Monday, November 18, 2013

Transboundary Resource Partnerships, or the International Society of Cat Herding


Protests against the Xayaburi Dam, Laos. nationmultimedia.com
In early November, I singlehandedly severed trade ties between two nation-states.  The scenario was enacted to allow candidates of Virginia Tech’s XMNR program to practice negotiating skills, and the topic at hand was the construction of Laotian dams along the Mekong against the wishes of its neighboring states.  I went into the weekend not fathoming how anyone could make a case for construction of a dam, and had even begun drafting my arguments against its construction.  However, I was assigned the role of a representative of Laos meeting with regional neighbors, banks, NGOs and other organizations who were concerned about Laotian actions to build two dams along the Mekong River.  The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is composed of four nations- Lao PDR, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand and works to promote regional cooperation and economic development.  China and Myanmar are not members but play a role as stakeholders.  To understand the backstory, you should know that many dams are likely to be built along the Mekong.  The MRC conducted a study and requested a moratorium on planning or construction of any dam by any nation for a period of ten years.  Laos has begun construction of one dam and is in the design stage of a second.


For a single day it became my job to defend construction of the second dam.  Through my role as a member of the Laotian government, I started to understand how easy it is to prioritize the desire of health and wealth of one’s people (or oneself) over the environment.  There is a tendency to focus on needs first, and to focus on wants later.  This concept can be supported by Kuznet’s curve in which economic development increases at the detriment of the environment, but as the economy stabilizes, environmental conditions are allowed to improve.  There is also a tendency in human nature to assume that the worst possible outcome of a situation will not really happen to us, even if the odds indicate that the worst thing is likely.  

In the case of the Don Sahong Dam, it was easy to argue that the environmental doomsday being presented by other parties was unrealistically bleak.  As a poor nation with lower quality of life than most of its neighbors, it was easy to see how Laos could feel no interest in halting plans to help itself out of poverty through the sale of hydropower electricity.  It was easy to discount concern for the environment as an obscure concept that can pressure people into caring more about the well-being of a fish (like the Irrawaddy Dolphin or Mekong Catfish) than themselves. 

I found that it was easy to stick to a position in a way that my own character would not.  Ultimately, my group of role-playing classmates reached no deal.  I believe we all maintained the positions of our representative organizations, and we resisted the urge to cave on behalf of players in a real world scenario.


There is no simple answer to meet every party's desires.  But I tend to believe that to garner voluntary compliance, you must offer a bigger carrot.  The negotiator for a neighboring nation-state offered to assist Laos in development of a renewable energy system that would match the output of the planned dam.  Had I been the true Minister of Energy for Lao PDR, that offer may have compelled me to agree to halting work on the dam.  Economic strength and independence are the fruits of the dam that Laos is seeking, after all.  It's a waste of air to ask a party to acquiesce in a win-lose situation even when stakes aren't so high as poverty alleviation and increased quality of life.  The only chance is to provide a win-win situation for all stakeholders, where everyone walks away from the table with something they want.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why Isn't the Amazon Rainforest Worth More?

An earlier post analyzed how the planet as a whole values the Amazon Basin of Brazil in a way that the host nation may not.  This blog takes a look at how Brazil can look to the United States for both cautionary tales and positive examples concerning long term land planning, management and preservation.

To see the result of valuing the economics of agriculture over the preservation of natural resources, Brazil can look to the corn belt of the American Midwest. Small fragments are all that remain of old forests; floating in a sea of corn and soy fields sit postage stamp parcels of woodlands so small that one can almost shout from the center and be heard all around the edge.  One example is Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island, Illinois.  The woodlands overlooking the Rock River became a recreation area and amusement park in the late 1800s, and later a CCC camp served as the base for construction of a lodge and hiking trails that operate to this day.  The park is rich in original biodiversity which generations of visionaries labored to preserve, but the site is fragmented from other natural areas by neighborhoods, businesses, a bisecting roadway and a massive gravel quarry that operates across the river.  The natural pocket is an island, fully separated by development even from other nearby parcels that lie near the confluence of the Rock and the Mississippi Rivers a few miles to the east.

Some land types survived alteration and domestication due to the difficulty of the task to efficiently work the soil, such as the steep slopes overlooking riverbeds.  The wide open spaces weren't spared. Technologies such as field tiling allowed acres of wetlands to be drained, and the self-scouring plow allowed farmers to cultivate acreage at an unprecedented rate.  Some places were actively protected through the efforts of vocal, sometimes famous champions who loved the land.  Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir come to mind.  But the conversion to national (or state or county) parks and preserves was not an easy transition.  Displacement of homesteads occurred, and visiting crowds could inadvertently destroy an ecosystem as efficiently as a plow or axe. The obvious benefit of natural preserves to humans is recreation, as well as protection of flora and fauna.  But ecosystem services are invisible benefits that we take for granted, such as air and water quality and habitat for pollinators.

Brazil’s current model of requiring landowners to preserve 80% of their forested lands while farming 20% has met mixed results.  The government has the daunting task of balancing the carrot with the stick to encourage landowner compliance, with little logistical ability to measure and enforce land use requirements.  Instead of piecemeal management of individual land owners great and small, Brazil would be wise to work toward establishment of protected zones that can be more easily enforced (through simple surveillance of geometry) and focus development along corridors of infrastructure. A tangible line can be drawn around such areas that have been determined to be culturally and environmentally significant.  Infractions into the protected land will be visible from the ground, in the air or with satellite imagery.  Coupled with strategically placed infrastructure, agriculture will cease to spread unchecked into the rainforest and will concentrate around desperately needed new roadways and rail lines intended to streamline the currently inefficient and costly shipping process.  Additional improvements such as schools and clinics can be located along travel corridors as well, raising overall quality of life for the Brazilian people. 
The Brazilian government has the opportunity to define what is to be protected and enforce it fiercely from the front rather than try to pull the reigns on agricultural expansion that shows no signs of slowing. 


A closing example of environmental planning is the creation of Central Park in New York City.  When Olmsted and Vaux developed plans for the park, the acreage was a remote swampland with settlement camps throughout.  The expanding city enveloped the land, and its value increased exponentially as access to other green areas shrank.  Central Park is now bordered by the most expensive real estate in the world.  The park is certainly fragmented, but the vast acreage of the park allows a fully functioning ecosystem to reside within its borders.  While agricultural land may not appear to draw the same value from adjacent forest as a vibrant city might, there is an important lesson to be had about recognizing what enriches our lives before it is gone.  The value of the rainforest that remains will be compounded as agricultural land swells to max capacity- capacity that can be defined and planned now.  The land needs a few visionaries to orchestrate the expansive task of strategic preservation, so benefits can be reaped for generations to come.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Globe Values the Amazon Basin, but does Brazil?

The Amazon rainforest is comparable in size to the mainland United States.  Rainforest composes almost 60% of Brazil’s landmass, mostly in the Amazon Basin.  Brazil’s forests are home to roughly one third of the planet’s species; many are used in medications and others offer potential for future medical breakthroughs.  All species have a role in an intricate food web and encyclopedia of biodiversity.  Additionally, the Amazon rainforest acts as the lungs of the world, processing carbon through photosynthesis and releasing oxygen in return.  Trees and soil are two of the three largest active carbon sinks on planet, along with oceans.

The last decade has been witness to an explosion of agricultural practice in Africa and South America- especially Brazil. The demand is global; many land buyers represent multi-national interests as governments act aggressively to secure enough food in the coming decades for an expanding human population with a growing taste for a meat-centric diet.  Brazil is water rich and land rich; an ideal place to secure a growing supply of soy, corn, sugarcane and cattle.  But the biodiversity and carbon cycling that the world values are dominoes that are falling rapidly to the recent growing demand for non-indigenous crops.  Once the land is covered in soy fields, it will never be returned to forest.  How can the global community convince Brazil to value the rainforests as greatly as its global neighbors do?


One method is to place true cost on the resources being exported from Brazil.  The land may be water rich for the purposes of agriculture, but the land is at the same time becoming forest poor.  Along with the forest go the services that benefit humans, both locally in the Amazon and around the globe.  The benefits, called ecosystem services, are being reduced by the spread of agriculture.  The services range from responsible timber harvest to fruits and nuts to temperature regulation and carbon sequestering, in addition to hosting myriad species.  All ecosystems offer a range of services, but the Amazon Basin is what is called a biodiversity hotspot. How will the beneficiaries of those services, both in Brazil and around the world, be compensated for their loss?  By placing economic pressure on the major producers, exporters and importers of soy (and other crops), money becomes a check on the balance of forest to field.  In the short term, it is tricky business to impose taxes and tariffs on the industry.  Too much taxation and the industry will look elsewhere.  This is a global issue, and best addressed by all major multi-national stakeholders partnering together in organizations such as the Roundtable for Responsible Soy.  

The true measure of sustainability is met when environmental, social and economic factors are in balance.  That balance is too difficult for one government, one business or one consumer to achieve- collaborative action recognizes and seeks the best interest of all parties as the sustainable way to do business in the next decades.  It’s not simple.  Look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Even with a clear disaster, a known perpetrator and obvious victims, it has been a daunting task to truly measure and apply compensation to the extent that it is due.  It is even fuzzier to anticipate future damage gradually brought on by an expanding industry and countless links in the supply chain.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Outsourcing Nature- Can a Fake Tree be Greener Than a Real Tree?

Providing ambiance.

Your great aunt will be pleased to find out that artificial trees are making a stylish comeback!
Not the artificial trees such as the one shown to the right, which is arguably useless and requires dusting.  I once watched a man climb a ladder in a rest stop atrium to vacuum the leaves of a forest of fake trees. The ceiling overhead was composed entirely of skylights, for the record, but someone felt that fake trees were a good choice for that space.

There is a trend to produce structures modeled on trees that clean carbon from the air.  But you know what already cleans carbon from the air?  Real trees!  Why design and construct a structure that looks like a tree and acts like a tree when we've already got trees?  Is it really easier to extract resources from the earth and spend funds to construct an artificial tree and ship it to a site than it is to prepare a healthy bed for an acorn to thrive?  Some would say yes, that the performance of a machine is easier to measure and predict than that of a unique, living thing.

If you search for "artificial trees" on the web, you get countless pictures of ficus in pots.  If you add "carbon" to the search, you will find many articles invoking the groundbreaking technology of replicating trees to act like trees. Inhabitat, ColumbiaBBCTreehuggerThis Big CityHuffington PostYaleand Go Green all raise the idea that artificial trees can provide a solution to rising CO2 levels that live trees can't muster. 

Human/nature adjacency in Guatemala. 
Massive deforestation is occurring across the globe, effectively removing the planet's most powerful tool to combat the increased emission levels that we produce through consumption.  Deforestation is a two part challenge- it stops living trees from actively removing carbon from the air and it releases the carbon building blocks of those trees as they are burned or decomposed.  Expansion of global agriculture, suburban sprawl and development-based wildfires are major drivers of deforestation; all human pressures.

What is it about human nature that drives the desire to emulate but not adopt a naturally occurring process?  Does embracing an existing process not give us the satisfaction of problem solving? One of the strategies to bring our planet into sustainable alignment is called the Promethian strategy.  Proponents believe in the ingenuity of the human mind to engineer our way out of problems.  I agree that increased efficiency in technology is vital to reduce our consumption, but I'm not convinced that we should lean on technology exclusively to save us.

I would liken artificial trees to solar energy harvesting.  While huge leaps in technology and production have increased solar panel efficiency rates and dropped the cost to near competitive levels, there is still a massive amount of energy and material that goes into creating the panels so that they can passively collect solar energy for about 30 years.  

To create artificial trees, you need to extract raw materials, such as metal or oil for plastic.  The production process requires energy and water.  The structures will then be hauled to site and installed, where earth will be excavated and concrete poured.  Be sure to get the proper permits and Environmental Impact Statements first.

Trees showing off.
To plant real trees, you need raw materials; seeds, trowels, water and sun.  For installation, you can pay laborers with money, pay volunteers with serotonin, or pay an army of squirrels with acorns (while squirrels are harder to direct, their use is a win-win as they will plant their pay, forget where they put them and more trees will grow).

Are noble efforts better spent protecting and restoring forests at levels adequate to clean the air?  It's arguably easier to build something new than to fix a global trend that is broken.

One person has created a movement through the planting of one tree at a time.  Wangari Maathai has been awarded the Nobel Prize for starting the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Since 1977, Maathai has led a shift toward widespread social, environmental and economic equity for women in Africa.  By planting trees, women actively combat desertification, generate income through sale of seedlings and gum arabic collected from acacia trees, and empower themselves to thrive.  Over 40 million trees have been planted so far.

Many smart, well-meaning individuals can engineer a product; it is a rare and powerful person who can harness the human element to effect sweeping positive change using tools available at all our fingertips.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

How Can Landscape Architects Lead Sustainable Development?


Water.  Air.  Plants.  Temperature.  People.  These are the components upon which a landscape architect builds a place, one site at a time.  As pressures mount on our global population, these five issues among others have risen to the forefront of the conversation.  Water.  Air.  Plants.  Temperature.  People.  

The push to go green is on the rise.  It's easy for landscape architects to sit back and say, "We've been talking about this since Olmsted picnicked in cemeteries!  Environmental stewardship is already on our resumes."  But how can we adopt a proactive stance and guide society's transformation into a resilient, stable place to live?  We can do it by scaling our focus up and out to envelope the entirety of the built environment as it fits within the greater ecosystem.

Processes to guide development are in place through planning and zoning.  But what falls through the cracks between building height and parking capacity are the threads of urban ecology and water and health that can form a true interconnected fabric.  Instead of limiting green initiatives to a grid of leftover open space between buildings and utilities and streets, how can we float above the grid and stitch it all together? By focusing less on completing a patchwork of disparate components, and more on weaving upon a loom of interconnectivity that accounts for water, air, plants, temperature and people.

There is a distinct lack of comprehensive environmental planning because the ecosystems that grow around us are more complex and intricate than we are practically equipped to measure and manage.  There is a calibration response that happens constantly in nature, which is not static but dynamic.  Nature shifts in response to the environment we create, for better or worse.   How can a city adopt a policy of good environmental practice when there is no constant?  A city can track air quality metrics, but what city budget could possibly monitor every pollutant and the quantifying details of every ounce of biomass that absorbs carbon?  Piecemeal efforts are a step in the right direction but don’t look at the big picture.  Adding beehives will not help a city (or the bees) if appropriate vegetation isn’t added in kind to feed them.  Green walls in an office lobby will purify some air, but not at levels high enough to neutralize the greenhouse gases generated by commuting employees.

Landscape architects have always known the landscape as a living, breathing thing; able to deliver benefits to humans in proportionate quantities to the value we invest in its development.  We also know that it is a challenge to manage or quantify the landscape because of its infinite nature.  The rest of the world is beginning to speak our vocabulary and embrace our ideas.  It would be a stretch to say we are suddenly the cool kids, but our niche demographic is experiencing a groundswell of interest. 

Again, how can we adopt a proactive stance?  It is fair to say that landscape architects are underappreciated.  No one will gather at our knee to hear us impart the wisdom of bioretention.  Of the many hats a landscape architect wears, environmental stewardship is the team role that is often relegated to the want, not need category of design.  Insist on its importance.  As other professions in the industry look to internalize concepts and vocabulary, mentor them. Speak up in team meetings, using the language we use amongst ourselves.  Standardize that vocabulary in discussions with our peers in other disciplines.

The principles of sustainability are arising in all sectors of society.  Leaders in every industry are stepping forward to spearhead the transformation from gray to green and internalize the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental equity. The world is finally speaking our language; let's earn the right to be leaders in sustainable development by preaching to the growing global choir.