Issue 14

From Zurich to Wayanad, Can The Data Modelling Highway Restore Farmer Science and Soil?

20 farmers, 18 male and 2 female, in crisp mundu and sari respectively, arrive in small groups by 9.30 a.m. at Thanal’s agroecology centre in Thirunelly Panchayat, Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala. Arun R S, working in organic and natural farming at Thanal, passes around recycled pencil and paper and says to the group, “We want to be able to learn from each other, let’s start by writing down the problems we face in our fields and we will find solutions for it.” 

Historically an Adivasi district, Wayanad, from Vayal Nadu, implies a paddy field in Malayalam. So farmers here are rice-growers, who also sow cash crops like ginger, cardamom, coffee, tea, vanilla and pepper. Agriculture, mixed with forest and a little bit of tourism, is the economic heartbeat here. But with the rising cost of chemical inputs and constant fluctuation in the international price of produce, farmers’ income and well-being has been greatly affected for decades. Between 2003-2007 alone, Wayanad had some of the highest numbers of farmer suicides in Kerala. In 2004, when 130 farmers committed suicide, Thanal, an organisation focused on environmental awareness, started work alongside farmers to restore income and land. This project in turn became the agroecology centre in Wayanad in 2009. By 2010, a Rice Diversity Block was started with 4 native paddy varieties.

As of October 2021, they have conserved approximately 300+ traditional varieties, out of which 180 are from Kerala. Arun takes the 20 strong groups for a hands-on session to make cow dung-based biopesticide. Workshops like these help rethink biomass quality and focus on the whole agri-lifecycle from seed to soil. Sudha chechi (Malayalam for sister, often used when referring to older women), working with Thanal as a farm caretaker, facilitates communication between farmers and the local tribal residents. Farmers reach out to her with questions like, “what medicine can be used to protect cardamom leaves from worm attacks?” Sudha, with her knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses, tries to provide solutions. 

Thanal confronts micro-queries and shows actual proof of change. What if they also collated data and made it available in a completely different part of the world, useful for conservation research as well? Thanal’s website is rich with information, but what if data modelling can empower each of their farmers to upload data directly?

Restor, a collaborative effort between Google and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, is an organisation collecting data from such micro-movements and locations, to create models. Their website pitch is, “accelerating the global restoration movement by connecting everyone, everywhere to local restoration. Restor connects people to scientific data, supply chains, funding, and each other to increase the impact, scale, and sustainability of restoration efforts.” 

How is this done? The land is mapped using GIS, short for Geographic Information Systems. This allows a user to convert their patch of flat land or agri-field into a beautiful, multi-layered map right from their computer, using GIS software such as QGIS or ArcGIS. 24 year Giacomo Delgado who has been working in Switzerland’s Zurich HQ of Restor as a community and outreach associate for several months now, says, “We are creating state of the art models, as well as pulling best in class models created by other organizations (e.g. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)’s land cover map).

But is this software accessible to a common farmer or conservationist? “QGIS is being widely used across the country by NGOs and common people. ArcGIS is very expensive and is often only made available at universities,” says Dr. Divya Vasudev, co-founder of Conservation Initiatives, a Guwahati based Indian not-for-profit trust, working towards conservation since 2017. 

An example of a Remote Sensed image of a piece of land. The top image shows a normal picture, the middle image is infrared and the bottom image shows an image with elevation information.

“Visual Remote Sensing” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advancing Internet access and GIS software becoming more advanced, open access, easy to use and in some cases, free or reasonable, has made it possible for Restor to collect data from 72,500 sites across the globe, as of October 15, 2021. 

Restor went public this October 13, by making its data and tools available to all, for free. Nyguthi Chege, an executive director at Kenya’s Green belt movement, says, “with this tool, we can easily determine which species are native to a region and assess the carbon that different ecosystems can store. Information that is so important to get restoration projects over initial hurdles and realize our vision.”

What can this mean for the Wayanad farmers and the agroecology centre working with them? Arun can now draw a boundary in the satellite map for farms transitioning to organic farming. He can then update the database with their restoration status, ownership and intervention type. Conservationists and farmers across the globe can observe how the farm changes over a period of three years and learn from it.

Is it a whole new world wide web, especially for those individuals and communities isolated by access, distance or movement until now? The politics of data ownership, modelling access and ease of use is unfolding in real-time as case histories. 

The field is yet, open.

Cefil is a student of Mathematics and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. 

The featured image is by dhruvaraj, licensed under CC BY 2.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 14

A Climate-Friendly Autobahn Ahead For The Berlin & EU? Analysing Germany’s 2021 Elections

This is a big moment for the planet – climate-wise and society wise”, insists Niklas Ney, a 26-year-old student of physical education, at Humboldt University. A Berlin resident, his vote was a thumbs up for the Green Party, underlining how and why the Goodbye Merkel election came to be dubbed as ‘climate elections’.

Frank Steffe, of Agora-Energiewende, a German energy and climate policy think tank says, “In recent polls, most people specified climate change as the most urgent question for German (and international) politics. This is a success of dynamic new social movements like Fridays for Future. Plus, a historical decision of the German Constitutional Court ruling that Germany’s climate change laws are inadequate and put an unfair burden on the youth, contributed to the discussion.” It is true that almost every leader, across the country’s seven main parties, made electoral promises for climate change mitigation, at home and abroad.

The heatwaves in Germany since 2018, droughts in the eastern part of Germany, poor harvests and the dramatic floods in 2021 showed that the effects of the climate crisis have already reached Europe and Germany”, says Denise Ney, who works with Klimaliste, a political party describing itself as being “the only political party with a plan for 1.5 degrees celsius compliant politics” (referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement). She goes on to praise various groups, such as Ende Gelände, whose activism is one of civil disobedience and occupying coal mines in Germany. “They have worked very hard over the last three years to find their ways into the media”.

The Green Party won a staggering 118 seats in the Parliament’s lower house, almost doubling their seat tally from the last election in 2017, with voters like Niklas chiming in: “Climate as an electoral agenda was the most prominent among 18-30-year-olds. Younger people are naturally more concerned with their own futures. Plus, younger people are also more well-versed with newer forms of media, which allows them to reach out to more people. Older people can often get stuck in their ways in that sense.”

Denise, though, puts this in some perspective. “The results of the election show that parties with programs, which are not enough to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, got more than 70% of the votes”, she says. Discussions around the election were about 10% about the consequences of the climate crisis and more about costs of climate protection measures and consequences like necessary bans, threat to jobs and the economy.” Who will the Green Party stick with then, in the coalition scenario, from which the new Chancellor will emerge at Bundestag, Berlin? 

Will the impact of these elections go far beyond Berlin, the capital city of Europe’s strongest economy? How will Germany and its government realize its ambitious climate goals and lead the conversation for the rest of Europe? Frank Steffe is quick to respond. “The new German Government must be a ‘Climate Coalition’”, he says. The challenge is huge, but German (and European, and international) politics must face it. We have ambitious goals in the German Climate Protection Law, we have an obligation to the goals of the Paris Agreement, and we must support the European Green Deal.”

The Germans were the first in Europe to declare economic progress possible, while being sustainable, in a landmark, 1984 parliamentary report titled, Protection of the Earth’s Atmosphere: it led to the country becoming Europe’s highest user of wind power. Their own history of green politics traces all the way to the 1970s, writes Anthony Gidden in Politics of Climate Change, crediting Germany for being the “original home of the greens” in his book.  

At the same time, it is Europe’s most industrialized nation. In fact, in 2020, it was the second-largest consumer of coal in the European Union, at 22%, with Poland at 43%. Gidden mentions Germany’s high dependency on lignite – ‘brown coal’, and the fact that as of 2010, Germany had at least 22 coal plants being planned or completed. 

The industrial lobby in Germany is very strong, especially, automobile”, reminds Denise. “It has a great influence on the German government. Their ultimate threat is the loss of jobs.” The automobile industry employs more than 800,000 people, and last year, raked in 209 billion Euros in revenue for the country. As a sector, it also adds to Germany’s soft power, with BMW, Audi and Volkswagen’s global customer base.  “For these businesses, it is generally always about economics”, Niklas admits. “But for them, it is about capitalistic competition as well, as far as innovation is concerned.” 

Denise on the other hand argues that the Green Party is trying to “make Germany greener, but not enough to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement. Instead of insisting on the chances of the transformation, like jobs in the renewable energy industry, they are following the framing of the conservatives, speaking more about the costs of the transformation than about the costs of the impact of the climate crisis.

Frank steps in with a significant people-centric context. According to him, “it is crucial to address social inequalities when designing climate policy. For example, we need specific policies for low-income households or people in rural areas to support the switch to climate-neutral technologies, such as, for mobility or heating systems. There is also broad consensus that the revenues of carbon-pricing have to be given back to the people, either via lower electricity taxes or via a per-capita payment for every citizen.”

Niklas, however, sees the picture as one with the glass half full.“ With their electric cars and their battery-operated cars. Others will now follow Tesla’s lead – brands will be pushed to put new innovations in the market. They will have to cater to a market that knows and talks about climate change”. 

So what can this mean at the European Union level? “Germany has the most seats in the European Union Parliament, so on a European level, regardless of what the government is, it can drive the agenda”, Niklas continues optimistically. “I feel that driving new innovations will be a focus of the government.” 

It’s very important that Germany accepts its leading role here”, says an emphatic Denise. “There is a power imbalance between the North and South in Europe as well, so if Germany shows an ecological transformation is possible, others will follow. My hope is the climate movement. The young generation is fighting for climate justice, globally and intergenerationally”, she beams. Climate activist groups like Entrepreneurs4Future or Architects4Future were founded to support the demands of the younger generation and to “show that there are entrepreneurs and companies who are willing and ready for the necessary changes.”

These were important elections anyway: it is a change in power for the first time in sixteen years”, says Niklas. He underscores the increasing demand for greater change, politically, in terms of climate focus, and future pathways, where businesses adapt, without endangering job security domestically and without compromising ecological security in the continent. “We can maybe use this to relook our ways, to drive the society through this crisis” Niklas concludes. 

Europe and the rest of the world are watching.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).