Poverty and ecology: developing a new evolutionary approach
Read more about this project: Unearthing history, preventing disaster
Alleviating poverty and raising standards of well-being among the rural poor is often seen in terms of inequalities in individual opportunities, land tenure and market imbalances. But increasingly scientists are arguing that rural development must also proceed alongside proper management of the natural environment. Without this, the possible negative consequences for food supply, water quality, biodiversity and other aspects of the environment that we all depend upon, so-called ecological services, are severe.
There are countless examples of how agricultural development has caused significant and often irreversible damage to the natural fabric that supports society. The challenge is how to develop, while ensuring that the decisions made now will lead to sustainable use of the land for decades to come?
Conventionally, computer models have provided guidance about future consequences of human activities and climate change on key environmental conditions. But there is increasing criticism that the models do not handle well the possibility that the natural environment can change in unpredictable ways. We know that natural environments can change in complex ways, as with flooding and forest fire, but when humans are involved these changes can be even more unpredictable - and many of the current models do not deal with this well. There is the danger that existing models are providing a false clarity of the future.
This project’s research addressed the problem in a novel way. The research team argues that contemporary rural landscapes are the product of their history, and that we can learn much from analysing how the mixture of human actions, climate and ecology has effectively 'evolved' to the state that we see today. Many studies had shown that the time taken for ecological processes to change was often over relatively long timescales. For example, pollution of rivers and lakes by sewage and fertlizers can take several decades from the start of the pollution to the whole water system reacting in terms of fish losses or build-up of poisonous algae. Sometimes, ecosystems can withstand a good deal of stress from human activities, but when they finally give way the result can be very damaging.
In the lower Yangtze river basin, where the research is set, history describes a catalogue of human catastrophes wrought by flood, famine and poor agricultural practice. Even today, there is widespread rural poverty across many agricultural settings, and many environmental problems. There is accelerating soil erosion on the hilly lands; deteriorating water quality in irrigation channels, rivers and lakes; the ever-present threat of flooding; coastal erosion from rising sea-levels; pressure to produce more food for the rising city populations at a time when the rural population is declining and getting older.
The research team compiled records for local indigenous knowledge, socio-economic data and ecological change for the lower Yangtze basin as a whole and for four selected counties, for up to the last 200 years or so. These data were set up within a newly developed application for Google Earth – in a way that made it easy to show politicians, administrators, advisors, and farmers the changes that the environment has already experienced and how it might change in the future.
The team analysed the trends mathematically and statistically in order to evaluate the sustainability of the current form of agricultural management. They met with academics, agencies and rural communities to discuss the implications of the results, how the results compare with their own perceptions of change, and what might be the best alternative futures to which they should aspire.