Exactly How Do Trees Fight Climate Change?

Much is written about the need to reduce deforestation and replant the forests that have been logged for human use and economic development. This is because trees are needed for fighting climate change and vital to the very survival of the planet. But what is it exactly that makes trees and other plants so special?

Climate change is caused, at least partly, by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases which accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere and trap heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, is the leading international body for assessing this phenomenon.

In their most recent Assessment Report from 2007, the IPCC reported that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most significant anthropogenic greenhouse gas, both in the sense of the amount of heat it traps and the quantity that is released into the atmosphere (mainly from the burning of fossil fuels). Forests are very effective ‘carbon sinks’, extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and keeping it locked away for long periods of time. Therefore, some of the key strategies to alleviate the causes and effects of climate change recommended by the IPCC include efforts to reduce deforestation, while simultaneously increasing afforestation and reforestation: planting of forests where none were before and replanting areas where forest has been removed, respectively. Read More »

Bolivia’s Best: Interview with Prize-Winning Physicist Oscar Saavedra

“When you’re young, it’s important to have a vision that you try to fulfill in spite of whatever difficulties you may have to overcome.”

This is the philosophy of Oscar Saavedra, a highly respected particle physicist from Bolivia, now a Professor at the University of Turin in Italy. He studies cosmic rays (particles that come from outer space) and a type of particle called the neutrino, topics which help us to deepen our understanding of the physical universe.

It seems strange to some that people choose to spend time and money studying fundamental science as Oscar does, especially people from developing countries where even the most basic needs of many people are not met. What is the point in thinking about the structure of the universe when sufficient food, water, sanitation, and healthcare are not available?

Although it is true that this type of science has no direct use, there are many indirect benefits that arise from such work: cancer treatment and the World Wide Web are amongst the most incredible examples. Read More »

Borders: Where do they come from and what do they mean?

Around 10,000 years ago, the only borders known to human beings were natural borders such as mountains, forests, or bodies of water that separated one area of land from another. Humans were hunter-gatherers at that time, meaning that all food was obtained by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Given the relatively small number of people and large availability of resources, there was little need to ‘claim’ and fight over territory. People still fought, but not for resources – it is speculated that it may instead have been for cultural or psychological reasons such as the need to demonstrate one’s dominance (Gat, 2000).

However, since the rise of agriculture and modern civilization, humans have sometimes shown a territorial instinct similar to that of some animals. People fight over land in order to gain possession of the resources there, just as a pack of wolves defends its territory to secure sufficient food for all its members. But the human desire to create borders goes far beyond the animal instinct to ensure the survival and wellbeing of one’s social group. For us, borders have a psychological aspect too – that of identifying ourselves and making us ‘belong’ to one group rather than another, while separating us from the unfamiliar and the ‘other’. Finnish Professor of Geography, Anssi Paasi, wrote in his 1998 paper ‘Boundaries as Social Processes: Territoriality in the World of Flows’:

“National identity is one of many, often coexisting and overlapping identities (religions, tribal, linguistic, class, gender, etc.)…”

and that,

“Boundaries are both symbols and institutions that simultaneously produce distinctions between social groups and are produced by them.”

Social groups often define themselves, and are defined by others, in terms of any of the identities listed above. National borders often coincide with these groupings. In Europe, for example, linguistic groups are very prominent: the official language(s) of most countries is distinct to that of its neighbors e.g. France and Spain. The members of different European nations therefore tend to have different linguistic, as well as ethnic, backgrounds. This seemingly ‘natural’ division exists because many of Europe’s borders are natural borders, like the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. In ancient times, such obstacles would have been difficult to traverse, and so it would have been natural for groups on either side to independently develop their own language and culture. In modern times, these natural borders have often been adopted as the political, legal, and economic boundaries that define nations. Read More »

Saemaul Undong: South Korea’s mark on international development

South Korea’s development over the past half-century has been one of the biggest successes in the world. Measured in terms of either economic wealth, or the Human Development Index (HDI) which considers factors such as education and life expectancy, South Korea’s rise has been phenomenal. The country which is currently renowned for hi-tech companies such as Samsung, and for being the home of ‘Gangnam Style‘, was, just 50 years ago, suffering from the aftermath of a bloody civil war and had a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of just US$64.

A brief summary of the South Korea’s recent history sets the scene. Prior to World War II, Korea was ruled by Japanese imperialists. After the war, Japanese rule was replaced by the Soviet Union in the northern part of the country and the United States (U.S.) in the south. The northern rulers invaded the south in 1950, starting the three-year long Korean War which ended in the country being divided into North and South Korea. Kim Il-Sung took up the presidency of North Korea while South Korea came under the dictatorship of President Rhee Seung-Man. A military coup in 1961 led to General Park Chung-Hee taking the rule from President Rhee, and South Korea started the journey to rebuild itself. The results are astonishing: in 2011, the country’s GNI per capita was over US$28,000, putting it in 15th place in the list of world economies, and it also ranked 15 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index that year. Read More »

Migration Restrictions as a Barrier to Development

Living abroad is undoubtedly one of life’s most enjoyable, interesting, and eye-opening experiences. By stimulating economic growth and cultural exchange, it is also something that literally and figuratively enriches entire nations and the world as a whole. So, does placing restrictions on cross-border migration present a possible barrier to economic and human development?

My parents are originally from Hong Kong and emigrated to the U.K. during the 1960s, along with many thousands of other Hong Kong citizens. My mother arrived without knowing a word of English yet was welcomed warmly by the medical training school that she attended. She stayed in the U.K., working as a nurse for nearly 40 years, while others chose to return to Hong Kong, taking back with them the education, training and experience that they had acquired abroad.

Following in my parents’ international footsteps, for the past couple of years I have lived and worked in Spain. Aside from some logistical and social obstacles – such as finding a new house, making new friends, and learning a new language – the process of emigrating and starting a job there was pretty simple. For many people, however, emigrating abroad, permanently or temporarily, is much more difficult as many countries have strict immigration constraints against the inflow of citizens of certain nations.

The extent of this problem is illustrated by the results of a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and the French Agency for Development (AFD), who collected data from 146 countries between 2008 and 2010. They found that roughly 630 million adults, around 14 percent of all adults in the world, said that they would like to move to another country permanently if they had the opportunity. Findings from the Gallup World Poll also revealed that around 1.2 million people wanted to migrate temporarily for work purposes. However, only ten percent of the people who said they would like to migrate were actually planning to do so in the following year. Clearly, there is something preventing the other 90 percent from pursuing their dream of migrating. Read More »

Biofuels – A Good Way to Fight Climate Change?

The Earth’s climate is changing and the vast majority of the scientific community as well as the public is now convinced that human activity is contributing significantly to this phenomenon. The underlying cause is an increase in the concentration of ‘greenhouse gases’ in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burnt; nitrous oxide from chemical fertilizers; and methane which is produced from activities like rice farming and livestock production. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to the ‘greenhouse effect’ – a rise in the average global temperature which leads to melting ice-caps and therefore rising sea-levels. Additionally, the change in the atmosphere makes the climate more unpredictable, increasing the incidence of ‘freak’ weather events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts (‘global weirding’). Regardless of what is causing the climate to change, preparations need to be made to cope with the consequences as they will impact on many aspects of life. One of these will be the world’s food supplies and food prices, since agricultural growing conditions will change in certain places, affecting the type and quantity of crops that can be grown. This in turn will affect people’s ability to buy and otherwise access food.

However, right now, the biggest impact of climate change on food supplies and food access does not come directly from the changes in climate. Instead, it comes from one of the ways in which we are trying to stop climate change: biofuels. ‘Undercovering Undernutrition Part II‘ showed that the growing demand for biofuels (mainly from western countries) means that in some areas biofuel crops are being grown preferentially over food crops due to their profitability. A 2010 report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) reported that European countries have chosen to meet the European Union (EU) legal requirement of including 10 percent of renewable energy in all transport fuels by 2020 by importing biofuels from places such as Indonesia, Brazil, and some African countries. One of the results, reported by The Guardian newspaper, is that the land acquired over the past decade for growing biofuel crops could have produced food for a billion people. This has led to increased food prices, leading to more people being unable to afford food and therefore going hungry. Read More »

Bolivia’s Best: An Interview With Oscar Saavedra Arteaga

Fifty five years ago, archaeologist, engineer and geologist Kenneth Lee discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization in the region of El Beni, in the northeast of Bolivia. The sophisticated technologies that were revealed by the excavated remains fascinated the academic community. One man in particular has spent the past several years developing an ancient agricultural system of camellones, used by this civilization, for modern use. This is a system that uses elevated fields, channels of water and aquaponics (cultivating plants and fish in the same water source) to protect crops from flooding, whilst fertilizing these in a natural way and increasing productivity compared to traditional industrial farming methods. The model has proved so successful in El Beni that the non-governmental organization (NGO) Oxfam has applied it in many African countries.

Today, to kick off Development Roast’s brand new ‘Bolivia’s Best’ interview series, we meet Oscar Saavedra, a Bolivian agroecologist and one of the founders of the Kenneth Lee Foundation who directs the camellones initiative under his own NGO, Amazonia Sostenible (Sustainable Amazonia) as well as his own business, Amazonia Services. Read More »

Uncovering Undernutrition (Part II): What are the causes of undernutrition?

Uncovering Undernutrition Part I looked at how many people are undernourished in different regions of the world, and how much food is available in those regions. These numbers were taken from the 2012 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) entitled ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World‘. The report shows that there is more than enough food available to feed everyone, therefore, there must be other reasons why several million people are going hungry each year. So, what else affects undernutrition levels around the world? Read More »

Reviving an Ancient Farming System in Bolivia: Camellones

In 1957 the remains of a civilization from 3,000 years ago were discovered in El Beni, a lowland region in the northeast of Bolivia (see map below). This civilization was found to have a highly productive agricultural system which involved the construction of camellones (ridges). These were elevated fields, built to be above the height of the floodwaters, surrounded by channels. This produced a method of irrigation that protected crops from flooding whilst increasing the fertility of the soil. In the wet season, the rainwater collected in the channels, preventing the crops from being washed away. The water could then be stored and used to water crops in times of drought. This system was designed specifically for the ecosystem of the region which is particularly prone to flooding. Read More »

The Cost of Obesity

Being obese or overweight is one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century; it is the fifth leading risk for global deaths according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet it is completely preventable. The problem seems to be related to wealth; the WHO also reports that levels of obesity in high- and upper middle-income countries are more than three times higher than in lower middle income countries although the problem is rising dramatically for the latter.

Obesity is medically defined as the state in which a person’s body mass index (BMI), obtained by dividing their weight by the square of their height, exceeds 30 kilograms per meter squared. The amount of body fat carried by someone with this BMI affects their health and life expectancy. The most common associated diseases are coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but there are also many others such as osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer. The result has a detrimental effect not just on the individual, but also on the economy as a whole. Read More »


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