4th Open Science Meeting live conference blog from April 2019

Former Reuters Correspondent and Editor Jeremy Gaunt blogged live from the 4th Open Science Meeting in Bern, Switzerland.



24 April 2019

25 April 2019

26 April 2019


26 April, 3:30 pm CET

When the land is needed, but the people are not

by Jeremy Gaunt

There is a “comforting” but wrong narrative that people displaced by large-scale agricultural projects will find employment from those projects or move somewhere like a city to find it there, according to anthropologist Tania Li of the University of Toronto.

It is based, she says, on the incorrect assumption that historic patterns of population movement will hold in the modern world.

In the past, people have moved from country to city as development has occurred, for example, during the Industrial Revolution.

But Li says there is no reason for this to happen in places like emerging Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, there are reasons to suggest it will not.

“Why would you expect the same transition to occur in every part of the world, especially in an era of globally circulating capital?” she said in an interview at the Global Land Programme. “Capital can land anywhere.”

It is for similar reasons that Li disagrees with World Bank suggestions that the solution to rural issues in developing countries lies with large-scale agriculture projects.

“Do the head count,” she said. “These areas of large-scale land acquisition are rarely empty. There are people already living there, gaining livelihoods there. You have to take this as a baseline and then look at the number of jobs created.”

In most places there will be a deficit – more jobs displaced than created.

Li pointed to her own research on palm oil plantations. There is one person working for every 10 hectares, she said.

What is needed, Li reckons, is for institutions to “plan for the heterogeneity” of different areas of population and not assume a traditional migratory pattern to accompany development.


26 April, 2:30 pm CET

Human health outcomes of land use decisions

by Jeremy Gaunt

Deforestation is causing increased health problems in rural communities in poorer countries by forcing a shift to lower quality wood for burning in homes.

Pam Jagger, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, says her research has found that while all wood burning at home (for cooking, heat, etc) is harmful to health, dry forest wood is less harmful than the green or wet wood people are forced to use as forests recede.

It is not a small issue. Globally, household air pollution is responsible for between 2.2 and 4.8 million deaths a year, she told a session at the Global Land Programme’s 4th Open Science Meeting.

This is different from general air pollution in cities and most of the deaths are in poorer, developing countries.

“Exposure to smoke or household air pollution is the biggest health problem in poor communities,” Jagger said, noting the global, annual death rate was higher than those for AIDS or malaria.

Jagger’s research in parts of Uganda showed that forest area declined 36.3 percent between 2003 and 2011. This is the very forest loss that is pressuring the people in the area to turn to lower quality, more unhealthy wood and other plants.

On an individual household basis, Jagger calculates that, between 2007 and 2012, use of “good” wood fell to 71.3 kilos per year per typical home in the region, while use of “bad” wood rose to nearly 108 kilos.

People in such households are, as a result far more likely to suffer from respiratory disease, she said.


26 April, 12:00 pm CET

Uncertainties in future global land use and land cover change

by Jeremy Gaunt

Creating models for how future land use will pan out is not only highly complicated, but also dependent on such a wide range of input factors that there is a wide variance in projection.

Indeed, Kate Calvin, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Joint Global Change Research Institute in Maryland, says that climate change projections on their own are enough to create greatly differing results.

It is a case of one individual factor combining with others to change the outcome.

In a keynote speech to the Global Land Programme’s (GLP) 4th Open Science Meeting in Bern, however, Calvin did show some general conclusions from her integrated human-Earth system modelling.

Higher global populations will mean more cropland and less land covered by forests. The same result is found with just higher incomes (and not necessarily more people).

The opposite result – less cropland and more forest cover – comes from either (or presumably both) raising crop yields or having the world shift to a more vegan or vegetarian diet that reduces the demand on land for cattle grazing.

A perhaps counterintuitive finding was that a shift away from fossil fuels could lead to less forest land. This would come from a transition to biofuels, meaning more cropland use and forest clearing.

“When I look at the world, I see a series of trade-offs,”  Calvin said. “When we do one thing, we see something else happening.”


25 April, 10:00 pm CET

Overcoming the challenges of remote sensing

by Jeremy Gaunt

Catching images of land use from above can be useful in improving crop yields and tracking deforestation, but it is not as simple as just a few snaps from the “Spy in the Sky”.

Experts in remote sensing at the Global Land Programme’s Open Science Meeting listed complex hurdles to their work ranging from cloud cover to systems that don’t work together to government privacy laws.

It is what session organiser Bronwyn Price called “the nitty gritty stuff in between”.

That said, great strides are being made in the field as the result of advances in high resolution imaging from space, sky and land.

Two projects – one in Portugal, the other in Southeast Asia – show both the uses and the challenges.

The University of Lisbon is looking for ways to help farmers on pastureland target the fertiliser they need rather than simply spread it widely. They are focusing on land that has been resurrected over the past decades through the introduction of natural seeding, turning it from scrubland to richer pasture.

The current goal of the programme is to tell farmers what areas need more phosphorus and what areas don’t. The data is gathered using a combination of satellites, drones and Earth-bound research.

The problem, researcher Ricardo Teixeira says, is that they currently have to use the NVDI (normalised difference vegetation index) to decide where the phosphorus needs to go, essentially judging by the greenness of the land.

What they really want (and are working to achieve) is a data set that allows the aerial “spies” to work it out with greater accuracy.

Teixeira is only half-joking when he says he wants cows to send text messages.

Across the world in the Greater Mekong Subregion, Chinese academics have been trying to overcome issues such as cloud cover and rapidly growing forests to track logging.

The Chinese Academy of Forestry and others have achieved around 86 percent accuracy using image compositions from a number of different satellites, weighting pixels to get closed to what is happening.

But the data collected from different satellites is not always compatible, which limits their investigation. The researchers want to find a way to combine everything.

The forests in the region also change so quickly – recovering somewhat from logging – that the group has taken to capturing images on a quarterly basis to track shifting conditions.


25 April, 3:30 pm CET

The Global Deal for Nature

by Jeremy Gaunt

Can humans set aside large swaths of the planet to save themselves and everything else they share the Earth with?

A major topic of discussion at the Global Land Programme’s (GLP) Open Science Meeting in Bern has been just that – the newly unveiled Global Deal for Nature, a plan drawn up by environmentalists and scientists led by Eric Dinerstein that was published in Science last week.

The idea is to set aside 30 percent of the world’s surface for complete conservation by 2030 and to sustainably manage another 20 percent.

Eric Dinerstein, now with the conservation group RESOLVE but formerly chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, told the GLP in a keynote speech that the Deal’s purpose is to fight off “the two great existential threats of our time”, namely climate change and species extinction.

Part of the deal would be specifically to protect and sustain elements of nature that act as sinks for carbon emissions.

The cost, he said, would be around $100 billion a year. (While this might seem high, bear in mind that Americans spend around $70 billion a year on their pets.)

Dinerstein reckons that the science exists to achieve the 50 percent goal. And while it will not be easy, is it not necessarily as far away as it might initially seem given areas of the world that are already under conservation.

In a panel discussion after the speech, contentious issues were raised about how the Deal addresses continued global consumption, the future diets of the developing world, “greed and corruption” and the distribution of wealth.

Dinerstein was also asked to defend the Deal against potential accusations that it is essentially a “land grab” of areas settled by indigenous or poor rural people. In effect, where will the people living in the protected areas go?

He said that the proposal is designed to protect the rights of people and to incorporate them as stewards of the planet, meaning they would not have to go.

But it is not a choice, he concluded.

“If we allow emissions to continue to rise…then some of the predicted outcomes will actually lead to ‘where will the people go?’” as well.


April 24, 7:30 pm CET

Clandestine and illicit economies as drivers of land system dynamics

by Jeremy Gaunt

Two studies of the illegal economy in Central America and West Africa have suggested a high correlation between the law-breaking and environmental damage wrought by changed land use.

In one study, cocaine production in Guatemala and Honduras was found to have caused more deforestation than “normal” human expansion; in the other, illegal gold mining in Ghana was shown to be responsible for a huge increase in land degradation and a rise in malaria.

Both studies were presented to the Global Land Programme’s (GLP) 4th Open Science Meeting in Bern.

The cocaine study found hot spots in Guatemala and Honduras where up to 30 percent of deforestation (depending on how it is calculated) could be due to the production of the drug, much of which is smuggled into the United States.

Researcher Beth Tellman of Arizona State University said land was being cleared for a number of reasons, notably to develop agribusiness such as palm oil production that allows the cocaine profits to be laundered.

Land is also cleared to demarcate territory between rival producers, she said, while interdiction from government such as the United States may be driving producers into uncut forest areas.  

Gathering data on such activity is difficult (and sometimes dangerous). But Tellman told a GLP session the deforestation could be tracked via satellite imagery and cross-referenced with known patterns, including areas where authorities have seized quantities of the drug.

Deforestation from cocaine production is rapid, she said, while that done as a result of local activities is slower.

Satellite imagery was also used by Heidi Hausermann of Colorado State University to show a huge impact in land denudation from illegal gold mining in southwestern Ghana, including the rerouting of a river.

She and her research colleagues estimate the area covered by mines -- which strip or dig up land and are generally left after being exhausted  -- rose by 2,300 percent between 2008 and 2013.

The economic culprit was the global financial crash, which sent gold prices – a traditional safe haven investment – soaring. But there has also been a major change in players.

Where the law allows some mining by Ghanaian smallholders, most of the mining is now conducted by Chinese workers for foreign operators. Licences are claimed after prospecting and using a “frontman”.

Illegal mining is rife along the Ofin River although it is supposed to be banned within 300 metres of the river bank. Instead, riverbank mining in one area rose nearly 7,900 percent between 2005 and 2013.

One impact has been a huge rise in reported cases of malaria, particularly among women and children in the region.


April 24, 3:15 pm CET

Big-money investment in agriculture cutting out locals

by Jeremy Gaunt

Big-money investment in agriculture – including, controversially, socially responsible investment (SRI)  -- is cutting out locals (particularly women) and fostering anti-political sentiment.

Research presented to the Global Land Programme’s 4th Open Science Meeting suggested that the search for financial yield is not only impeding sustainable development but also combatting local efforts to achieve it.

The University of Bern, for example, studied specific projects in Ghana, Malawi, Morocco and Tanzania, finding in general that locals were cut off from their land by the scramble of outsiders for returns on investment.

“Under the promise of development, a growing number of land users are deprived from access to commons (local land); at the same time local to global elites are increasingly interested in assuring high returns of capital investment,” researchers Jean-David Gerber and Tobias Haller, found.

One example was Morocco’s huge solar power development near the Sahara border town of Ouarzazate. It has left pastoral farmers in the lurch.

In a similar vein, a rice development scheme in northern Ghana was agreed between investors and local chiefs, without recourse for local farmers.

Women in particular get cut out of decision making over land.

Research by Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, meanwhile, found that soybean farming in Brazil had increased at a massive rate with little to no employment benefit to locals. (Unlike sugar, soy is not labour-intensive.)

Soy covered 33 million hectares in 2016; it is expected to reach 45 million by 2025.

Researcher Mairon Giovani Bastos Lima said new actors – “faceless companies” – were taking over land previous grabbed by speculators, but there was little to no recourse.

The amount of land was considered “too big to fail” or even “too big for justice”, he said.

Overall, the picture was of a global search for profit – and perhaps food security – leaving the poor and powerless even more insecure than they already were.

Food insecurity is not a case of people not being able to feed themselves because they are stupid, one researcher said, but because their land has been taken away.


April 24, 12 noon CET

Challenge of meeting UN SDGs lands squarely on land system science, say opening plenary keynote speakers

by Jeremy Gaunt

Land use will be central to almost every aspect of achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On this note, more than 650 land systems scientists from some 68 countries met in Bern on April 24 to discuss issues related to the use of land throughout the world at the Global Land Programme’s  (GLP) 4th Open Science Meeting.

Early speakers expressed optimism that science can identify and solve many problems. But there is far from universal support or financing from governments across the globe.

The keynote speakers argued that land use is at the heart of all challenges facing the world when it comes to the environment. It is, if you like, at the centre of the Venn diagram – impacting biodiversity, poverty, deforestation, food security and climate change.

“Land use is at the core, at the heart of many sustainability issues,” GLP Fellow Karlheinz Erb said in a keynote address.

But there is also something of a vicious circle, Erb said.  The climate change that unsustainable land use has helped engender is now turning around and adding to the challenges faced by those working to develop sustainably.

University of Nebraska agronomist Patricio Grassini spelled out the human challenge of feeding a growing population from a finite area.

“Are yield rates sufficient to meet food needs [in the future]? The answer is no,” he said. Land will have to be adapted to meet such needs, pressuring the environment. “We need to rely more and more on cropland area.”

How much pressure? Grassini said the latest projections suggest that world’s population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with most of the growth in poorer countries.

That would be a 30 percent increase since 2015.