoration is most appropriate; 1) Passive protection; 2) ANR; 3) ANR with line planting and 4) ANR with gap-cluster planting.
  • In our permanent sampling plots inside the restoration area and surrounding landscape of large-scale oil palm and industrial tree plantations as well as undisturbed protected forests, we are evaluating ecosystem values, such as economic value, carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity among these land-use systems. 

These long-term forest management experiments in northern Borneo provide many opportunities for research. In the project Balancing production and ecosystem services from degraded tropical rainforests to aid the transition to a more sustainable bio-based economy, we are using data from these experiments to quantifybiomass production and a range of ecosystem services across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, including aspects of economics, social science, silviculture, plant ecophysiology, ecology, human health,and biogeochemistry, we aim to identify sustainable management practices that can maximize the production of raw materials while at the same time minimizing adverseenvironmental impacts. Using this holistic approach, the overall objective is to obtain and communicate novel information to scientists, private, and government stakeholders about trade-offs between biomass production and ecosystem services to aid the transition to a sustainable bio-based economy.

Rainforest vulnerability to climatic water stress

The frequency and intensity of drought events are predicted to increase in tropical monsoon forests of Southeast Asia, ecosystems that are known to be biodiversity hotspots and a persistent carbon sink in the global carbon cycle. Such increases could drive rapid and large-scale shifts in forest structure and species composition as well as cause dramatic decreases in the amount of carbon stored by these tropical forests. We have recently started a research project thatbrings together scientists from Thailand, France,and Sweden, to assess the vulnerability of mature and secondary forests to climatic water stress. Such information is crucial to more accurately predicted how future climate change wouldaffect the cycling of carbon and water in tropical forested ecosystems. 

Trees and water in African tropical drylands

Another leading research topic of the group is how we can use trees to improve soil and water resources in African tropical drylands. Our previous research in the seasonally dry tropics indicates that an intermediate tree cover can maximize groundwater recharge, which is contrary to the predominant scientific view that more trees always lead to less water. But, under what specific conditions can more trees improve groundwater recharge? Together with scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Wageningen University, we are evaluating the extent of the optimum tree cover theoryacross African tropical drylands. To do this, we are primarily using data from the network of Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) sites, which is hosted at ICRAF. To date, the LDSF has been employed in over 200 sites across the global tropics and therefore constitutes a unique dataset to test this theory. The overall aim of the project is to provide evidence to inform better land-use policies in African tropical drylands and identify management options that can increase groundwater resources. 

LDSF field campaing in Embu county, Kenya. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella
LDSF field campaing in Makueni county, Kenya. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

Courses

Are you interested in these questios and want to learn more about tropical forestry and land-use management? At the moment we offer two courses within this field:

This year’s MSc course on Sustainable Forestry and Land-se Management in the tropics included a one- week field trip to Mozambique. Photo: Rosa Goodman
Participants of the course “Forest Management Forest Management, Land Use Change and Ecosystem Services in Degraded Tropical Landscapes” had the opportunity to visit the INIKEA Sow-a-Seed restoration project in northern Borneo. Photo: Niles Hasselquist

Who we are

Ulrik Ilstedt, associate professor; ulrik.ilstedt@slu.se
Gert Nyberg, associate professor; gert.nyberg@slu.se
Niles Hasselquist, associate professor; niles.hasselquist@slu.se
Rosa Goodman,associate senior lecturer; rosa.goodman@slu.se
Aida Bargues Tobella, postdoc;  aida.bargues.tobella@slu.se
Daniel Lussetti, postdoc; daniel.lusetti@slu.se

How can Artificial Intelligence improve African agriculture?

By: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, Professor of Bioinformatics at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, SLU

As climates change and populations increase, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a key player in Africa in the creation of technological innovations that will improve and protect crop yield and livestock. 

Participants at “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” in Nairobi, Kenya, April 2019. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The work creating technologies that allows computers and machines to function in an intelligent manner is known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. The advantages of using AI based devices or systems are their low error rate and huge analysis capacity. If properly coded the AI systems have incredible precision, accuracy, and speed. They can also work independently in many, for humans, hard conditions and environments. One of the most interesting areas where AI is breaking into is agriculture. 

One area using AI and attracting a lot of attention is the area more known as “Precision Farming”. Precision Farming generates accurate and controlled technologies for water and nutrient management. It also gives optimal harvesting, planting times and produce solutions in many other aspects of modern agriculture.

In April 2019 a workshop was held at Strathmore University, Nairobi in with the aim to set up a “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa”. There where 60 international participants by invitation. The meeting was supported by Swedish SIDA and organised by the International Development Research Centre and Knowledge 4 Foundation (K4A).

Plenary discussions. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The main goal of the workshop was to discuss the AI field with a bottom-up approach. The objectives of the workshop were to define the African Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML/AI) landscape, to create an African research roadmap and to find ways to incorporate cross continental development. Around these objectives, four thematic areas of discussion were developed: governance, skills/capacity building, applications and others. 

Discussions during a break. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

On the last day of the workshop we visited the IBM Research – Africa in Nairobi. The staff at IBM-Africa presented several AI projects and one example related to the future of AI in agriculture was presented by Juliet Mutahi, a software Engineer working at the IBM Nairobi THINKLab. She presented “Hello Tractor” a system comparable to Uber for taxi but in this case a system that allows farmers to share tractor resources by using an app on their smartphones. This is the kind of initiatives that are created in Africa as a bottom-up approach. Juliet told the audience that she got the idea to create this system inspired by the work and needs of her parents that are coffee farmers in Kenya.

Juliet Mutahi software Engineer, IBM Nairobi THINKLab. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

While identifying the different AI actors in the African continent, another initiative stood out among many: the “Deep Learning Indaba” initiative. This is an annual meeting of the African machine learning community. In 2018 the meeting took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa and gathered 600 participants from many African countries. The next annual meeting will take place in Nairobi, Kenya in August 2019 and the aim for this year is to gather over 700 participants. This shows the strength and vitality for this area of research in the Africa continent.

Many issues connected to agriculture will in the future be better handled using machine learning and artificial intelligence because AI can automate tasks that require human-level intelligence or beyond. This makes solutions that integrate AI better than today’s technologies. Most researchers involved in development research will in the near future learn how to use and how to incorporate AI in their work. Our young colleagues in the “Deep Learning Indaba” community are showing the way. The work in creating the “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” is just one of the building blocks in this process and SLU will be part of it.

Final panel discussion. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Watch an interview with Erik Bongcam-Rudloff talking about African bioinformatics and AI filmed at the Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in Nairobi, Kenya.

What are the effects of something that never happened?

By: Dr. Linda Engström, Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU

It is early morning when we leave a cool, overcast Bagamoyo town and the beaches of the Indian Ocean behind us. We are driving north-west towards Razaba Ranch, the area in eastern Tanzania where the Swedish company Eco Energy is planning to plant thousands of hectares of sugar cane and construct a sugar factory. Over the years, I have visited the area many times. This time, as well, I want to talk to the people living on the land targeted by the project, to understand their perceptions of it and the dynamics on the ground. The rainy season has just started and we expect a muddy, slippery trip. As we approach Razaba Ranch, we round a bend in the road and see that the Ruvu river has burst its banks, covering the bridge in slowly simmering, brown water. Two young men have seen the potential to make some money and are doing the important job of guiding cars through the water in order to avoid invisible rocks and to direct drivers to the shallow waters. Our car cannot pass through with us inside it. We pull off our shoes and start wading through the brown water until we reach across to the muddy road. Over the years, these floods have caused delays in project timelines, since they reduce access to the project site, and they have been repeatedly omitted in new timelines. We stop at one sub-village on the left side of the road, the side that is promised to the investor. We greet the village chair, people appear from nearby houses and some people travelling along the road stop, all gathering under a huge tree to talk to us about the planned investment, sitting on logs and, as the group expands, on yellow plastic containers. I know several of them by now, others are new acquaintances. Outside the nearest house are rows of white plastic rice bags packed with charcoal. In the meeting, we are told, among other things, that due to restrictions on agricultural practices while awaiting resettlement, more people have become dependent on charcoal production for their livelihoods. People are hoping that, after the ongoing rainy season, something will progress as concerns the resettlement as the roads are opened up again.

The Swedish sugar-cane project in Bagamoyo was initiated in 2006 through a Memorandum of Understanding between the company, then called SEKAB, and the Government of Tanzania. Since then, the original idea to produce ethanol for the European market has, for various reasons, changed into mainly producing sugar for the Tanzanian market. The plan has been to launch a 450 million USD project with a 300 million USD loan from the African Development Bank and a credit guarantee from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. The project, based on a 99-year lease of the land, was marketed by the Swedish company executives with great promises. For instance, the project was to produce 130,000 tons sugar and 10 million litres ethanol annually, produce reliable electricity supply to 100,000 rural households. It would employ 2000 people and 10,000–12,000 jobs as spin-off effects, provide  13–18 million USD in annual revenue for outgrower farmers and provide the state with 30 million USD in yearly tax revenues. In all, it would reduce poverty and bring rural development.

However, when we visit the area this time, ten years have passed since project initiation, and there is still not a single sugar cane in sight. Timelines have been repeatedly postponed; conflicts over land have arisen, negotiations over compensations, floods and issues of resettlement have interfered with the process, bureaucratic procedures and unexpected external events have grinded down the expected simple, linear project implementation process – it encountered reality. All the while, major proponents of the project, such as Sida, the African Development Bank and the Tanzanian President at the time, Kikwete (2005-2015), maintained their support of the project. Sida even supported the project with 54 million SEK from the Swedish development budget. One could assume that the transaction costs for the Tanzanian government must have been severe. And all the while, the approximately 1400 people living on the land and using it for their livelihoods have been regularly informed to be ready for an upcoming resettlement. They have been encouraged not to invest in their land, nor any other assets; they should not plant perennial crops such as trees, since they will not be compensated for such investment upon resettlement. Some people were lucky to get training in construction or driving, as part of the international best practice that was pursued for the resettlement process. Some farmer men decided to send away their wives and children to relatives, where the future seemed more predictable, or quit farming and took jobs with the company for minimum salaries. Many farmers we talk to have stopped investing in their land and houses, and postponed development plans. As indicated above, charcoal production became an interesting alternative way of earning an income, with subsequent environmental consequences. Most of all, the uncertainty, the lack of complete information about what was happening, when and why, are factors that caused great mental stress and frustration. I often received questions about what was actually happening. For instance they repeatedly asked me if I knew whether the inflation rate was going to be considered for their compensation payments, since many years had passed since the evaluation of their assets had been performed. As a matter of fact, they did not even have the information about how much their assets were valued at in the initial evaluation.

Thus, while many of the project proponents referred to the project as “nothing has happened”, there was a myriad of events, processes, negotiations and impacts going on, both on the project site and outside it. Most notable is the profound livelihood effects the non-implemented project had on the people living in Razaba Ranch. Moreover, when the newly elected President Magufuli in 2016 decided to withdraw the land-rights of the company, Eco Energy decided to sue the Tanzanian government at an international center for dispute settlement in Washington to get the allegedly invested 52 million USD back. In all, these processes have impacted on relations of all kinds, between and within different involved groups of actors.

While unintended outcomes of failed development projects have been rather frequently discussed in development studies (see, for instance David Mosse’s “Ethography of Aid” from 2005 or Tania Li’s “Will to Improve” from 2007), to my experience, it is rarely being reflected in development policy debates. Rather, delayed or non-implemented projects risk ending up “under the radar”, where impacts are irrelevant to monitor or mitigate. Moreover, it seems sparsely reflected in sustainability criteria, such as the IFC (International Finance Cooperation) standards applied in this case. Therefore, risks of failure and its effects should be paid more attention in policy debates, especially since projects that never happened apparently can have profound, and even negative, impacts on all involved actors, not least the people assumed to benefit from them.

Engström, L.(2018). Development Delayed – Exploring the failure of a large-scale agricultural investment in Tanzania to deliver promised outcomes. (Doctoral Degree), Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.