Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

Guest Blog: Could agroforestry do more to protect Rwandans from hazardous landslides?

Megan Jamer is a geoscientist from Canada, and an avid cyclist and explorer. Megan is currently travelling around East Africa on bicycle, taking in some remarkable sites and observing first hand the relationship between geoscience and sustainable development. Today Megan makes her debut on the GfGD blog site, writing on the relationship between agroforestry, landslides, and disaster risk reduction.

Some landslide interventions are hard to miss along Rwanda’s highways. There are gabions, and concrete drainage pathways, kept unclogged by women and men in fluorescent vests. Other strategies are more subtle. Where cassava or bean plots are mixed with banana trees or ringed within a hedge, this may also reduce the damage caused by landslides in this central African nation. Rwandan agroforestry is getting attention. The strategy, which combines trees and crops in the same area, is being used to work towards the 2020 goal of trees covering thirty percent of Rwanda’s total surface area. In 2014, more than half of new seedlings distributed by the government were agroforestry or fruit varieties. Food and land scarcity pressure Rwanda’s slopes, and agroforestry is one way to address the root causes of these shortages, protecting against landslides in the process.

A rural dwelling in the hills of northern Rwanda, excavated into the slope (author’s own).

The Problem of Landslides

At least sixty-seven people were killed last year by landslides and mudslides in the north and west, and in the capital, Kigali. Deadly or not, they cause wide-ranging infrastructure damage, harming public infrastructure and trading patterns, as well as hillside settlements and agriculture. Landslides here disproportionately affect the poor, who pursue subsistence agriculture on steep slopes or live in vulnerable urban areas because they have few alternatives.

In the ‘land of a thousand hills’, slopes are made more vulnerable by rainfall patterns that some say are difficult to manage. In The New Times last year, coffee grower Pierre Munyura said that in western Rwanda“we receive about the same amount of rainfall as ever, but the rain comes in heavier and more destructive bursts.” Rainstorms are considered to be the main trigger of landslides in Rwanda, but human activities prepare the slopes for failure. They are cleared and levelled for walking pathways, homes, latrines, small plots and gardens. Other areas are hollowed out for small-scale mining. The result of these activities is a complex pattern of slope disturbance and deforestation.

Hillside communities cultivate in a manner that reflects traditional knowledge, regulations, and the resources available to them (author’s own)

Similar environmental and human conditions come together on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Uganda, where the causal factors of landslides were investigated. The researchers’ prognosis was bleak: “The growing population density not only increases the risk of damage, but hampers the search for solutions for the landslide problem as well.”  Understanding occurrence is the first step in managing rainfall-induced landslides, says Dave Petley of The Landslide Blog, and here Rwanda has made big strides. Its Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDMAR) published a National Risk Atlas in 2015, an analysis of the earthquakes, landslides, windstorms, droughts and floods that challenge Rwanda’s resiliency. The Atlas inventories hazardous landslides, estimates slope susceptibility, and shows maps of properties that affect landslide incidence, including rainfall, slope angle, ground cover and soil characteristics.

MIDMAR’s analyses estimated that nearly half of Rwanda’s population lives in areas with moderate or high slope susceptibility to landslides. These hazards are commonly small and localized, requiring community action, but “knowledge at the citizen level [about landslides] is still low,” says Dr. Aime Tsinda, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research-Rwanda. Translating information in studies like the National Risk Atlas into local knowledge is a slow process. While it’s underway, communities are motivated to adopt agroforestry because of a hazard they are already familiar with: poor quality soil.

More Trees!

Agroforestry is the ‘intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits’. On cultivated slopes where agroforestry isn’t practiced, small plots drape over them, resembling smooth patchwork blankets. Like blankets, their soils can more easily wash away, creep or slide catastrophically. This is what happened last year, says J.M.V. Senyanzobe, a Forestry Lecturer at the University of Rwanda. “If you observe the concerned areas,” he says, “they were empty of trees, just grasses which are not strong enough to stop the soil from being eroded.”

When trees are cut down their roots decay, eventually rendering them ineffective soil binders. The slopes of Mount Elgon demonstrate the difference. Forested areas lacked evidence of landslides, even when they grew on slope angles and in soil types that contributed to slope instability elsewhere in the study area. Deforestation began as early as 3000 BC in what was Rwanda-Urundi! Reforestation and tree cultivation have been encouraged since the 1930s and it’s working: In 1996, an FAO agroforestry study exclaimed that “photographs taken in Rwanda in the early years of this [twentieth] century show landscapes almost devoid of trees, a stark contrast to the present.

Some Rwandans are motivated to plant because of what the trees themselves offer. Bananas are brewed into beer, coffee trees have been called ‘Rwanda’s Second Sunrise’, and eucalyptus and pine provide construction materials. Other trees are valued for their structure, for example marking plot boundaries. And it’s taken some convincing, but more people are trying out types of agroforestry that plant trees and crops together, in an effort to improve soil quality. There are techniques that do more to increase soil stability. This guide recommends mimicking the plant diversity of a natural forest as much as possible, or to plant tree rows within crops along topographic contours. Within Rwanda, living hedges were found to greatly reduce soil erosion, but landslide prevention wasn’t specifically investigated. Senyanzobe recommends a combination of reforestation between cultivated areas, and agroforestry species within crop areas.  Ultimately, “the sustainable solution is to plant trees as much as possible,” he says.

Outside of agroforestry, is there a way to reduce hazardous landslides in Rwanda? Enforcing rules about how people should excavate slopes or use terracing appropriately is difficult, especially in remote areas. Similarly, mass relocation of vulnerable hillside communities is unrealistic in mainland Africa’s most densely populated country. Large-scale agroforestry interventions, by contrast, are already underway. But because they aren’t undertaken to address landslides specifically, their effectiveness is currently limited.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Speaking to the effectiveness of agroforestry for any goal, “it needs to be implemented with sensitivity to people’s needs, priorities and sociocultural and economic conditions,” says the FAO. It’s not yet clear whether many Rwandans choose tree planting specifically for reducing landslide risk—today, selling the tree’s products or increasing soil fertility are more powerful motivators. If this is how communities prioritise, then agroforestry will be pursued to the extent that those benefits are gained. The damage by landslides may be mitigated, but as a by-product.

Obstacles to agroforestry being used for disaster risk reduction overlap with the challenges of agroforestry in general. One major hurdle in Rwanda is the belief that trees can damage crops by shading them, drying them out, or otherwise competing. Unfortunately this is sometimes true. Avocado trees can harm the crops closest to them. Pine and eucalyptus trees are resilient, but also invasive.

Making the most of agroforestry involves more conversations about the risk—and prevention—of landslides. On the heels of its efforts to understand occurrence of its natural hazards, Rwanda is trying to increase public awareness of landslides in a number of ways. In the official guide to primary school construction, choosing a stable slope location is a ‘must,’ and instructions are given to this end. Public radio broadcasts, disaster committees at the district level, and discussions during monthly community service day (umuganda) on topics including disasters are other examples. Currently, about a quarter of disaster-related spending in Rwanda is directed to prevention and mitigation.

Seedling distribution on National Tree Planting Day looks pretty good, but so does a new home. Recently, several high-risk families were relocated to ‘disaster resilient’ homes in collaboration with UN-HABITAT. Both of these events received media coverage, but were largely treated as separate topics.

The collapsed downslope shoulder of a road in southern Rwanda (author’s own)

These conversations in the media and during umuganda need to continue, but hopefully soon when there’s talk of landslides in Rwanda, trees and agroforestry will be a bigger part of the discussion.

Do trees keep you safer from hazards in your environment? Do you think that any tree planting is a good thing when it comes to landslides, or can it bring mixed results?

GfGD Annual Conference 2017

Since 2013, Geology for Global Development (GfGD) has organised an annual conference exploring the role of geologists in fighting poverty and sustainable development. Each event has gathered 100-150 participants (with >80% being students and early-career geoscientists) to engage with experts from academia, the private sector, the public sector and civil society. Our annual conference is a highlight of the GfGD calendar, and we’re very excited to announce the theme of our next, and 5th, annual conference.

Urbanisation is a development mega-trend, associated with both major challenges but also significant opportunities for delivering the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities; SDG 6 – Universal Access to Water and Sanitation).

“More than half of the world’s population now live in urban areas. By 2050, that figure will have risen to 6.5 billion people – two-thirds of all humanity. Sustainable development cannot be achieved without significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces.” [UNDP]

“Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more. At their best, cities have enabled people to advance socially and economically.” [UN]

This conference, aimed at geoscientists at all stages of their careers (from students to experienced professionals), will again seek to draw on the expertise of both geoscience and development professionals working across diverse sectors. We’ll be exploring themes such as the sustainable resourcing of cities and resilient cities, with a particular focus on the Global South.

The 5th GfGD Annual Conference will take place on Friday 3 November, kindly hosted and supported by the Geological Society of London (Burlington House, London). A full programme will be released later this summer, and tickets made available then also. Follow our Facebook and Twitter for further details, and keep an eye on this blog for some additional ‘cities and development’ themed articles.

New Articles – Social Geoscience and Sustainable Development

We’d like to bring your attention to two new publications, relevant to the theme of this blog. These publications share some common themes, including emphasising the significant role for geoscientists in sustainable development, and enhancing the skills training of geoscientists to support effective and positive engagement. For further information on either of these articles, please contact the corresponding authors.

Delivery of clean water requires an understanding of both geoscience and sustainability concepts (Credit: Joel Gill)

Social Geoscience – Integrating sustainability concepts into Earth science.

Iain Stewart and Joel Gill

Most geologists would argue that geoscientific knowledge, experience, and guidance is critical for addressing many of society’s most acute environmental challenges, yet few geologists are directly engaged in current discourses around sustainable development. That is surprising given that several attributes make modern geoscience well placed to make critical contributions to contemporary sustainability thinking. Here, we argue that if geoscientists are to make our know-how relevant to sustainability science, two aspects seem clear. Firstly, the geoscience community needs to substantially broaden its constituency, not only forging interdisciplinary links with other environmental disciplines but also drawing from the human and behavioral sciences. Secondly, the principles and practices of ‘sustainability’ need to be explicitly integrated into geoscience education, training and continued professional development.

Read more:

Geology and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Joel Gill

This paper presents an overview and visualisation of the role of geology in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These internationally-agreed goals aim to eradicate global poverty, end unsustainable consumption patterns, and facilitate sustained and inclusive growth, social development, and environmental protection. Through a matrix visualisation, this paper presents a synthesis that relates the 17 agreed SDGs to 11 key aspects of geology. Aspects considered are agrogeology, climate change, energy, engineering geology, geohazards, geoheritage and geotourism, hydrogeology and contaminant geology, mineral and rock resources, geoeducation, geological capacity building, and a miscellaneous category. The matrix demonstrates that geologists have a role in achieving all 17 of the SDGs. Three topics relating to improved engagement by geologists with international development are then highlighted for discussion. These are the development of supporting skills in education, improving transnational research collaborations, and ensuring respectful capacity building initiatives. This synthesis can help mobilise the broader geology community to engage in the SDGs, allowing those working on specific aspects of geology to consider their work in the context of sustainable development. The contribution that geologists can make to sustainable development is also demonstrated to other relevant disciplines, and development policy and practitioner communities.

Geology and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (From Gill JC, 2016, Episodes, used with permission).

Read more (open access):

GfGD endorses the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’

At the start of 2017, the GfGD Board of Trustees formally endorsed the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics‘, joining organisations such as Geology in the Public Interest, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the Geological Society of America (GSA).

The ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics‘ was prepared during the 35th International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa (27 August – 4 September 2016), and approved by the International Association for Promoting Geoethics Executive Council on 26th October 2016.  Since then 11 major geoscience organisations have endorsed the Cape Town Statement, and we hope many more will follow. Here we outline our perspective on what geoethics means, introduce the Cape Town Statement, and discuss why GfGD decided to endorse the statement.

What is Geoethics?

The ‘Cape Town Statement’ defines geoethics as:

“Research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience knowledge, education, research, practice and communication, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities.”

Definition of Geoethics, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

Ethics is the field of knowledge that deals with the principles that govern how people behave and conduct activities. Ethics is well established as being of relevance to other scientific disciplines (e.g., medical ethics, bioethics). Given the multiple interfaces of geoscience with society, it is appropriate that we all consider our social role and responsibilities – geoethics. This is not just a niche area of research, but extends to all geoscientists irrespective of their field (e.g., volcanology, engineering geology, hydrogeology, metamorphic petrology) and employment sector (e.g., industry, academia, public sector). Geoethics provides a framework for us all to reflect on the shared values that underpin our work as geoscientists, and how these values shape our professional actions, and our interactions with colleagues, society and the natural environment.

Fuego Volcano, Guatemala (Credit: Joel Gill. 2014)

Putting geoethics into the context of a few examples: (i) Overseas Research – consider what the responsibilities of geoscientists are when engaging in research overseas, how should we behave in a different culture, how do we interact with in-country researchers and institutions, and what responsibility do we have to share data and learning with these partners? (ii) Communication – consider the role of geoscientists in communicating our knowledge of a a geological feature, such as an active volcano, who should we directly communicate our research and monitoring data to, and what form should this communication take? And (iii) Data Generation – consider our shared values (within and beyond the geoscience community) in generating data that is reliable and can be replicated, what quality control measures can we put into place to ensure our science is rigorous and of the highest quality? All three of these examples could apply to the majority of geoscientists, albeit in different contexts. And all three require geoscientists to consider both professional and social values.

There are currently two international organisations focused on geoethics that are serving the geoscience community. The International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) and the International Association for Association for Geoethics (IAGETH). Their respective websites give further information on geoethics, including multiple resources of that may be of interest.

What is the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics (CTSG)?

“The concepts, values and views on individual responsibilities of geoscientists, expressed in the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’ reflect an international consensus. The statement aims to capture the attention of geoscientists and organisations, and to stimulate them to improve their shared policies, guidelines, strategies and tools to ensure they consciously embrace (geo)ethical professional conduct in their work.”

Preamble, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

The CTSG includes a preamble, introduction, definition of geoethics, purpose, 10 fundamental values of geoethics, a proposed geoethical promise, and a final statement. Of most importance is the CTSG purpose, and the 10 fundamental values.

“Embracing geoethics is essential: to improve both the quality of professional work and the credibility of geoscientists, to foster excellence in geosciences, to assure sustainable benefits for communities, as well as to protect local and global environments; all with the aim of creating and maintaining the conditions for the healthy and prosperous development of future generations.”

Purpose, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

As expressed in the CTSG, the purpose of this document is to foster excellence in the geosciences – in terms of our science, our societal interactions, and the legacy we leave for future generations. This is done by raising awareness of ‘geoethics’ as an important area of research and reflection – with the overall aim that all geoscientists will see geoethics integrated into their education and continued professional development. The ’10 fundamental values’ expressed in the CTSG help articulate what it is that we as geoscientists could (and should) be doing if our professional engagement with one another and society is to be considered ‘ethical’. For completeness of this article, we have noted these 10 values below, which should be read alongside the full CTSG.

Honesty, integrity, transparency and reliability of the geoscientist, including strict adherence to scientific methods; 
• Competence, including regular training and life-long learning;
• Sharing knowledge at all levels as a valuable activity, which implies communicating science and results, while taking into account intrinsic limitations such as probabilities and uncertainties;
• Verifying the sources of information and data, and applying objective, unbiased peer-review processes to technical and scientific publications;
• Working with a spirit of cooperation and reciprocity, which involves understanding and respect for different ideas and hypotheses;
• Respecting natural processes and phenomena, where possible, when planning and implementing interventions in the environment;
• Protecting geodiversity as an essential aspect of the development of life and biodiversity, cultural and social diversity, and the sustainable development of communities;
• Enhancing geoheritage, which brings together scientific and cultural factors that have intrinsic social and economic value, to strengthen the sense of belonging of people for their environment;
• Ensuring sustainability of economic and social activities in order to assure future generations’ supply of energy and other natural resources.
• Promoting geo-education and outreach for all, to further sustainable economic development, geohazard prevention and mitigation, environmental protection, and increased societal resilience and well-being. 

Fundamental Values of Geoethics, Cape Town Statement on Geoethics

Many of these will appear obvious to some readers, and it is to be welcomed that many of these values are already integrated and appreciated as being key to high quality, professional engagement. Others will require further reflection on what they mean in practice. For example, what does the value of ‘protecting geodiversity’  mean for geoscientists in academia and industry? The CTSG does not attempt to prescribe the precise actions that geoscientists should take to ‘protect geodiversity’, rather it brings this value to our attention and challenges us to consider how we will build it into the specific context of our work.

As noted above, the CTSG also includes a ‘geoethical promise’. This is a proposal of Hippocratic-like oath for early-career geoscientists, expressing their commitment to geoethics values in geoscience research and practice. The proposed promise is a draft of what could be developed to raise the profile of geoethics at a university level. While GfGD supports the broader CTSG (see below), and the core values within this promise, at this stage we will not be proactively encouraging early-career geoscientists to make the stated ‘geoethical promise’. We look forward to working with the IAPG to help re-draft the promise, with our preference being for a voluntary ‘statement of commitment to geoethics’ that early-career geoscientists can sign. The current language, for example, includes statements such as ‘I promise I understand my responsibilities towards society, future generations and the Earth for sustainable development‘, which we believe could be better phrased to recognise the importance of life-long learning. The IAPG are correct to strive for greater promotion of geoethics in the training of young geoscientists, and we wholeheartedly agree with this aim. We will continue to work closely with our IAPG colleagues to encourage our network of geoscientists to reflect on the relevance of the CTSG to their work.

Why did GfGD endorse the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics?

IAPG session on Geoethics at EGU 2016: Silvia Peppoloni (Secretary General, International Association for Promoting Geoethics) and Joel Gill (Director, Geology for Global Development)

GfGD supports the values which underpin the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics. We believe it is the social and professional responsibility of all geoscientists to consider geoethics. GfGD is a champion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the geology community, and we recognise the Cape Town Statement as a helpful articulation of the values that are necessary to embed within the geoscience community if we are to make a full and positive contribution to the delivery of the SDGs. By endorsing the CTSG, when people ask us what are the values in the DNA of GfGD, we can point people to the CTSG. We then have our own responsibility as an organisation to outline how we have and will work these out in practice.

We congratulate IAPG on their commitment to serving the geoscience community. We are very pleased to see other organisations support the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics, and hope that many other professional societies, geoscience unions, and public/private sector organisations give this the serious consideration that it deserves.


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