EAPS grad student uses earth science to combat deforestation and aid food sustainability in Guatemala


Ian Pope (middle)

EAPS graduate student Ian Pope (center) with Gebisa Ejeta (left), Purdue University distinguished professor of agronomy and World Food Prize laureate, and Gary Burniske (right), managing director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security.

Ian Pope knows there is a science to sustainable agriculture.

The Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences graduate student uses his earth sciences expertise to look at soil erosion and land tenure to improve farming in impoverished countries while trying to combat deforestation.

Since 2012, Pope has spent much of his time in Guatemala for research that combines "geospatial analysis of cloud forests in the Sierra Yalijux and Sierra Sacranix mountain ranges of Guatemala with surveys and focus groups in several villages that illuminated patterns of deforestation and soil erosion in the region. Pope used a participatory approach in his research project, meaning that he aimed to not only collect and analyze data, but also to promote farmers’ understanding of conservation and its impact on their livelihoods and food security," according to a feature on Pope at FeedtheFuture.com.

Majestic and rare, cloud forests – or fog forests -- are found in tropical or subtropical areas and are characterized by having persistent low-level cloud cover and are found in high elevations. The forests are very moist, moss-covered and dominated by evergreen trees.

Pope was a U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security graduate research grant recipient, which helps fuel his Guatemalan work.

Question: Please explain the connection between earth science and agriculture that you are pursuing.

Answer: My research is focused on the nexus between deforestation of cloud forest, food security and land tenure systems in Q'eqchi' Maya communities in the central Highlands of Guatemala. Soil erosion modeling is an important component of my research and really hits on the connection between earth science and agriculture. The model can be used to explore the driving factors of soil erosion including precipitation frequency and intensity, soil erodibility, slope length and steepness, land cover, and support practices (erosion control). The land cover component of the model accounts for soil erosion resulting from conversion of forested area to agriculture. Additionally, the values for the land cover component can be modified to quantify differences in soil loss that reflect a variety of agricultural practices.

Mountainous Guatemala

Mountainous Guatemala

Q: Why did you concentrate on cloud forests?

A: The cloud forests of Guatemala are disappearing. The cloud forests in the central Highlands of Guatemala provide important ecosystem services for the Q'eqchi' people living in the region, and is integral for long-term food security. These services include purification of water (increases availability of potable water), climate regulation, carbon uptake, waste management and maintenance of soil fertility. The Q'eqchi' are aware that the input of organic matter from the cloud forest enhances agricultural productivity of their staple crops, maize and beans. Results from my research indicate that deforestation of these forests has increased over the past few decades, threatening the livelihood of the people living in subsistence communities in the region.

Q: What led you to Guatemala?

A: As an undergraduate at the University of Mary Washington, I participated in a one-week study abroad trip to Guatemala with the Department of Geography. I was inspired by the work of a small NGO, Community Cloud Forest Conservation, which is working to conserve the cloud forest through education of agro-ecological farming techniques, family planning and sustainable forest resource use. The students were required to write a project proposal for the final project. My proposal served as the foundation for my thesis for my M.S. degree here at Purdue University.

Q: How in-tune are the Guatemalans about soil erosion and the threat to these forests?

A: Analysis of focus group dialogue revealed important insights about farmer knowledge and behavior in Q'eqchi' communities. The Q'eqchi' are not only in-tune about soil erosion and deforestation but about environmental change in general. The Q'eqchi' know that population growth has led to increased demand for agricultural land, the leading cause of deforestation of cloud forest.   Population grow has also contributed to fragmentation of land parcels, shorter fallow periods and less vegetation cover. The result is increased soil erosion. The Q'eqchi' have also observed changes in the climate over the past few decades. The frequency of intense rainfall events has increased and the timing of these events has become less predictable. They know the fundamental driving factors of land degradation but mitigating it is another issue altogether.

Q: What are the farmers like in Guatemala? What is the economy like for them?

A: The communities that I have worked with in rural Guatemala survive by growing most of their own food. Each household has their own plot of land in which they grow milpa (maize and beans). Maize is a key staple for many Guatemalans and is culturally important. Subsistence farmers buy and sell food products and are greatly affected by commodity prices in global markets. 

Q: How does your research translate back to the United States? Indiana?

A: The trans disciplinary approach that I used to study food security and deforestation of cloud forest in Guatemala can serve as a model for how to study human-environment interactions anywhere, the United States included. The term "trans disciplinary" has two components. First, in order to work on complex issues such as food security we need to incorporate methodologies and approaches in multiple disciplines. For example, scientific analyses that implement tools such as remote sensing and GIS are much more powerful when social science becomes a key part of the investigation. Second, the bridge between academic and non-academic players needs to be strengthened in order to make progress in food security research that is efficiently translated to development efforts on the ground, which will allow us to make greater strides towards global food security.

Mountainous Guatemala

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