Could we reverse ecosystem degradation by growing organic structures from unruly, invasive plants?
This is just one of the many possibilities Project LiloRann will explore in the deserts of North Gujarat, India; an area that exemplifies some of the greatest challenges posed by climate change, while being rich with the potential for ecological regeneration and resilience.
This test-bed for experimentation and collaboration between a unique, interdisciplinary team and local citizens aims to find ways of addressing the global issues of environmental degradation by empowering communities to take on the effects of such changes at a local level. Ultimately, it is our hope that by sharing knowledge in this way, those most at risk from climate change can be better equipped to counter its effects.
Desertification of agricultural land is spreading rapidly. Today, about 3.6 billion of the world’s 5.2 billion hectares of agriculture land has suffered erosion and soil degradation. This is a grave problem, especially in India’s northwestern province of Gujarat. According to the ‘Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India’ report of 2007, as much as 68% of the entire state of Gujarat is under attack from land degradation and desertification.
While parts of Gujarat, like the Little Rann of Kutch have seen desertification increase over thousands of years, the arid Banni grasslands ecology of the area is known for its rich wildlife and biodiversity, including flamingos, cheetah, blackbucks and cattle. The area is also home to unique phenomena like Chir Batti (Ghost lights) – mysterious dancing lights that appear over the grasslands. However, ecosystem degradation is destroying this biodiversity and with it the livelihoods of the people who live there, leaving them struggling to produce food or fuel. Water erosion, salinisation and vegetal decline are the main causes of this, the effects of which are greatly compounded by outdated farming techniques and changing weather patterns such as flash floods in monsoon brought about by global warming.
This is just one example of the effects of global warming on the Indian subcontinent putting a strain on water supplies, biodiversity and food production. The consequences for the health and wealth of the region, and the nation as a whole, could be immense if steps to address these problems are not taken soon.
At a global level the costs climate change inflicts on the land are just as troubling. In a recent interview with CNN, Nick Nuttall, a U.N. Environmental Program spokesman stated that,”If this continues we may well see by 2050 a cumulative loss of what you might call land-based natural capital of around €95 trillion ($121 trillion)”.
By tackling these global issues from the ground up, communities can become more resilient to these locally specific effects. Through this project we aim to create a space where ideas and solutions can be tried and tested without risk to those that rely on the land for their livelihood.
We believe that some of the solutions to these problems already exist but have yet to be brought together and adapted to the specific contexts in which they are needed. We also believe that these solutions should start small and be allowed to grow within, and by the communities that need them. And so, for Project LiloRann, our interdisciplinary team will work with the people of the region to generate ideas, and create a set of innovative ‘positive tipping points’ that can be implemented at a local level, with a sustainable budget. Importantly they will be adaptable to the specific geographic nuances of that place by those who will benefit from them most.
To achieve this, our project must foster an open and frank exchange of knowledge between experts in diverse areas such as climate science, architecture, permaculture, biotechnology, geo-engineering, design, and those with the specialist knowledge that can only come from working and living on the land. To ensure this we will:
1. ESTABLISH A BASE IN KUTCH, GUJARAT:
This will allow us to spend time getting to know the area and establish a trusting relationship with local communities.
2. BUILD A TEAM:
In addition to our interdisciplinary team of experts (detailed later) we will work with local people, like farmers and craftspeople, who will contribute contextually specific knowledge of weather patterns and local wildlife etc. that can only come from living in and working on the land.
3. CREATE A SPACE FOR HACKING AND EXPERIMENTATION:
As well as our base in the region we will setup a space where the team has access to tools and technologies that will help hack and rapidly build prototypes, small scale models and simulate systems and scenarios in order to evaluate them throughout. This will facilitate knowledge sharing and help gain a deeper understanding of the local ecology.
4. HOST WORKSHOPS
In order to share knowledge effectively we will host workshops where the team and community can work together to explore the possibilities allowed by the combination of knowledge sets, within the geographic context, and in relation to the needs of local people.
5. DEMONSTRATE POSSIBILITIES:
Throughout this process we will take active measures to demonstrate findings, ideas and prototype developments to everyone involved or interested, as a way of gaining feedback to move ahead.
From this process, we hope that new, exciting possibilities for effectual action will emerge. The most important and exciting aspect of this project is the potential of bringing cutting edge scientific and technological expertise and ideas from unique labs and studios, and combining them with ground level knowledge.
To make the most of this, we hope to develop a series of more generally applicable lessons:
- POSITIVE TIPPING POINTS TOOL BOX: Identify transferable elements of the project which can be generalised or expanded to establish a framework, or a ‘tool box’ for effective collaboration between interdisciplinary teams of experts and local communities in the future.
- RECONCILE DISPARATE APPROACHES TO ECOLOGICAL PROBLEMS: If genetic and bio engineering sciences can be understood more widely and implemented in more accessible ways, could they be introduced into the environmental effort more positively? Maybe then these technologies might begin to have real, sustainable benefit.
While the collaborative and locative nature of LiloRann mean that as the project grows ideas will develop, and new ones will emerge, we are currently exploring the following opportunities for design:
1. TAMING AN INVASIVE SPECIES: ‘PROSOPIS JULIFLORA’
Locally called ‘gando bawal’ or ‘the mad tree’, Prosopis Juliflora is an invasive tree species introduced to the region in the 1950s and 60s to halt the spread of the salt marshes in the Rann of Kutch. Early on the tree was a rich resource for people in arid regions through provision of charcoal, food and material for making furniture. However after a ban on harvesting the tree in the 1980s it spread rapidly, covering 40% of the grasslands. It is now seen as a pest by land owners and commercial farmers as the aggressive nature of the tree has led to a decline in bio-diversity, consumption of farming land and suppression of crops.
There are fears that eradication of ‘the mad tree’ may cause significant damage through flooding and water logging. And although there are already plans to manage it in Gujarat through selective deforestation and soil preservation schemes, we believe that this tree may still be of immense benefit. Could it be possible to genetically engineer sub-strains of the plant that are less aggressive for use in building controllable organic-structures, new architectures and habitats? Might these structures allow people to continue benefitting from the tree, while preventing crop suppression, land desertification and encouraging biodiversity?
2. BIOCHAR AS A POLLUTANT FILTER
Biochar is a 2,000 year-old practice of using agricultural waste to hold carbon in soil, boosting its fertility. However, although this region has a history of charcoal production for fuel, the use of Biochar is relatively low. As well as the ‘traditional’ use of Biochar could we explore the possibility of embedding it into structures to filter industrial pollutants from the states many chemical plants?
3. CREATING SWALE LANDSCAPES
Swales are often used in landscaping to collect water run-off. One major contributing factor to land degradation is that loose, arid soil is washed away by rainfall. Could it be possible to build bio-swale landscapes that collect water and filter it for human and agricultural use, while also preventing soil erosion?
4. SELF POLLINATING VEGETATION
Charcoal production has vastly reduced the available habit of the local honey bee, leading to a decline in its population. This in turn is increasing stress on biodiversity by decreasing plant pollination in the area. Could we reverse this cycle by designing self-pollinating plants to increase bee, and other pollinating insect habitats, thereby increasing general biodiversity?
- 68% of Gujarat Land turning into desert: http://bit.ly/6wuXjd
- Desertification Atlas, India: http://bit.ly/aVzwYP
- ‘A Taste of things to come’: The Economist: http://bit.ly/d2BcLK
- India Forms Climate Change Body: http://bit.ly/dzWsBx
- Maps showing rise in temperatures (Gujarat and Rajasthan in India): http://bit.ly/dazOhy
- Gujarat fails to submit action plan for climate change: http://bit.ly/9yhQ8I
- Ecosystems at a Tipping Point: UN REPORT: http://bit.ly/aLW4VZ
- Are South Asian Ecosystems on the brink of extinction: http://bit.ly/cZCFjp
- Effects of Global Warming on India : Wikipedia: http://bit.ly/cVMpu
- Stewart brand’s Ecopragmatist Manifesto: http://bit.ly/Koqlp