Impressions from Bali - how findings on site influence research

Dr Hannes Böttcher presents a major EU project and reports on his trip to Bali. There are good reasons for travelling to project meetings from time to time to gain a better understanding of other groups.

Is it really necessary for 26 people from 18 countries to meet in Bali for a week to work on an EU project?

There is probably not a single land area in the world that has not been affected by humans. We manage and change land directly and indirectly for agriculture, forestry and other activities. How and where we do this has also implications for the climate with a view to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The LANDMARC project, which investigates impacts of land management and is funded by the EU Horizon Europe programme, is not unique. However, it is special in its approach of combining stakeholder engagement with in-situ measurements, remote sensing data, and the application of simulation models with the aim of scaling up results found at the smallest level to national and global potentials. When the project started in 2020 amid the global pandemic and associated contact restrictions, such an approach seemed doomed to failure. How could the information be collected from farmers, forest owners, land managers and policy makers without direct human interaction?

How we use land, how we grow crops and manage forests can be observed from space. These activities can also be described with computer models that simulate the growth of plants, GHG cycling and human behaviour. However, observations made on this basis remain speculative without “ground truthing,” i.e. information provided empirically by, for example, direct measurement and observation. Moreover, any results produced without validation by real life cases run the risk of being irrelevant for those who are supposed to make use of the project results.

Thus, ground truthing and relevance for stakeholders remained a challenging issue during the first period of the LANDMARC project. In June 2022, the LANDMARC researchers were able to meet for the first time within the scope of their field of research: the land. The first physical General Assembly in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, included a field visit to a farmer who is rewetting part of his grassland managed for cattle ranging. Underneath where his cows are quietly grazing, huge layers of peat – which accumulated over several thousands of years – are now rapidly deteriorating after the land was drained to increase productivity. The implications are huge emissions and the sinking of land that is already located below sea level. By making use of the drainage system in reverse mode, the farmer distributes access water to his fields and ensures that the peat stays wet. The wet land cannot withstand the original density of cattle but revenue from carbon markets and premia for breeding sites for birds compensate for this loss.

Already this first reality check demonstrated that “natural climate solutions” or land-based mitigation technologies (LMTs) as they are often technocratically referred to by scientists and policy makers always require people to implement them. They also have impacts either on the same people or often other people who need to cope with them. We learned that carbon markets can be a tool for funding this kind of LMTs but that farmers almost need to be trained like brokers on the stock market to fully understand the complex landscape of incentive schemes, voluntary market opportunities and the synergies and trade-offs with national and sub-national legislation.

The LANDMARC team and local planting helpers after the operation

Research on site: transferring findings from Bali to research

A project with an anticipated strong focus on stakeholders’ perception, like the LANDMARC project, requires more of such ground truthing. In March 2023, in the remote landscapes of Extremadura, Spain, which is one of the least populated regions of the EU, and the agricultural surroundings of Evora in Portugal, we could observe and discuss impacts of land use change, both extensification and intensification and the implied challenges and opportunities related to fire management, maintaining biodiversity and restoring degraded landscapes. One of our findings: to manage fire risk in Extremadura successfully, you either need huge investments in landscape management or a couple of enthusiastic goat herders.

The LANDMARC project includes 14 case studies in total. Other research sites of the project besides those in Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands are located in Vietnam, Sweden, Burkina Faso, Venezuela, Switzerland, Nepal, Kenya, Germany, Canada, Ukraine, and Indonesia. To discover and learn more about the Indonesian conditions for implementing LMTs, the project partner invited the team to visit their case study sites in Bali in February 2024.


In dialogue with the chairman of the Subak

Compost production is easy and can contribute to climate protection

We learned that composting systems can help to reduce emissions, reduce demand for chemical fertilizer, help closing nutrient cycles and contribute to solving the huge waste problem that many regions, including Bali, have. The Canggu-based pick up and composting service Urban Compost introduced a bucket system for the exchange of organic waste, which they collect from households and restaurants and which provides valuable compost for gardening. On an area as small as a private garden in a rural residential area in Germany, they produce five tonnes of compost per month from about five times the amount of organic waste – thanks to the tropical climate, they do so within 10 weeks. This is not only a climate solution but also a way to raise awareness about the waste problem. And the motivation of the customers is high: sustainability is an issue for the people of Bali, also due to Hinduism, which views protecting the earth as imperative and constitutes the largest religious group on the island.

Absolutely low-tech, absolutely sensible: biogas from liquid manure for cooking in the community garden

Permaculture methods are taught in the community garden

These field trips, which often took the project team just a few kilometres into neighbourhoods surrounding the meeting venue in the morning, were followed by discussions on what the findings mean for modelling and for interpreting the model results of LANDMARC. There was much to discuss since the modelling exercises were already far advanced. Remote sensing data had been processed and was already being analysed. Stakeholder survey results had already contributed views from different actors in the field of land use policy. More concretely, the week in Bali included a field visit with regional stakeholders from Bali and the Indonesian government as well as private sector and funding institutions.


What did we synthesize from these exchanges?

In order for the LANDMARC project results to be relevant for stakeholders, there are a few conditions that need to be met. Stakeholders need to be:

  1. climate-literate, meaning they need to have a basic understanding of how the information can potentially be of help, e.g. seasonal forecasts of climate for improving the planting time of crops,
  2. respected regarding their knowledge and history as they have experience on what works and does not work locally,
  3. incentivized or rather adequately paid for their service, be it carbon storage or food production, and
  4. briefed about where all the data and knowledge they share with scientists end up and how this contributes to improved policy making.

The coffee berry, at the beginning of a long supply chain

I was in fact hesitant to attend the Bali meeting since it involved a long flight with associated emissions, even if these are offset by the Oeko-Institut, for a rather short week-long visit. But the experience of a well-organised exchange with stakeholders in the field cannot be gathered in any another way than by a physical meeting: shaking hands, talking to the manager, smelling the compost, tasting the coffee cherries, and experiencing the climate conditions. In fact, to fully make use of the research results of LANDMARC, more of such ground-truthing would be needed. It is true that the evidence collected from the ground when visiting single projects is a very small sample size and cannot be considered a “validation” of models or remote sensing products in a scientific way. However, anecdotes and personal experience in the field of applied research such as that undertaken by Oeko-Institut are often as convincing for policy makers as bare statistics and they enable researchers to round off the mosaic of conclusions and recommendations for an improved land use policy.

So the answer to whether such a trip is absolutely necessary is, no, but there are many good reasons for doing it anyway.

Dr Hannes Böttcher is a Senior Researcher in the Energy & Climate division in Berlin. One focus of his work is climate protection measures in agriculture and forestry.


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