The Spirit of Kulera
Mike Whiteman grew up on a cattle ranch in Idaho, but he always wanted to go to Africa.
That aspiration led him, most recently, to the small, southeast Africa country of Malawi, where both the people and environment depend on the region’s delicate state of natural resources to sustain life. “There are huge rates of deforestation across Malawi,” Whiteman said. “It’s staggering.”
As director of the Malawi Kulera Biodiversity Project, Whiteman works alongside a team of agricultural and natural resource scientists to empower Malawi residents with tools and strategies to deter poaching of trees and wildlife in the country’s national parks.
Woody vegetation accounts for 97 percent of the population’s total energy supply, according to the University of Malawi. A little over half goes to firewood and the remainder is converted into charcoal—a product that fares well on the market in a place where wood is fuel and half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Sustainable, Local Approaches
Translated from Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, “Kulera” means to care, nurture, and enrich. The term was borrowed for the project because of the project’s focus on activities that sustain and take care of local community members and natural resources.
Instead of encroaching upon national parks, communities on the outskirts of three major reserves are planting trees locally with assistance from Total LandCare, the lead organization on the biodiversity project. The trees are exotic, which grow faster than nearly all of the indigenous trees, serve as a source of fuel, decrease deforestation pressures on the protected areas, and save on labor.
“Community woodlots have taken off like wildfire because it’s mostly women who are literally walking miles and miles to collect wood,” Whiteman said. “Not surprisingly, it is women who are usually the force behind the planting and management of the woodlots.”
Whiteman explained that women are also trying to find ways to generate revenue that can be used to improve their families’ financial situations. One of these women is Alice Nkhoma, a 47-year-old with eight children who lives in Malawi’s Sasani village. As a beneficiary of the Kulera Biodiversity Project, she was able to join a village savings and loan group through a partnership with Care International. She bought a bicycle taxi and started saving money to grow her own crops. She now harvests tobacco and maize, and tends two goats for her merchant business.
In an annual review of the project, Nkhoma said, “The days when women should just rely on their husbands are over. Women too can do something to be economically empowered.”
Providing an alternative to hunting for food in the nature reserves is another way the project is facilitating conservation. WSU and several private organizations, Extension agents, and volunteers are teaching animal husbandry in communities. In the last year, 2,270 farmers trained in animal husbandry produced more than 4,000 chickens, 100 pigs, and 274 goats.
To further generate revenue and decrease dependence on national park resources, smallholder farmers in the project areas planted 600,000 coffee seedlings, and in collaboration with Highland Macadamia Cooperative Union Limited, started growing macadamia trees and harvesting honey.
“What we did was try to introduce alternative cash crops…that use conservation agriculture,” Whiteman said. It is a realistic way to involve communities in reducing erosion while improving their economic advantage.
The Greenhouse Effect
The effects of deforestation in Malawi go beyond the country’s borders. Because the region’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide has been compromised by land clearing, the storing of carbon in plant tissues and the releasing of oxygen into the atmosphere via photosynthesis are extremely limited. Open fires add to the carbon being released into the atmosphere, and without trees to capture those emissions, this also increases Malawi’s output of greenhouse gases.
To reduce this carbon footprint, more than 10,000 families have adapted their mud-and-brick wood stoves. Not only do the modified stoves have reduced emissions, they also have improved heating capacity—meaning less fuel is needed to get daily cooking jobs done. And, while the general scientific consensus is that improved wood stove efficiency reduces carbon footprints, studies are underway to measure the change in amount of carbon released over time.
“The difference in the amount of carbon sequestration can be sold through a process similar to how stock is sold on Wall Street,” Whiteman said. “Carbon stocks are purchased and the money then comes back to the communities that have changed their behavior by not cutting these trees.”
Achieving Independence in the Warm Heart of Africa
Africa’s unique biodiversity is part of why Whiteman has spent much of his life on the continent working to help preserve the landscape and natural resources. “Niyka National Park is a stunningly beautiful plateau [where] you can see for miles. Lake Malawi is on one side and the mountains of Zambia are on the other, and it is just sensationally beautiful, open, rolling savanna in the middle. Vwaza is a marshland with a river running through it that serves as habitat for all kinds of wildlife—hippos, crocs, buffalo, kudu and impala. And there are lots and lots of elephants.”
Whiteman is excited about the Kulera Biodiversity Project because he recognizes its significance and sees the results as ongoing. He is confident that the project has kick-started local strategies that will remain in place even after the $7 million USAID-funded project comes to an end next year.
To learn more about reforestation efforts in Malawi, read “Transforming a Nation in Need” in the digital ReConnect magazine: http://alumni.cahnrs.wsu.edu/category/reconnect/.
The Future of Freshwater
In the next several decades, the human story is going to be a water story, Sandra Postel said to a packed house at the WSU Compton Union Building auditorium during the 2013 Lane Family Lecture on September 19.
“But the narrative of that story is still being written,” Postel added. “It’s not a foregone conclusion, and that narrative is being [revised] every day by the choices we make about how we use and manage and value and think about freshwater.”
Postel, a National Geographic Society freshwater fellow and director of the Global Water Policy Project, introduced the topic of water scarcity with a look at how much water is embedded in human beings’ daily lives. It takes 700 gallons of water to make a cotton T-shirt, she said. Most of the water goes into watering and producing the cotton. It takes 600 gallons of water to make a typical feedlot-produced hamburger.
“Everything we buy and use and eat takes water to make,” she said. Since the 1960s groundwater depletion rates have nearly doubled and Postel believes water will be to the twenty-first century what oil was the twentieth century. “So what do we do?” she asked the audience of nearly 500 in attendance and live-streaming. She discussed how taking steps to slow the pace of climate change, population growth, and consumption can help provide enough water to sustain both human beings and nature’s ecosystems. As a part of her work on the “Change the Course” campaign with National Geographic, she helped develop a water footprint calculator people can use as a small step to measure consumption and contribute to conservation.
“We are all in this pond; we are all in this finite water supply together,” she said during the lecture. “Figuring out solutions that can work for everyone and sharing those is hugely important.”
Postel’s lecture was part of the Lane Family Lecture in Environmental Science series made possible by a gift from Bill Lane and his wife Jean. Their son, Robert Lane (’83), also established a fellowship to support graduate students studying environmental science at WSU. The WSU School of the Environment was established in 2012 as a joint program between the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.
“WSU is extremely grateful for this ongoing support,” said Steve Bollens, director of the School of Environment. “We thank the Lane family for their generosity.”
Putting the Eggert Family Organic Farm on the Map
At 30 acres, the Eggert Family Organic Farm may soon be the largest organic teaching farm on a university campus in the U.S., but WSU landscape architecture student AJ Babauta can tell you about every inch of it.
“If you walk onto the farm, and describe what’s around you, I can probably tell you where you are,” said AJ Babauta, a senior in WSU’s LA program in the School of Design and Construction.
Babauta was a summer intern for the new Eggert Family Organic Farm. The farm’s expansion from its current four-acre site was made possible by a $9.45 million gift from Chuck and Loanna Eggert and their family in April, 2012. Development of the farm is led by the WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in collaboration with the WSU Institute for Sustainable Design. For the first part of the summer, Babauta walked back and forth across the property with a backpack carrying GPS satellite tracking equipment. The coordinates and data transferred to a geographic information system (GIS) program that generated a precise 3-dimensional surface model of the farm to use for design and engineering analysis.
Babauta also recorded the coordinates of each of the 128 newly planted trees in the farm’s orchard, allowing for the development of an interactive map that gives farmers information on each tree variety, root system, size, fruit, and treatment. Babauta’s summer mapping is using state-of-the-art technology and modeling to improve the design of small and mid-size farms, a sector somewhat left behind by the radical technological advances seen in large-scale agriculture. Understanding and electronically recording the micro-level geographic information helps farmers manage regulations, speeds up farm inspections, and can also help improve crop production and energy and water efficiency.
It also complements the class project Babauta did with other landscape architecture students in the spring. They studied the microclimates of different points of interest on the farmland to help decide where the farm’s pavilion should be located.
“We took into consideration the wind, sun shadow, whether or not there was water nearby, the viewing vantage – all to better understand the site and where the pavilion would work best with the landscape,” Babauta said. The space selected for the pavilion is on a slight ridge on the southwest side of the property, a location that can act as a hub of activity for field work, harvest, classes, meetings, and visitors.
Todd Beyreuther, director of the WSU Integrated Design Lab, is leading the design team for the pavilion. “When we selected that spot, I just thought of it as a nice choice,” Babauta said. “Now that I’ve also been working on the WSU Organic Farm and see what a central role its pavilion plays, I understand how the location on the Eggert Farm is truly the right place – it has the best relationship between landscape and the services provided by the pavilion.”
Learn more about organic research at WSU and the Eggert Family Organic Farm here.