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Climate change projects, both big and small, that are feeding the world

Agroforestry and terracing
Explanation
Large versus Small Projects AI

At Triumph over Fear, we value all kinds of successes – small and big. Sure, big projects can have a massive impact. But they often take longer to set up, and in the meantime, the people they’re supposed to help are left waiting. These typically stem from large corporations or governments, both of whom combine science with the financial capacity to think on a global scale. The waiting can be frustrating for those left in the wake of large-scale projects since when one is hungry, they don’t like to be kept waiting from those who aren’t. Taking it from that perspective, smaller initiatives are quicker to implement and perhaps more helpful to the locals, precisely because they focus on specific, local needs. A neighborhood, or smaller political/geographic unit, knows its problems and its solutions better than anyone else. These smaller projects might align with global objectives, but they don’t always have to – and that’s okay. 

Then there’s the debate between scientific knowledge and real-world experience. Each has its merits. Universities, big businesses, and governments are where we get our science while experience is typically more local. The two should learn from one another but often don’t, with the elite often looking down on the common people, and the common people just looking up in frustration. Too many, this may not be reality, but perception even if deemed false is sometimes more important than reality. 

So, we’re going to share both large-scale, scientific solutions and down-to-earth, regional ones. These projects have shown they can feed hungry populations. They may not be perfect (no system is) but together, they illustrate how a collaborative yet competitive spirit can drive change. Let’s bridge the gap between science and hands-on experience to make a real difference in the world.

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Let’s look at our first massive, all-encompassing project, the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project in China. The Loess Plateau was once one of the poorest regions in China as its soil was eroded over centuries making it difficult to grow crops. The project launched in 1994 with funding from the World Bank and China’s government, the main aim, as per the World Bank, was to boost farming output and boost income on a massive stretch of land, that spans 15,600 km2, in the Loess Plateau. This area is a part of the Yellow River system, one of the world’s longest rivers.

In terms of food production in a region where farming has existed for millennia, the Loess Plateau faced a universally common issue, water scarcity. The soil, albeit fertile is prevalent along steep slopes. It is natural for soil to erode especially after many centuries in a densely populated country, because of the environmental changes that happen so frequently coupled with the need to feed so many, making it hard to adapt and lose sight of conservation techniques. When soil erodes it can’t retain water. Being a semi-arid region with inconsistent rainfall from year to year, if the soil can’t retain whatever water it gets, plants won’t grow. Couple that with so many other factors like trees being cut down to make room for more farms because more land is needed to grow food, hunger happens.

Let’s provide two of many examples of how modern solutions helped hands-on experience that was gathered and improved upon over millennia, in this project.

A long-standing tradition used since the dawn of time is terracing. Terracing is the process of flattening a piece of land in a hilly region to prevent the speed at which water runs off, giving the soil a chance to retain the water. Where the science comes in is in the instrumentation and sensing products installed in various locations that help people analyze, and correct any real-time issues and determine any preventative measures required to sustain the land, something harder to do before.

Hence in the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, where sloping lands were deemed fertile, terracing was implemented, where the soil wasn’t fertile enough trees were planted on the slopes, and, production was moved to existing flat areas with fertile soil, where some trees had to be removed in a manner consistent with agroforestry principles (agroforestry will be described in a later section in this article). 

Integrated watershed rehabilitation means that one has to consider the entire water system as a whole, instead of small parts to make smart decisions. This time-honored method was also used. Where modern science comes in is in the use of drones and satellite technology to monitor progress, and react more quickly to changing environmental issues, which as many realize are happening more quickly than before for a variety of reasons that combined constitute climate change. Another implementation of age-old wisdom was the creation of sediment retention dams to substantially reduce sediment runoff, i.e. soil from falling off the cliffs.

By the time the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project ended in 2005, it had successfully rehabilitated the  15600 square kilometers region it intended to help with degraded land and lifted millions of people from poverty according to the World Bank and the government of China.  While the powers that be proclaim success based on the initial scope, the specific metrics of success related to land rehabilitation and poverty alleviation require more research to validate the results. For now, there doesn’t seem to be any measured evidence to corroborate the Chinese government’s claim. That doesn’t mean though that the project failed in any major way. Please correct us if we’re wrong in citing scientific or economic research.

Loess Plateau,Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, sustainable farming, integrated watershed management, terracing

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When small-scale farming was prevalent, a farmer would grow a variety of crops on their land and plant a variety of trees, to diversify their production, feed their animals, cut their firewood, and be self-sufficient both as a means of overcoming environmental issues and for profit. This has been going on for millennia, In the 20th century, scientists came up with a name for it, calling it Agroforestry, and of course, improving upon it just as regular farmers have over centuries. In the post-industrial age, science/technology and the businesses these domains used to sell their inventions and concepts dictated that people should grow a single crop for maximum food production. This change moved away from Agroforestry and was largely successful in alleviating hunger in many regions but not in others. An example of one such product was corn which led to huge issues. The problem is that even if food production increased dramatically, leading to decreased poverty in many regions, the climate suffered, especially when this was promoted as the single and only universal solution that had to be implemented everywhere, by the majority of scientists in their day. Also, the large-scale production of a single crop requires heavy use of industrial fertilizers. Luckily now diversification is considered a key to maximum food production and sustainable environments. This means those who can plant a single crop will do it, and those who can’t go back to the old ways of diversification. 

As such many people have now returned to the age-old concepts of Agroforestry, and one such place is the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, with their Vi agroforestry project. This project was used only for agroforestry, whereas bigger projects usually combine a variety of techniques for larger regions. Since people have forgotten their agroforestry roots due to changing science, modern scientists need to train farmers on how to diversify again. This is what’s been happening in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya and Tanzania since 1983.  By adding trees to their farms, farmers have their firewood, while growing fruits and feeding their livestock on their property. When leaves fall due to the changing seasons, they nourish the soil. However, that doesn’t mean we still don’t need some massive farms that only plant one crop. It’s a balancing act to feed the world while maintaining our environment, depending on the context and needs of each region, and in reality, there is no tangible evidence yet proving the viability of sustainable agriculture in terms of agroforestry. Please correct us if we’re wrong using scientific or economic research.

Agroforestry, Vi, Vi Agroforestry Tanzania, Vi Agroforestry Kenya, Lake Victoria

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Let’s look back at grand-scheme plans like Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative. This massive undertaking covers a 7775 km by 15 km to 150 km wide swath of land, depending on the region. The idea was to balance hunger relief, job creation, and climate change resilience – a tall order, by incorporating a variety of agricultural practices that, when combined with existing practices, were more sustainable.

The project aims to combat the effects of desertification that has gone on for a couple of centuries, and to improve the lives of the people living in the Sahel-Sahara region. Tree planting was the main tool used in this project, since the issue is desertification. The trees that build the long ‘wall’ are useful for everything from improving soil erosion to cleaning the air, and increasing rainfall, thus restoring land and producing more food. The completion date is set for 2030. Of course, every other tool mentioned in this article was also used as well, along with a variety of other techniques based on the local requirements. The beauty of this large-scale project, implemented by the African Union, is that it gave control of maintenance and expertise to smaller units such as communities and national governments, fully well realizing that this project spans a multitude of climates, topographies, and economies, making it unrealistic for a central governing body to administer.

The Great Green Wall Initiative kicked off in 2007, with notable strides made by Senegal, Nigeria, and Ethiopia prior to 2020.  However, these are only 3 of the 20 countries in this project, with the others not seeing as much progress for a variety of regions from political to unforeseen natural issues. The plan is to wrap it up by 2030, but in all likelihood, like most big projects, it’s an optimistic target date that is not set in stone. The UN also looks at how much funding is being allocated. As of 2023, $2.5 billion from the One Planet Summit has been put to use. The remainder, a sum of $17.5 billion, is expected to be disbursed by the end of 2025. Even so, this doesn’t quite cover the needed $33 billion. This sum will allow the Great Green Wall to achieve its vision of restoring 100 million hectares of degraded lands by 2030 or the 10 million new jobs it needed to create. So whichever way you look at it, the project is behind schedule as most grand projects of this size usually are, once again demonstrating that sometimes in certain situations, small-scale projects might make more sense. Of course, we need both large and small-scale projects.

The Great Green Wall initiative, Sahel-Sahara

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Let’s move to a small-scale project that begs the following question: What do the Gregorian calendar (a calendar that incorporates leap year), the induction coil (basis of electrical transformers), and now rice have in common? A priest developed the progress that made them happen or made them better. Why is rice included in the previous statement? In 1980, Father Henri de Laulanié, a Jesuit priest developed a method called SRI (System of Rice Intensification), to increase the production of rice in Madagascar to help feed the undernourished population. The main purpose of this system was to reduce the dependence on massive amounts of water, which is what traditional methods relied on. By reducing the need for expensive water and seeds, thus lowering costs and increasing yields, he helped farmers gain additional income to get them out of poverty. This smaller-scale project’s only goal was to improve one item, rice production, the staple of food in Madagascar and many parts of the world. The unique thing about this invention is that it’s completely new and not a rehash of millennium-old procedures, previously mentioned in this article. Not bad for a priest.

Every system has its own set of challenges and is not perfect or universally applicable. This is also true for the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Why? It demands more work from farmers, hence additional labor and upfront costs. This technique needs young rice plants to be carefully moved and spaced out at an early growth stage. This takes more effort compared to just scattering seeds over the field. Even the specific alignment and spacing of these seedlings take extra time and work. 

Using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), water use needs careful watching. It’s not like the old ways where fields stay underwater. Instead, farmers wet and dry the fields alternatively. This means they always need to be on the lookout, tweaking water levels. Sure, it’s tough. But affordable science tools can make it easier if farmers can get them, the key being affordable since that’s relative to one’s income, and where one lives. Fortunately, there are government and co-op programs that may help. 

Madagascar’s National Statistics Institute points out that around 25% of the country’s rice farmers use this method. This is a big jump, especially since SRI was only brought to Madagascar in the 1980s. The switch to SRI has caused a major bump in rice amounts. A study in the Paddy and Water Environment journal reveals rice harvests went up by about 50% for those who chose SRI. That’s a big growth in food, helping make sure people have enough to eat in the country. 

System of rice intensification, SRI, Father Henri de Laulanié

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World Bank project details (Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project in China), Science Direct (Terracing benefits),  Acta Geographica Slovenica (Terracing history),  Land degradation and development (Terracing benefits in the Loess Plateau), Springer Link (Watershed management details in the Loess Plateau),  European geosciences union (The modern benefits of satellite and drone monitoring in Watershed management),  Science Direct (Benefits of sediment retention dams in the Loess Plateau), MDPI (Proof using metrics of the success of Agroforestry projects in Lake Victoria, Tanzania), United Nations convention to combat desertification (Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative), Environmental Research (Africa’s Great Green Wall initiative), Science Direct (SRI – Madagascar), Science Direct (Father Henri de Laulanié) 

All images are AI-generated using Fotor and are not meant to describe the subject matter they portray factually, but figuratively.

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