By Amanda Garris Ph.D. '04
Come along for the journey as researchers take their skills on the road: rice paddies in The Gambia, a village in Malawi, an Indonesian national park, the Aegean island of Santorini, and the metropolis of São Paulo, Brazil. Shaped by collaboration and fueled by inspiration, these five projects are examples of why CALS prides itself on being the land grant university to the world, in communities large and small.
Sambel Kunda, The Gambia
Last December, under a giant tree that functions as the town hall for the village of Sambel Kunda in the Central River Region of The Gambia, a young rice farmer rose to speak. He told the community how a new approach improved his field’s productivity and finally made it economically possible for him to be a rice farmer—there was no more need to migrate to the capital and look for work.
“From village elders to young farmers, they were all basically saying the same thing,” recounted Erika Styger, Ph.D. ’04, director of programs for the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice). “They had been to meetings over the years with agriculture experts recommending they improve rice production using purchased inputs, such as fertilizer or new seed, but what we brought them was changing their lives: the knowledge to help themselves.”Last December, under a giant tree that functions as the town hall for the village of Sambel Kunda in the Central River Region of The Gambia, a young rice farmer rose to speak. He told the community how a new approach improved his field’s productivity and finally made it economically possible for him to be a rice farmer—there was no more need to migrate to the capital and look for work.
“This is why we do what we do,” she continued.
The SRI program, part of International Programs in CALS, offers an approach to rice growing that is based on a handful of principles: plant young seedlings, give more space between plants, fertilize soil with organic matter, and control and reduce the use of irrigation. Individual plants thrive in this environment; decades of research have shown that the plants develop more vigorous roots and shoots and yield increases between 20 and 100 percent, while requiring 90 percent less seed for planting and 50 percent less water for irrigation.
Smallholder farmers in more than 50 countries are benefitting from using the SRI method of growing rice, but Styger’s December trip was the first major national SRI training in The Gambia, the smallest nation in mainland Africa. She and SRI-RICE technical specialist Devon Jenkins, MPS ’13, were invited by the Ministry of Agriculture, which was interested in a national effort to increase rice production in a sustainable way. Together with the Regional Rice Center for Specialization based in Mali, the Cornell team is helping coordinate a 13-country project funded by the World Bank to scale up SRI across West Africa. Styger and Jenkins provide technical training and advice to the region, from guidance on data collection methodology to day-to-day support through Facebook.
“The training in The Gambia was a real medley of actors: researchers, extension agents, farmers, and nongovernmental organizations like the Peace Corps,” Styger said. “These trainers are now training the rest of the country province by province, so there’s a snowball effect.”
Trainers and farmers share a core enthusiasm for the fact that SRI sustainably improves rice yields without the purchase of external inputs like seeds and fertilizer.
“What’s powerful about this is that we help them realize their potential and the potential with their own resources, including their varieties,” Styger said. “It allows them to be their own innovators, their own researchers, and we in turn will listen to what they find out.”
Nkhata Bay, Malawi
The Mpamba Fruit Juice Producers Cooperative in Nkhata Bay, Malawi, has a track record of innovation, in the form of juices made from local mangos, oranges, tangerines and pineapples. The small, mostly female collective of 22 farmers had established a reputation for their juices and successfully sold to tourist hotels along Lake Malawi, until problems with fleeting shelf life—one week with refrigeration—brought orders to a halt. Creative New Frontiers in Agriculture, a subsidiary of the U.S. Agency for International Development, urged Randy Worobo, professor of food science, to visit them, thinking his expertise in juice processing would be the right match for the co-op’s needs.
Arriving in Malawi last November, Worobo’s first thought was, “This ain’t Kansas.” And it wasn’t just the cavorting monkeys or blue flashes of cichlid fish jumping in Lake Malawi.
“Women in the co-op walked for up to six miles to bring their fresh fruit to the collective, where their process included peeling mangos by hand, using a hand-cranked juice extractor, and heating the juice over a wood fire,” Worobo recalled. “The brick processing building had smoke billowing out of the windows and doors.”
Production differences aside, the potential was obvious.
“Using their hand-cranked juicer, the juice was beautiful and flavorful,” Worobo said. “The mango diversity was amazing. There were many different varieties, from large domesticated purple ones to the smaller wild mangoes.”
The problem boiled down to, well, boiling. The group had been diligently following the incorrect guidelines they had been given previously: The more you heat the juice, the shorter the shelf life. Equipped with a new thermometer, Worobo advocated for the juice industry standard of holding the fresh juice at 85 degrees Celsius for three minutes, which is sufficient to kill any bacteria or fungal spores in the juice.
“You have to ignore some of the problems—the wood fire, unhygienic water and plastic buckets—and have faith in the processing method to deal with the defects and the deficits,” Worobo said. “And it did. It was phenomenal.”
By the time Worobo left three weeks later, the co-op’s juices had a commercially viable shelf life of six months to two years, and orders were coming in from hotels and grocery stores interested in carrying their brand. He left them with a few new tools he’d been able to acquire in country and a handwritten “juice bible” for the wall.
While there, Worobo also advised on business logistics, including label redesign and their first ever blind taste test of juice blends. The consensus was that mango-pineapple and mango-orange would be the best approach to product diversification that could increase their profits—and the wellbeing of the next generation.
“For many of the women, the co-op was clearly about securing the financial resources to send their daughters to school,” Worobo explained. “Although there are public schools, there are additional fees. If there’s not enough money to send all their children to school, the girls miss out.”
Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia
Entomology Professor Laura Harrington has worked on diseases that affect millions worldwide: insect-vectored maladies including malaria, dengue and West Nile virus. In December, she traveled to Indonesia to set up a study of a disease that affects fewer than 50 individuals in the world—the critically endangered Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), whose entire range is a remnant of lowland rainforest in the Ujung Kulon National Park in the west end of the Island of Java. A spike in rhino deaths in 2010 left local conservationists scrambling to identify the cause.
Like many diseases, identifying the vector is as crucial as identifying the disease agent. Harrington’s expertise lies in the behavior of the vectors themselves, such as mosquito feeding preferences and mating processes, looking for new and better ways to disrupt disease transmission or reduce vector populations.
“The local conservationists in Java think there are three possible diseases, including one caused by a cousin of the malaria parasite, called Trypanosoma,” Harrington said. “The first concern was to design experiments to see if we could identify why the rhinos were dying and if the disease is being transmitted by biting flies like horse flies.”
A three-year grant from the Morrison Foundation to principle investigator Robin Radcliffe, assistant adjunct professor and director of the Cornell Conservation Medicine Program, brought Harrington to Java to work closely with Indonesian conservationist Kurnia Khairani in preparation for canvassing the park and the surrounding farms for potential vectors. On the December trip they took pilot samples along the edge of the park, using striped traps that to a fly’s eyes mimic a natural host. Harrington’s goal was to empower the Indonesian workers to perform the surveys and process samples, a matter of necessity in the remote location.
‘’It’s two hours from Jakarta to Bogor University, and then another seven to eight hours starting out on highways that turn into bumpy dirt roads that take you to the edge of the park,” she recalled. “And parts of the park are only accessible by boat.”
The traps will yield flies, the flies will yield DNA, and the DNA will yield answers. What species is the fly? What disease agents does it harbor? And what else does the fly feed upon? The last is crucial for disease management, because any “bridge” species the flies are feeding on acts as a reservoir for the disease.
“It could be water buffalo, but it also could be banteng, which is a type of wild cow,” Harrington hypothesized. “It’s key to identify other species that could be treated with available medicines to get rid of the disease reserve.”
If Trypanosoma causes the disease, it could be good news for the rhinos, since Harrington says a program to trap or reduce vector populations could be implemented. And while Harrington’s only glimpse of a rhino came via a webcam trained on an injured female being tracked by conservationists, she saw a diversity of insects that piqued her curiosity.
“The whole project made me realize what a great opportunity for research in entomology exists in Indonesia. The characterization of these insects hasn’t been carefully examined since the 1920s,” Harrington explained. “I encourage every Ph.D. student I have to conduct part of their thesis in a resource-limited country.”
In many parts of the world, one resource that has become particularly limited—and contentious—is water.
“If you look at the map of the world and you plot out the amount of violence and strife with water scarcity, you see this correlation,” said Tammo Steenhuis, professor of biological and environmental engineering. “From Somalia to the southern Mediterranean coast, water scarcity is an important political issue, but it is a multifaceted issue because it is also technical, social and ecological.”
Greece is one country affected by water scarcity. Currently, many townships—well-watered in Homer’s time—have been unable to drink the water from their aquifers for over a decade. Irrigation for agriculture has lowered the water table, and pollutants have compromised the remaining water.
Greece has become Steenhuis’ test case for local water solutions for the Mediterranean. Because the multifaceted problem requires a multifaceted approach, Steenhuis has partnered with Gail Holst-Warhaft, adjunct professor in the departments of Comparative Literature and Biological and Environmental Engineering and director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies Mediterranean Studies Initiative. An expert in Greek music and poetry, Holst-Warhaft has initiated several projects with Steenhuis to address water scarcity in Greece, including a new project this summer on the island of Santorini.
Santorini, which attracts more than four million visitors a year, is perhaps best known for its impeccable snowbanks of white houses perched on rocky cliffs. Water has always been scarce there: Since the Bronze Age (3,500 BCE), an elaborate system of municipal waterworks focused on microcollection of the winter rains, household-by-household and church-by-church.
“The water from the gutters was used for drinking, and the water from the streets outside was used for watering kitchen gardens,” Holst-Warhaft said. “And there is still a system of underground cisterns in older villages that included water purification using lime plaster.”
With funding from the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the summer project will send a team of students to evaluate the island’s capacity for rain collection and develop a public campaign to restore and rebuild these resources.
“There may be advantages to restoring these systems instead of desalinizing or importing water. We suspect that winter rains are sufficient to really make a difference in the local water supply,” Steenhuis said.
Beyond collecting data, designed to guide policy and resource decisions, the team will also design a water walk to appeal to tourists, passing by a Byzantine church from the 11th century with a massive cistern in good shape, in a bid to raise awareness among visitors of the island’s historical engineering ingenuity. Visitors to the water walk will be immersed not only in the science of hydrology, but also in its historic and modern role in the island’s culture. Steenhuis is quick to point out that tourism itself, even for a country that receives more than 15 million visitors a year, isn’t the cause of Greece’s water woes—policy is.
“Tourism often is given a bad rap, but the true villain in much of Greece is citrus,” he also noted. “The E.U. has been encouraging Greece to plant citrus. It’s a very thirsty crop compared to olives and vineyards, which can be grown quite sustainably because they need less water.”
São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil, faces water shortages like Greece, yet coupled with flooding during summer rains. Brian Davis, assistant professor of landscape architecture, has an ongoing project to reconsider the city’s current approach to flooding: piscinões, or “big pools,” which are large concrete detention basins designed to hold runoff from the streets of the metropolis until the Tietê and Pinheiros rivers and their tributaries recede and can accommodate the flow. Davis looks at them with a hydrologist’s analytical eye and a humanitarian’s circumspection.
“As currently constructed they don’t have a social benefit beyond their hydrological function, and they can cause health problems by providing mosquito habitat that spreads dengue and possibly now Zika. In wet months, they devalue the properties nearby, and they concentrate pollutants and contaminants,” Davis said.
In spite of this, piscinões are a practical and important flood prevention mechanism. São Paulo has 55 in place, with more being built in busy commercial and residential areas. The typical way to store water during floods would be to upgrade to larger storm sewer lines, but those are inconveniently located beneath major roads, Davis noted. Originally the piscinões were intended to provide public open space, too, with parks and plazas being located along the basins.
“It was a very bold attempt at a synthetic and imaginative vision,” Davis said. “But that didn’t work because of the morphological characteristics and hydrological function of these infrastructures; they just don’t function like typical urban landscapes.”
Davis’ work is driven by one big question: Can piscinões do more? Some are the size of several football fields, and in total they almost equal the area of New York City’s Central Park.
“It’s not enough to just reimagine them as parks or other known urban landscape types. We need to examine what social, ecological, economic and environmental value we can get from these as multi-functional landscape infrastructures in a city that lacks open space,” Davis said. “What should these be and how can we make it so? And is it possible to imagine a sustainable paradigm for living with water in São Paulo?”
Davis has an ally in the University of São Paulo’s Lab Verde, which works on green public spaces in the city. Last fall they had a trial run at long-distance cooperation, with 21 graduate students from Cornell collaborating with students from Lab Verde on reimagining the piscinões. They envisioned tree-lined walkways, the spectacle of artificial waterfalls, floating islands to extract pollutants, and bright pathways for pedestrians.
For Davis, the project goes beyond managing flooding and pollution, even beyond creating pleasant public spaces.
“São Paulo is a manufacturing powerhouse—a lot of factories are located on the rivers—and industry has the funds to build up their riverbanks,” Davis explained. “As a result, floodwaters get deflected into areas that people want to live in because they are connected to jobs, and these become slums or favelas. It’s an issue that ties together social justice, ecological health and economic resilience.”