Unintended Consequences: Democratic Republic of the Congo

For Dominic Parker, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, a research foray into mining practices in Africa dug up some unexpected findings.

Parker wanted to study effects that recent U.S. legislation might have on “conflict minerals”—raw materials from parts of the world where conflict affects their mining and trading—from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a large nation in central Africa that has experienced decades of war and corruption.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Act, aimed at making significant changes to financial regulation. Tucked into the complex legislation is Section 1502, which requires manufacturers to do due diligence on the sources of minerals used in the production of electronics, including transparent reporting of whether their purchase of minerals might be financing warlords or militia groups in the DRC.

Parker set out to study the consequences that Section 1502 might have in places far removed from Washington, D.C. What he found, in collaboration with CALS colleagues Jeremy Foltz and David Elsea, and with fellow researcher Bryan Vadheim, is that the legislation has had a ripple effect with ramifications for violence and health in the DRC. Their work has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists and the Journal of Law and Economics.

Tin, tungsten and tantalum—known as the “three Ts” of conflict minerals—are linchpins in the production of everyday electronic goods, including smartphones and laptops. But they are typically harvested in areas where government rule is limited or altogether absent. In this vacuum, militia groups form and instill a crude type of order.

Rather than put their reputations at risk, many corporations simply chose to source their minerals elsewhere. As they pulled out of the DRC, mining became a less lucrative industry—so militia groups started to relocate, becoming more desperate and inflicting more violence and predation upon civilians.

At the same time, the domestic government of the DRC banned noncorporate mining—work that is usually done with pickaxes and shovels, often called “artisanal” mining. In many parts of the DRC, this type of hard labor represents the “only game in town” in terms of employment, according to Parker.

Empirical evidence also suggests that Dodd–Frank, combined with the domestic regulations, has had dire effects on family health. The infant mortality rate in areas surrounding mines nearly doubled in the years following what Parker describes as a “one- two punch” of legislation.

“What we think happened was that this big economic disruption reduced access to health care, either because services and facilities were less accessible or because families didn’t have the income any longer to get the health care they needed,” says Parker.

The future of the industry is uncertain, as is the long-term viability of Dodd–Frank itself. In 2016, the European Union passed its own form of regulation that promotes responsible sourcing. Untangling the effects of these laws isn’t as easy as simply repealing them.

“There are layers of different policies and regulations in place, so the governance of conflict minerals is now extensive and quite complex,” says Parker.

Though his past work has focused elsewhere, such as in studying land trusts, Parker acknowledges this chapter of his career is likely far from over. Early this year he was interviewed twice on the BBC World News. And in March he was invited to testify at a Washington, D.C. hearing about conflict minerals held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy. Though that hearing was postponed, it is clear that policy changes are being considered.

“The wheels are in motion now, and the health of vulnerable populations is at stake,” Parker says.

“Interwoven tapestry” of lakes and land: Iceland

Swarms of midges rise out of a lake in northern Iceland in such enormous numbers every spring and summer that they can impair breathing and darken the sky, giving the lake its name—Myvatn, or “midge lake.”

CALS entomology professor Claudio Gratton and other ecologists are trying to understand why the midge population can fluctuate by 100,000-fold across a decade, and what impact these massive swarms have on the surrounding landscape. It’s becoming clear that the billions of midges falling on land fertilize and alter the vegetation on the lakeside, but the causes behind such large fluctuations in the insects’ population remain a mystery.

Gratton’s research aims to better understand lake-dominated environments, including those of Wisconsin.

Lake Myvatn sits at the edge of the Arctic Circle, where the sun barely sets from May to August. The ecosystem is extreme yet simple; a relatively small number of species, like the midges, dominate. This bare-bones environment is perfect for exploring complex interactions within ecosystems.

In 2006, when Gratton first saw the huge numbers of midges rising out of the lake and dying on land, he thought of them as a living transfer of nutrients from water to shore. Gratton calculated that the midges were the nutritional equivalent of scattering a half-million Big Macs around the edge of the lake, which is about the size of Lake Mendota in Madison. He wondered how the lakeside responded to this nutritional glut.

To test how the midges alter the landscape, Gratton’s laboratory set up experimental plots in the vegetation around the lake. In some, they added dead midges; in others, they used netting to exclude them.

Over the years, Gratton’s team saw that where they added midges, grasses flourished. Normally starved of nutrients in the poor soil and outcompeted by heartier plants, the grasses took off in response to the influx of rotting- midge fertilizer. The research explained why grass grew in some areas and withered in others.

“Only by understanding the linkage between midges and grass can you explain this pattern in nature,” says Gratton. “The lake is causing that to happen.” Gratton was originally introduced to Lake Myvatn by colleague Tony Ives, a professor of zoology who has a lifelong connection to the island and researches fluctuations in the midge population.

Local shepherds have long called the grass in midge-infested areas “midge grass”—they
harvest the grass and feed it to their flocks. Gratton’s work suggests that the shepherds’
folklore contained a kernel of truth, and that midges might indirectly nourish the sheep by encouraging more grass growth.

Gratton and colleagues are extending these studies to the lake-filled Wisconsin landscape. Gratton and postdoctoral researcher Mireia Bartrons, now at the University of Vic in Spain, developed a model of how insect emergencies from Wisconsin lakes affect lakeside ecosystems. With more than 15,000 lakes and 34 percent of the state lying within 200 meters of a lake or stream, the scientists expect aquatic insects to affect a large share of the state.

Gratton sees ecosystems, whether in Iceland or the American Midwest, as an interwoven tapestry of interactions rather than isolated patches of land or water.

“The character of the land would change without these lakes,” says Gratton. “Our landscapes are completely interconnected.”

Undergrad helps teach orphans about hydroponic farming

There are capstones, and there are capstones.

For his capstone—a discipline-spanning research project required of all students graduating from CALS—soil science student Jacob Kruse BS’16 spent a summer working with orphans in Lima, Peru, to set up and run a hydroponic growing system.

More than 60 children from the Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage—a mission of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin—participated in growing crops that included tomatoes, peppers, bok choy and lettuce. The kids learned all about hydroponics, the art of growing plants in water, sand or gravel instead of soil, adding nutrients as needed.

But the project’s overarching benefits ran deeper. Beyond producing and learning about healthy food, “The goals were to teach children about water and natural resource use and reuse, help build connections between families and friends through common interests and projects and help the children develop responsibility,” says Kruse.

Kruse spent three months helping build the system and offering hands-on instruction on the basics of hydroponics—one class for older children and another for the younger ones. The kids learned about the environmental benefits of hydroponics, how to build home hydroponics out of household items and how to care for the garden.

A manufacturer of specialty chemicals for construction and industry, Sika Peru S.A., funded the project and built the garden structures with recycled materials. Mantisee, a nonprofit organization, provided the system design and plants. Both organizations, Kruse says, are concerned with natural resource use and social development, and they see the hydroponic system as a way to teach water use and nutrient efficiency—an important point in Lima, the world’s second-driest capital city.

Sika has also set up a scholarship and internship program for children at Casa Hogar who complete the hydroponic classes. “Sika’s scholarship and internship program will truly be life-changing for our children, and this collaborative project will have a lasting impact on our orphanage and the children who call it home,” says Jordan Zoroufy, Casa Hogar’s director of development.

Kruse’s faculty advisor, soil science professor Phillip Barak, is both impressed and delighted with the project. “We like our capstone experiences to be very hands-on and to have a service component,” Barak says. “Jake’s self-designed capstone sets a very high bar—food, children and education. Helping build a hydroponic food system from the ground up and turning it over to the children in the orphanage is quite an accomplishment.”

Adventures in Global Health

When it comes to study abroad experiences, an elephant ride in Thailand is pretty hard to beat.

“The entire time we were around the elephants, I was smiling uncontrollably,” says Gilad Segal, a microbiology major. “It was amazing to interact with them and get a sense of their personalities. Riding on the back of an elephant through the jungle and into a watering hole is something I never imagined I would do.”

And it was a great way to learn about the animals and efforts to protect them. Located in the “Golden Triangle”—the fabled convergence of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos—the Anatara Elephant Sanctuary improves the health and well-being of elephants by renting them from their owners and then caring for the elephant, the owner and his family as they continue to work humanely with tourists. In that part of the world, elephants frequently are victims of exploitation in the tourist industry, where their owners, called “mahouts,” earn a living by offering rides and having elephants perform tricks, often while not receiving adequate care.

“This solution allows the mahout to still live comfortably in that the camp provides them with a place to live and a monthly stipend for their elephant,” explains fellow microbiology major Lauren Raasch. “The elephants are cared for and are not overworked for tourist purposes.”

The students also examined the elephants’ microbiota by swabbing various parts of the animals and isolating and identifying microorganisms back in the lab at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The elephant camp was only one of several excursions during the seven-week, five-credit study abroad experience. The combined Microbiology 304/ Languages and Culture of Asia 300 program was the brainchild of bacteriology instructor Jon Roll BS’88 PhD’96, who developed the idea with biology advisor Todd Courtenay and teamed with Anthony Irwin, a doctoral student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, to lead the course’s cultural components.

The program debuted last summer with 14 students and is poised to reach its cap of 20 students in summer 2017. It satisfies a required field study component for the popular Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a CALS-administered program in UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute.

Roll got the idea when visiting Mae Fah Luang University to explore research collaborations. “I saw their instructional lab facilities and was very impressed,” he says.

The course kicks off with a week of cultural orientation at another institution, the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute in Chiang Mai. There students learn some basic Thai and become acquainted with various aspects of Thai culture, which include wearing uniforms to class (a white top and dark pants or skirts); not pointing at things (which is considered rude); taking shoes off when entering a home; eating dinner food for breakfast (the Western idea of breakfast food doesn’t exist); and, above all, keeping voices down. “Tone it down like 10 notches,” advises Raasch in a blog she kept on the trip, noting that the Thai communication style tends to be quieter and less confrontational.

In addition to the elephant camp, field trips included meeting with SOLD, a nonprofit that offers job training to young people at risk for sex trafficking, and learning about nutrition and food safety from a monk who is well known for his scholarship in those areas.

As for the basic science component, although Microbiology 304 is a demanding course, students appreciated the program’s hands-on, in-the-field approach to learning.

“The microbiology lab helped me learn a lot not only about microbiology, but also how science applies to everyday life,” says biology major Therese Renaud.

Students came home with a much bigger picture of the world.

“I just want to talk forever about everything I had the opportunity to experience,” says Raasch. “The cumulative experience of adapting to and gaining an appreciation of a new culture was by far the most memorable part.”

Mali: Helping women farm

Women in many industrialized countries are all too familiar with the “second shift”—the domestic duties they still perform disproportionately (compared with their husbands) once their formal workday is over.

That phenomenon is also key to understanding women’s work productivity in a developing country like Mali, according to studies led by Jeremy Foltz, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

More than farm technologies, family structures determine agricultural productivity for Malian women, Foltz found. Understanding both household priorities and labor allocation for Malian women outside of farming was key to Foltz’s research on generating improvements in agricultural productivity.

Foltz received a seed grant from the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison to explore gender, agricultural productivity and sustainability in Mali. One of Foltz’s graduate students, Julie Collins, focused her research in Mali on issues that cause women’s fields to have lower yields than those farmed by men.

Foltz’s and Collins’ research offers a new perspective on women as farmers in Africa. Women’s duties at home and with their children are their first priorities, the researchers found, leaving women with less time for farming.

“These findings have huge implications for how one thinks about women in agriculture in Africa,”says Foltz. “Most of the current thinking is that women are inherently less productive, so we need to get them better technology to help them be better farmers. Our data suggest a different story.”

Women can produce as much as men, Foltz says—and those who do either don’t have many children, or they can call upon more labor in the home.

Time-saving features and solutions, including childcare, could make a big difference, giving women more time to farm. So would basic utilities and appliances. “Certainly things that reduce the amount of time women need to spend on household chores— like running water and gas stoves—would have a positive effect on production,” Foltz says.

Creating any new agricultural technologies designed specifically to help women in Mali must acknowledge labor demands in their homes. “Technologies that solve productivity issues for Malian women are not exclusively agricultural,” says Foltz.

Time-saving solutions in the field could also increase Malian women’s crop yields, Foltz says.

“Women I have talked to in Mali are very excited about the possible use of herbicides because weeding labor is the hardest thing to come by in the production system,” says Foltz. “If you can spend money to get rid of your weeds rather than labor time that you don’t have because you are taking care of your kids, you’re ultimately going to save time and improve your productivity.”

Uganda: Soap paves the way to success

Most of us take soap for granted in our daily lives. Not so in the village of Lweza, Uganda, where only a third of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities and women face unemployment and economic opportunity challenges.

To address these problems, CALS genetics major Corinne Praska and gender and women’s studies major Mackenzie Carlson designed and implemented “The Soap Project: Women’s Empowerment & Sanitation in Lweza.”

Last year they traveled to Lweza, where they hosted workshops to teach women how to make soap inexpensively using local products and ingredients— and market it to local vendors. They also educated the community about soapmaking’s positive health impacts, which include sanitation, disease prevention and economic stimulation.

Four women from the community volunteered to lead a soap-making demonstration for the village, Praska says. “What was so neat was that they were talking to us in English, then presenting it to the community in Lugandan as they were doing things,” she recalls. “The community stayed involved that way, asking questions and giving comments and suggestions. It was a collaborative effort. They even made up a song to sing while they were mixing the soap. It was so cool.”

For their project, Praska and Carlson received a Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowship. The fellowships are awarded annually to undergraduate student projects aimed at solving issues identified by local or global communities. The semester- or year-long projects are designed by students in collaboration with a community organization and a UW–Madison faculty or academic staff member. Student recipients receive three academic credits and are invited to present their work at the spring Undergraduate Symposium.

“Assisting people at a community level to improve their health, while at the same time creating greater economic opportunities for them, is what development is all about,” says faculty sponsor and CALS biochemistry professor James Ntambi, who grew up in Lweza. “The project epitomizes what we hope for our students—connecting deeply with the community on issues that are important to them.”

The Soap Project has had a great impact on the community. Through the use of local products, it has boosted the local economy and raised awareness about proper sanitation practices. To ensure its future success, Praska and Carlson are seeking younger students to take it on and continue to work with the people of Lweza. A Go Fund Me account has been set up to help the soapmakers build a workshop.

“We just were blown away by the kindness, inclusivity and appreciation that all the people in the village showed,” says Praska. “When visitors come and the community really likes them, they invite them to be a part of it by assigning them clans and nicknames. We both got clans!”

To learn more about the Soap Project, contact James Ntambi at james.ntambi@wisc.edu or John Ferrick (CALS International Programs) at john.ferrick@wisc.edu.

Safer Nanotech

Although so tiny they are invisible, it’s easy to see that nanomaterials are becoming a big thing. There are odor-fighting socks and antibacterial dishrags impregnated with silver nanoparticles. Nano-sized titanium dioxide can be found in a long list of food and consumer products, including salad dressing, cake frosting, toothpaste and sunscreen. The vibrantly colored screen of the Kindle Fire can be attributed to quantum dots, a.k.a. nano-scale crystals of semiconductors such as cadmium selenide. And the list goes on.

Nanomaterials are tiny by definition, measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers along one or more dimension. (By comparison, a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers in width.) At this scale, they possess unique physical and chemical properties that make them useful for a wide array of applications, including consumer products, environmental remediation and medicine. Yet there are many unanswered questions about their safety.

“We don’t know a lot about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and we have much to learn about the potential risks associated with the release of these materials into the environment,” says Joel Pedersen, Rothermel Bascom Professor of Soil Science at CALS.

Pedersen is part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary research team exploring these unknowns as part of the UW–Madison-based Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, which was founded in 2012 with support from the National Science Foundation. Center scientists are working to understand how nanomaterials interact with living systems and the environment, with the practical goal of developing the insights needed to start creating nanomaterials that are designed to be more environmentally benign. This includes re-engineering them to make them safer, if needed.

With expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering, Pedersen is in charge of the Center’s efforts to develop laboratory models to assess the biological impacts of nanomaterials. While he has done some experiments in zebrafish, Pedersen’s work for the Center focuses on innovative, non-biological approaches, including creating “artificial cell surfaces” in the lab.

“Our intent is to get down to the molecular level,” Pedersen explains. “What are the rules that govern how these materials interact with biological systems? In particular, how do these particles interact with cell membranes?”

One way Pedersen’s group makes artificial cell surfaces is by depositing lipid vesicles on a special quartz crystal sensor until the vesicles spontaneously rupture and then fuse to form a lipid bilayer—the basic structure of a cell membrane—on the sensor’s surface.

When electricity is applied to the sensor, it causes the system to vibrate at a particular frequency. Next, Pedersen’s team applies nanomaterials to the artificial cell surface. The sensor can detect subtle changes in the frequency of the vibration, yielding clues about the interaction between the material and the membrane.

By combining the results of this approach with others, Pedersen is finding that some nanoparticles, by virtue of their unique physical and chemical properties, seem to be able to extract lipids from the cell surface.

“Our results are consistent with the idea that these nanoparticles are grabbing lipids out of the membrane and acquiring a lipid coating when they come in contact with a cell,” explains Pedersen.

This cell membrane-disrupting behavior is a concern for the health of humans and animals. And while Pedersen’s team hasn’t observed this behavior in models of bacterial cell surfaces, there are other, broader concerns about the impacts of nanomaterials on microbial communities in the environment.

“Eukaryotes are our main focus, but there is some concern that nanomaterials in the environment can alter microbial community compositions. At present, we don’t know to what extent such changes could be problematic,” says Pedersen.

The information gained from Pedersen’s research will help inform the work of other scientists in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology who focus on tweaking nanoparticles to make them safer.

“Ultimately, the goal is to redesign nanomaterials to minimize their adverse effects, or find better ways to embed them in materials so they aren’t released into the environment,” Pedersen says.

Ecuador: Better Health through Messaging

Some communities in Ecuador face high incidences of water-borne illness because of contaminated water or poor hygiene and sanitation. It’s a multipronged problem calling for an interdisciplinary approach combining natural, medical and social sciences. Bret Shaw, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, last year helped implement a social science approach with funding from the UW–Madison Global Health Institute.

“I used a social marketing perspective, which utilizes psychological and communication tools, to try to help villagers make lasting behavior changes in how they interact with water and sanitation,” explains Shaw.

Shaw worked with two undergraduates, Lauren Feierstein and Brenna O’Halloran, to create health behavioral prompts—small signs in Spanish left in important areas where a reminder to wash hands is vital, such as in bathrooms, near sinks and on bottles of water. Since many people in the community have limited literacy, it was important for the prompts to use images and very few words.

While the concept can seem intuitive, years of research show that the most effective prompts focus on self-efficacy—showing individuals how easy a behavior is—and making sure that the people in the graphic are relatable to the target population. The images and words Shaw’s team used were as specific as possible, showing an individual washing his or her hands with just a simple phrase underneath.

“Understanding the perspectives on why someone wouldn’t do something such as boil their water or wash their hands was very important,” says Feierstein, who also worked with residents on making and distributing organic soap. “Knowing those barriers was crucial to addressing the issue from all angles.”

The project was an extension of a course called “Water for Life Sustainability and Health,” a partnership between the Madison-based Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation and the Global Health Institute. The course is led by Catherine Woodward, a faculty associate with UW–Madison’s Institute for Biology Education and president of the Ceiba Foundation. Shaw was brought in to offer guidance about how social marketing strategies can encourage healthy behavior.

“I’m a biologist and most of the people we work with are biologists, so having a communications person on board was a critical part of getting the message out,” says Woodward. “And not just about the message and having people understand why it’s a good idea to conserve natural resources—but also to actually get them to change their behavior.”

Mexico: Mapping the roots of poverty and inequality

What makes development projects work? Jennifer Alix-Garcia, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, is diving deep into Mexico’s history to shed light on that question. Specifically, she seeks to illuminate what political, climatic and epidemiological events in 16th-century Mexico tell us about the country’s modern agrarian system—and what role history played in defining the present.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found an advanced society of about 25 million people. Only six decades later, European diseases and local plagues, coupled with the severest drought in 600 years, had killed 90 percent of the native population. It was one of the worst demographic collapses in human history.

“Such radical depopulation had to have a large impact on the institutions developed by the Spanish colonists,” explains Alix-Garcia. In particular, the population collapse enabled the colonists to claim land once farmed by those who had succumbed to pestilence. This led to the formation of large landholdings (haciendas) that dominated the Mexican economy and society for generations.

“The hacienda owners were able to control the labor force because they owned most of the land,” says Alix-Garcia. Worker shortages led to coercive labor practices that mimicked European feudalism or even slavery.

Though the hacienda system no longer exists, Alix-Garcia and graduate student Emily Sellars PhD’15 show that it continues to shape Mexico’s development. During the 20th century, more than half the nation’s land was redistributed in one of the largest agrarian reforms in history. Haciendas were dismantled and peasants were given common-property parcels—or ejidos—that allow for limited farming rights without direct ownership.

Using data on population and land ownership from colonial days to the present, the team has mapped patterns of land distribution in modern-day Mexico. They find that areas with the highest depopulation saw the greatest increase in land inequality, which subsequently led to high demand for land reform.

“We’re using events occurring four centuries before the reform to predict its intensity,” says Alix-Garcia. “We hope this will help us understand the role of land redistribution on the well-being of today’s rural communities.”

Despite decades of agrarian reform efforts around the globe, evidence on their development impact remains elusive. Recent studies in India and South Africa show poverty reduction effects, but the particular case of Mexico’s reform defies the pattern.

“I want to map Mexico’s development outcomes so that we can see if our theories about the power of institutions are correct,” Alix-Garcia says. “If we can recognize the fundamental sources of inequities in society—the importance of specific local institutions embedded in a long history—we can design policies that truly encourage economic growth.”

Middle East: Improving water policy in an arid region

Political conflict in the Middle East is a constant source of media attention, but Samer Alatout, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, focuses his efforts on a serious but less heralded struggle: how to best manage fresh water in a region that has so little.

Alatout, an expert on environmental policy in the Middle East, received Fulbright funding last year to advance his research on water policy—work that took him back to his hometown of Nablus, in the northern West Bank.

There he taught at An-Najah National University and established a number of research partnerships with Palestinian colleagues. He gathered valuable information about water policy in the region for these new collaborative projects, for his broader research program and for his forthcoming book, Water History and Politics in Historic Palestine: From Empire to Globalization, 1750–2009.

In one of those projects, Alatout is assessing the interplay of administrative units that have jurisdiction over water resources in the Palestinian territories—but that don’t always work together “in the most efficient or equitable way,” notes Alatout. He and his collaborator will analyze conditions on the ground and propose recommendations. “This project is about building better institutional mechanisms to solve administrative overlap among agencies,” Alatout explains.

In another project he looks at policies governing how Palestine and Israel share water resources, including the large mountain aquifer that sits beneath them. The goal is to find alternative ways for sharing the water that are more equitable—and work for all parties.

“It’s about how to negotiate productive solutions for managing trans-boundary water resources,” says Alatout. “In particular, how do you create win-win solutions, so that water access in Palestine can be increased without affecting Israeli communities in a negative way?”

Another big-picture goal arose from Alatout’s Fulbright trip: to help build the institutional relationship between UW–Madison and An-Najah National University, with the long-term objective of helping Palestinians tackle some of the tough environmental and agricultural challenges they face. These include arid climate, pollution and soil erosion.

“Any help that UW experts can provide in terms of research will make a huge difference on the ground in the daily lives of people,” says Alatout. At the same time, true to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and the push for internationalization, “Getting involved in an arid region like Palestine can be very productive for CALS researchers,” Alatout notes. “They will benefit greatly from facing fundamentally different issues surrounding agriculture and water policy making.”

PHOTO: Samer Alatout at a small reservoir linked to Al-Auja spring. The water is distributed to fisheries and a date farm in nearby Jericho.

Uganda: The Benefits of Biogas

Generating enthusiasm for a new kind of technology is key to its long-term success. Rebecca Larson, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, has already accomplished that goal in Uganda, where students at an elementary school in Lweeza excitedly yell “Biogas! Biogas!” after learning about anaerobic digester systems.

Larson, a UW–Extension biowaste specialist and an expert in agricultural manure management, designs, installs and upgrades small-scale anaerobic digester (AD) systems in developing countries. Her projects are funded by the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison and several other sources. Community education and outreach at schools and other installation sites are an important part of these efforts.

Children get excited by the “magic” in her work, she says. “It’s converting something with such a negative connotation as manure into something positive,” Larson notes. In an AD system, this magic is performed by bacteria that break down manure and other organic waste in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting biogas, a form of energy composed of methane and carbon dioxide, can be used directly for cooking, lighting, or heating a building, or it can fuel an engine generator to produce electricity.

Larson’s collaborators in Uganda include Sarah Stefanos and Aleia McCord, graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who joined forces with fellow students at Makarere University in Kampala to start a company called Waste 2 Energy Ltd.
Along with another company, Green Heat Uganda, which has built a total of 42 digesters, Waste 2 Energy has helped install four AD systems since 2011.

“Most of these digesters are locally built underground dome systems at schools and orphanages,” Larson explains. Lweeza’s elementary school is a perfect example.

The AD systems use food waste, human waste from pit latrines and everything in between. The biogas generated by the digester is run through a pipeline to a kitchen stove where the children’s meals are prepared. Compared to traditional charcoal cooking, the AD systems greatly reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Larson and her team are now focusing on enhancing the efficiency and environmental benefits of these systems. Their goals are to improve the digester’s management of human waste, reduce its water needs, increase the amount of energy it produces and generate cheap fertilizer to boost food crop yields.

“Our overall goal is to create a closed-loop and low-cost sustainability package that addresses multiple local user needs,” Larson says.

The beauty of the project is that all these needs can be met by simply adding two new components to the existing systems: heating elements and a solid-liquid separator.

To help visualize the impact of the fertilizer, Larson set up demonstration plots that compare crop yields with and without it. Down the road, a generator could be added to the system to provide electricity in a country where only 9 percent of the population currently has access.

As a next step, Larson hopes to replicate the project’s success in Bolivia. She is finalizing local design plans with Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, her postdoctoral fellow in biological systems engineering, and their collaborators at the Universidad Amazonica de Pando in Cobija.

Russia: Monitoring Russia’s “rewilding”

Doing fieldwork in the remote wilderness of Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are long distances to travel on deeply rutted roads, bleak outpost towns with meager accommodations, and bears and wolves to contend with. Plus—in the case of visiting American scientists—the constant presence of an armed guard who wasn’t there to protect them from large carnivores. “

He was there in case we encountered illegal poachers,” explains forest and wildlife ecology (FWE) professor Volker Radeloff, who has been visiting Russia in a research capacity for a dozen years, most recently with his fellow FWE professor Anna Pidgeon.

According to the duo (who are married), the opportunity to visit two of Russia’s protected areas— the Kologrivksi Forest northeast of Moscow and the Caucasus Mountains in the south—is worth the trouble.

That’s because Russia offers a unique case study for conservation scientists interested in studying the impact of land use changes on wildlife populations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens abandoned the state’s collectivized farms, leaving many of the agricultural fields to revert to a more natural state—and opening up new space for animals to live and roam.

“Their forests are regrowing and their wildlands are coming back, which is something we don’t see in many other places on the planet—especially at that magnitude,” says Radeloff.

Radeloff, an expert in using satellite imagery to monitor land use changes, can look at his remote sensing data and see that forests are expanding in Russia. But the images don’t tell Radeloff and Pidgeon much about what’s happening “on the ground” with local wildlife populations. For that, they need to partner with Russian scientists, working with them on their turf.

As an example, while satellite imagery can help identify promising habitat for the reintroduction of European bison into new areas within the Caucasus Mountains, many other factors will determine a herd’s ultimate success.

“We identified an area that looked like good habitat, but the local scientists made it quite clear that this would not work because of the human context,” says Radeloff. “They told us the bison would all be shot there within a week; they’d never survive. That’s the kind of information we need that we cannot learn remotely and that nobody is publishing about in scientific journals.”

That “human context” is a significant factor, even within the nation’s protected areas. Animals are hunted for food by locals and for trophies by affluent sportsmen. In the southern Caucasus Mountains, ibex, a type of wild goat, are killed for their horns, which are used as wineglasses during traditional Georgian wedding ceremonies. The Saiga antelope of the Kalmykia are likewise poached for their horns, which are sold on the Chinese medicine market. These forces must be factored in.

Trips to Russia also enable Radeloff and Pidgeon to develop important scientific relationships. They regularly host Russian conservation scientists in their Madison labs, giving visitors the opportunity to work on short projects that can aid their efforts back home in Russia.

“Both of us are interested in capacity building, particularly in countries where the resources or training may not be quite as comprehensive as it is here in the United States,” says Pidgeon. “These relationships lead to a cross-pollination that benefits both sides as we work to study and support wildlife populations in Russia.”