Spying from space, groping on the ground....
So, after months of groping through the forest, giving credence to rumours and hearsay, in my usual un-scientific way, pushing anecdotes and theories, throwing up wild accusations based on the scantest of evidence I was pleased to see that I'm not the only person that has noticed that the oranges are dieing on the vine because cheap Chinese fruits are coming down the river and irrigation isn't as easy as it seems, the rubber trees are standing, metre high, waiting for another six years of investment before a crop can be got and all the while local folks are getting poorer and the local wildlife is becoming less existent.
Except they've noticed something larger - an entity no less than NASA has spotted something from space and is awarding around US$800,000 (not much for NASA I know, the price a squeeze of grease on the bolt on the wheel of the Mars lander) "to determine the effects of the explosive expansion of rubber cultivation in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA) on regional water and carbon dynamics."
If you can see it from space it must be big, I reckon, the report didn't say what they'd noticed, perhaps the river's got redder? - I've never been sure I believed the account of the British Consul to the North when, in 1914 he stood, almost at the spot where I now type, at what must have been this time of year and wrote "the river itself was a mighty expanse flowing swift and clear, with just the top of an island showing, and far away on the other side the bank rose fully as high again, lined with row upon row of tall palms, looking like small shrubs in the distance" - well, it all makes sense, but clear? Did our great muddy river ever run clear? If so how many tonnes of red clay are being washing from China to Vietnam every second that haven't been doing so from time immemorial? Where does it drop out of the flow? Where does it come from? How long before all of the mountains in Tibet have been worn down and flowed to the sea? Will the river then run backwards? - of course I'm being stupid but it will be interesting if the study can find out even a few of these things.
One final point before I hand you over to NASA, another wild anecdotal observation from the ground, I get the feeling that, at least on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle, they may be missing out by concentrating only on rubber - that was last year's get-rich-quick crop, nowadays everyone is clearing and planting for biofuel - I haven't looked into it but at least this means that the farmers might get a return on their work within a year (?) and be able to start paying off their land debts. The effect on the natural environment, regional water and carbon dynamics and the price of elephant grazing land remains to be seen - but can be guessed at - the effect, even more seriously and less selfishly, across on the jungles and wildlife populations of Laos and our neighbours that still harbour wildlife, well, we'll have to wait until NASA can tell us.
NASA Awards East-West Center $826,639 For Environmental Study
June 17, 2008
The East-West Center (EWC) was awarded a three-year contract from NASA for a projected total of $826,639 to determine the effects of the explosive expansion of rubber cultivation in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA) on regional water and carbon dynamics.
“Hydrologic change within this region, which comprises approximately half of Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China’s Yunnan Province, could have serious consequences for the approximately 200 million inhabitants of mainland Southeast Asia’s lowlands and for the climate of monsoon Asia,” according to Jefferson Fox, East-West Center Senior Fellow, and member of the team heading up the project.
Responding to China’s increased demand for rubber, subsistence farmers in MMSEA are rapidly transitioning from the traditional practice of shifting cultivation to commercial agriculture. The dramatic changes in land cover and land use have significant implications for rural livelihoods, cultural traditions, biodiversity, and watershed hydrology.
The proposed study will bring together a multidisciplinary team of specialists in three fields (remote sensing/land cover-land use, ecosystem modeling, and hydrology) from the East-West Center, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the National University of Laos, Harvard University, and the Carnegie Institution.