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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize: forest communities and conservation

This is the second blog post from former Environmental Policy MSc student Rachel Simon. During her time at the University Rachel was a member of the Fossil Free Bristol University group. Following the completion of her MSc in 2016 Rachel spent time with an indigenous conservation organisation in Belize, recording voices of land rights activists for the Latin American Bureau’s [] forthcoming book, Voices of Latin America.

The previous blog post in this series is available here.

Back in the SATIIM office in Punta Gorda, I’m invited on a patrol into the Sarstoon Temash National Park led by Maya and Garifuna community members. These monthly forest patrols are an important way of monitoring illegal logging and poaching. They also gather data on the forest’s rich ecosystems, which spread across over 40,000 acres of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest, and ten miles of coast in the Gulf of Honduras, a wetlands designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

SATIIM and the Belize Government used to manage the area under a co-management agreement. But when SATIIM took a stance against oil drilling in the park the government terminated their funding and their partnership (see my previous blog post ‘Whose land, whose development?’
However SATIIM continues to patrol and monitor the park, providing reports to the government and new funders such as Global Forest Watch [] an initiative of the World Resources Institute which works to collect and disseminate data about deforestation.
Map of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and drill site by Amandala Newspaper
So early one morning seven men from the surrounding villages and I set off from the coastal town of Punta Gorda in a speed boat loaded up with three days’ camping equipment and supplies. We pull south round the coast on the glinting waters of the Bay of Honduras, speed past the Garifuna village of Barranco, before pulling into the darker stiller mouth of the Sarstoon River, the border with Guatemala. Tensions between the two countries over the boundary have been high over the years, and Guatemala has been uncooperative over conservation efforts - some SATIIM patrols have even been intercepted and detained by the Guatemalan military. A newish Belize Defence Force (BDF) outpost marks the Belizean side of the Sarstoon, and this has helped to discourage poachers and loggers crossing the river from Guatemala, as well as maintaining Belize’s claim over the area. We pull into the BDF check-point to report our trip. The commander informs us shortly that he can’t do anything to protect us if we stray from the Belizean to the Guatemalan side of the river. With that we start the patrol.
Marking sites of deforestation
Cruising the banks of the Sarstoon we count numerous lines and trails cut through the mangroves and forest cover, signs that poachers have come in to hunt, fish, and log hardwoods and comfre palms.
Illegal logging of Santa Teresa and Sapodilla hardwoods
On this patrol SATIIM are piloting a new tablet and app provided by Global Forest Watch to help them track deforestation more easily. The app is pre-loaded with maps highlighting “threats”: patches of fragmentation or breaks in forest cover identified from satellite imagery using algorithms. The patrol is then able to navigate to these areas using GPS in order to investigate. However on reaching our first “threat”, somewhere inland alongside the bank of the Sarstoon, it’s a pleasant surprise to find undisturbed mangroves and thick forest cover. It seems that the app’s algorithms need a little tweaking, and may be mis-coding some changes in vegetation or colouration as deforestation.

Unfortunately most “threats” are simply too far away to investigate, as trekking through the forest cover is slow and heavy work, and back in the office SATIIM’s Director muses that it might be better to pilot a drone which could zoom over the wetlands and photograph the areas we can’t reach.

On the second day we dock on the bank of the Temash River, in order to survey US Capital Energy’s main drill site, a couple of acres of dust and sand amid the vibrant forest cover. Martin Cus, the leader of the patrol tells me that the numbers of illegal incidents in the forest have increased dramatically after the government granted the company oil exploration contracts. Our 300m crawl from the river bank through mangrove, dense forest swamp and wetland takes 20 minutes - but the major road on the opposite side of the drill site, snaking north out through the forest, means there is now a much easier journey into its heart. Along with the company’s seismic testing lines, this has opened up the forest to more extractive activities, intensifying fragmentation of the forest cover and endangering its ecosystems. The company also ignored warnings about the drill site’s position in a low-lying and swampy area. Containing spills in this wetland would be near impossible, with run-off quickly contaminating the surrounding swamp, mangroves, and rivers out into the Bay of Honduras - as well as impacting the villages upstream which use the rivers as water sources.

US Capital  Energy’s drill site, and road through the forest
Aside from monitoring threats to the forest, we spend a good deal of time using GPS coordinates to note down bird and animal sightings. The boat’s captain Roberto seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of bird species, but SATIIM is looking for scientists and data gatherers to carry out a more comprehensive review of the park, to help them evidence the value of its eco-systems.

Forest dependent communities

A week later, staying in the Mayan village of Crique Sarco, I’m able to learn more about the communities’ dependency on the forest. Many Maya subsist on milpa farming, a form of slash and burn agriculture. The forest is where they get most of their protein, hunting gibnut and other creatures for much of the year, while respecting the animals’ gestation periods. Communities have used the forest sustainably in this area for almost 150 years. Juan Choc, Village Council Leader, explains that the area around US Capital’s drill site used to be rich with animal life, but the company’s construction and working noise drove them away.

Juan Choc, Crique Sarco
Making the land more resistant to encroachment and the forest less vulnerable to resource extraction is now a vital project for the survival of these communities’ livelihoods. Juan Choc explains their communal land ownership model which prevents land from being gradually sold off and becoming fragmented, and that the village is now georeferencing their boundary in order to get more solid legal recognition. Land demarcation will offer better protection from outside corporate interests, empower the community, and safeguard the land for the younger generation. 

Reflections on sustainability in my first few months in the U.K.

I’m Michael Donatti, a Cabot Institute Masters Research Fellow for 2016-2017. I have come to the University of Bristol from Houston, Texas, to read for an MSc in Environmental Policy and Management. Alongside studying, I have had the chance to experience this new city and this new country from an outsider’s perspective, and here are some of my initial thoughts on environmental sustainability in Bristol and the UK.

To be quite honest, Bristol is an interesting choice for a European Green Capital city. It lacks the biking infrastructure of Amsterdam, the strict ambition to attain carbon neutrality of Copenhagen, and the abundance of green space of Ljubljana. According to the University of Bristol student newspaper, epigram, 60% of Bristol’s air contains illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. While walking and running along the streets of Bristol, I have felt this pollution. Partly, the low air quality results from the differing priorities of American and British/European emissions regulations. According to David Herron, Europe focuses on carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to increase efficiency, decrease dependency on Russian oil, and curb climate change; in contrast, the USA focus on nitrogen oxides and particulate matter to improve local air quality and reduce smog. Combined with Bristol’s traffic problem, it is no wonder the air quality is actually quite bad.

Before arriving here, I expected more farmers’ markets and small shops. Like much of England (purely from my personal experience), the city seems to suffer from an overabundance of chain stores, cafes, supermarkets, and the like. Coming from the capitalists’ land of strip malls and chain stores, this observation shocked me. Tesco and Sainsbury hold a position of power scarcely rivalled by any supermarket chains back home, and while prices tend to be good because of their power, sustainability is lacking. Fruits and vegetables come wrapped up in plastic cases and bags; differentiating between what is local or organic or seasonal and what is not often takes detailed inspection. At HEB, a supermarket chain in Texas where I do much of my shopping, produce is in bulk bins, not unnecessary plastic cases. They have marketing campaigns and price markdowns for what is in season and what is local (granted, “local” in America’s second largest state is a loaded term).

I have felt excited to find nice coffee shops and cute stores, only to shortly thereafter realise that even those are chains, like Friska on Bristol’s Queen’s Road (which has at least two other locations). In Oxford, I was disappointed to learn that even The Eagle and Child, the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hung out, has been bought out by Nicholson’s, a chain of pubs across the UK. Not all chains inherently lack environmental sustainability, but they certainly lack character and promote the social inequalities that pervade modern capitalism.

Don’t get me wrong, Bristol and the UK are certainly much better in some areas of sustainability than Houston and the USA. As environmentalists, we can’t revel in our successes for too long without then setting higher goals and getting back to work. However, to paint a better picture of Bristol and the UK (because I have truly loved it here), I will include some of those successes. The British train network is far more extensive than any in the USA. Recycling is more ingrained in British cities; in Bristol, we even separate food waste, which is far from commonplace in Texas. Charging for plastic bags in stores and supermarkets appears more widespread here; while Austin, Texas, promotes using reusable bags, Houston has no restrictions on them. Bristol is far denser and more walkable than most American cities; Houston is the quintessential American automobile city. Not having a car is almost unheard of, partly because the greater Houston area is almost 40 times larger than the greater Bristol area and many families live in single-family homes.

Another aspect of Bristol that earned it its European Green Capital status is its social capital. I have only been here a few months, but I have tried to plug in to the city’s network of change makers. The city’s Green Capital Partnership has over 800 business partners that have pledged to improve their sustainability; the city has initiatives in resident health, happiness, and mobility; and it has set lofty goals for carbon emissions reductions. The challenge now is to make Bristol’s social capital accessible to all. I realised I could buy my food from the Real Economy Co-operative to waste less plastic, reduce transport emissions, and help local farmers, but how do we transfer opportunities like that into the mainstream? I am excited to keep learning more about Bristol’s initiatives in sustainability as I study here, and hopefully what I learn I can take back with me to Houston and Texas, which sorely need the help. I also hope Bristol will not become complacent with its Green Capital designation or too focused on nice-sounding rhetoric. Society needs real environmental improvements, and those improvements need to happen now.


“Bristol Green Capital Partnership.” Bristol Green Capital. Accessed November 16, 2016.
“European Green Capital.” Accessed November 16, 2016.
Herron, David. “Differences in US and EU Emissions Standard Key Cause of Dieselgate.” The Long Tail Pipe, October 2, 2015.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Climate negotiations: From Paris to Marrakech and… Trump?

A few weeks ago, Morocco hosted the Twenty-second Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP22), which meant to become the "COP for action". One of the main challenges of this edition was setting the stage for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, adopted by the UNFCCC parties last December.

After the unexpected early entry into force of the Agreement, the COP22 sought to transform Paris discussions into reality and to develop concrete guidelines for achieving the 1.5°C goal. However, this call for climate action was disrupted on its second day by the outcome of the elections in the United States: someone who thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax was elected President of the Unites States.

When I arrived in Marrakech, I was not sure what to expect from the COP22 after that black Tuesday. The scenario was disappointing, but so predictable at the same time; besides the statements of countries such as China, Japan and the European Union ratifying their commitment to the fight against climate change (with or without the U.S. in the game), there was still an odd combination of uncertainty and sadness among delegates. These feelings were definitely projected onto the negotiations.

Broadly speaking, speculation overshadowed the final decisions of subsidiary bodies of the Convention and the governing body of the Paris Agreement (CMA).  They came out with generic final decisions, sometimes focused on procedural matters under the Paris Agreement and the rules of the Convention of Climate Change. In some other cases, they surprisingly postponed discussions to the next subsidiary bodies meetings in Bonn (May 2017) and, for topics such as the linkages between the Technology Mechanism and the Financial Mechanism to accelerate and enhance climate technology development and transfer, they agreed to bring it back again to the agenda at the twenty-fourth session in 2018.

But why? The answer is aggressively simple: Gaining time. By far, the U.S -one of the crucial players in the game of tackling Climate Change- has been leading a wide range of initiatives together with the European Union, China, Canada and Mexico, to name a few. It is understandable from an international perspective, that nations are anxious to know if, after this transition period, the U.S. will still be part of the team or abandon the game.

At COP22, the first press brief of the U.S. was delivered by Jonathan Pershing, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. He stressed the importance of transitioning from negotiation to implementation and qualified as ‘immature’ speculating about the new administration and what actions they would take. But rumors of President elected Trump appointing a climate change destroyer as the head of the EPA were annoying many delegations in Marrakech.

The COP22 appeared to be a Conference for merely presenting initiatives agreed between the UNFCCC Parties, using the Paris Agreement goals as a guideline, rather than defining pathways for implementing the legal instrument itself. However, we should keep an eye on strategies such as the ‘2050 Pathways Platform’ presented by national and subnational entities as well as the private sector, to reach a deep decarbonisation towards the middle of the century; and the Global Partnership on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency launched by the least developed countries (LDCs) to speed up the clean energy transition.

In terms of climate finance, countries such as Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and the United States announced a $23 million contribution to the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) of the UNFCCC to facilitate and accelerate climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries.

Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, remarked the importance of the deployment of clean and green technologies for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). She also stressed that “Finance will also be key if deployment is to happen at the speed and scale required”.

Although these initiatives can give us hope for the upcoming years, we should bear in mind that some pieces are still missing in the climate change puzzle.  Many countries are still deciding the roadmap for implementing their nationally determined contributions (NDC), whose achievements should be evaluated every five years; and the Ad Hoc Group of the Paris Agreement (APA) has not yet defined the rulebook for the implementation of the Agreement, nor the accountability rules to ensure a transparent and flexible process of monitoring and verification of those targets.

The international community agrees with the IPCC that climate change needs to be addressed now in order to achieve the well below 2 degrees aim. It is widely acknowledged that there is no time to lose, so why does time seem to have frozen for those in the frontlines of climate negotiations? Why they are still trapped in an endless loop of bickering?

During Education Day, Youth representatives raised their voices to say: We refuse to accept that this is over! And I am one of them. This is just the beginning of an era in which all sectors, from youth to the private sector, have to take the lead. We cannot base our decisions on childish statements from a democratically empowered billionaire and lose precious time. The clock is ticking, if we don’t take action now, there won’t be anything left to fight for in the near future.

Thanks to the Coordination Unit of International Affairs at the Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) for the opportunity of being part of the Mexican Delegation.

Blog by Cabot Institute Masters Research Fellow and Chevening Scholar Mireille Meneses Campos.

Chevening Scholarships, the UK government's global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

After 2016; how to achieve more inclusive food policy?

Having spent my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship researching forms of governance that aspire to achieve that nebulous concept of 'sustainability' in relation to certain parts of the global agro-food/fuel system, it seemed fitting that the last event I attend in this capacity should be City University's annual Food Symposium.  This year's Symposium enabled Prof. Tim Lang, who is passing the baton of running City's influential Food Centre to Prof. Corinna Hawkes, and a number of his colleagues, to reflect on the past 25 years of food policy. But it also provided an unprecedented opportunity to 40 audience members from both academia and civil society to imagine a more utopian future - not difficult in our troubled present - to table their vision of 'How to do food policy better'. We heard from a headteacher, a producer, a proud 'Colombian peasant', a farmer's daughter, a student, the BBC chef of the year, a former advertiser, a community food network coordinator.  We then went on to hear from a panel of those who have been working to enable such diverse voices to be heard both in relation to the research they have been undertaking or the programmes they have been endeavouring to implement.

While my own work has been predominantly focused on issues brought to the fore in international development, it is clear that inequalities and unequal vulnerabilities exist extensively in the global North, as well as the global South.  Although we as researchers recognise the need for a holistic and systemic approach to food and agriculture, this is rarely translated into more holistic food policy.  But we have seen that policies that do not adopt a systemic approach to food and agriculture may instead produce extensive social, cultural and environmental problems related to food and farming across the globe.

There are so many pressing reasons to change our diets, for our own health, and the health of the planet, but we carry on producing and selling food which is bad for us, and pursuing agricultural production on a scale that feeds such consumption.  While this may not be in the same vein as the productionism pursued in the 1970s and 1980s, agricultural production continues to be tenaciously coupled with carbon emissions. And knowledge alone is insufficient to change this food and agriculture system of mass consumption and supermarket driven value chains.

As we heard a number of times, we are not only going through a period of weak food policy, but the intensive agricultural regime is in crisis.  And there is a lack of progressive consensus as to what any kind of food project should be. Given that 40% of EU legislation relates to food and agriculture, this does not bode well for this soon-to-be-Brexiting-less-than-united-kingdom.

While we can indeed celebrate that the need for 'sustainable consumption' and 'sustainable production' is generally accepted, and that 'food and nutrition' is even on the public health agenda, we also have much to fight for.  For many at the Symposium, there was a palpable anger at the policies that have led to growing inequality and hunger in this country.  While there is an evidential link between low income, diet and poor health, there remains an ongoing rhetoric of 'blame' and 'undeserving'. And low income must in turn be linked with other vulnerabilities, such as gender, infancy, maternity, citizenship status (or lack of it).  But as Prof. Liz Dowler aptly summarised, the circumstances in which people are having to live are being ignored by governments whose own policies have caused them to be in this predicament. So with a growing reliance on charity, such as food banks, people are deprived even of any sense of 'entitlement' and 'rights', even when it comes to food. Whether or not a human being goes hungry or malnourished should never be dependent on deserving, even on citizenship. And governments, rather than charities, must be held accountable.  Nevertheless, there is a fear that Brexit, and a rise in anti migrant feeling, is going to make inequalities harder.

A Symposium on food policy would be remiss, however, if it did not link government policies with a recognition that access to nutritious food is also determined by corporate power.  This needs to take in supermarkets, fast food chains, the catering sector.  And this is indeed where power lies. And that power does not only involve selling much of the wrong kinds of food to people, but also squeezing the power of farmers who, as many argued, need to be central in finding a solution to the crisis of carbon based food production.  Prof. Terry Marsden suggested the need to build alliances between producers and consumers and take out the power of the middle of the value chain. Although at the Symposium it was widely agreed that there needs to be greater inclusivity of those voices who are affected by, but rarely manage to influence, food policy, I would argue that this view is slightly myopic of the wider agrofood system.  This system is indeed driven by wider agri-industrial policies and corporate interests, but ones which have very little to do with food at all.  Such policies explain the EU Renewable Energy Directive mandating the production of biofuel from prime agricultural land.  And such policies are repeated and repeated in country after country, and drive down incentives that farmers might otherwise have to grow nutritious food – our horticulture sector, for instance, is hardly thriving.  So while an annual Symposium on Food Policy is hugely valuable, and indeed this was one of the best conferences I have ever been to (not least for its inclusion of diverse civil society voices amongst academics), I would argue that food policy cannot be considered without a systemic lens cast much more widely than just food.

Blog post by Dr Elizabeth Fortin, Senior Research Associate, School of Law, and PolicyBristol Coordinator

The Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize: Whose land, whose development?

View of the Temash River, Toledo, Belize

This October I spent time with the Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), an NGO which integrates forest conservation with indigenous community development, the only one of its kind in Belize.

The organisation is located in Belize’s southernmost district of Toledo, reachable by a bumpy six hour bus ride from the country’s northern hub, Belize City. Government roadside adverts dot the route advising youngsters to ‘Stay Out of Crime’, and Belizeans to ‘Protect the Cayes and the Mangroves: your social security benefits’. Belize City is beset by gang violence, but high-end eco-tourism is booming in the north around the country’s cayes, beaches, and pristine conservation areas. Over 26% of Belize’s land and territorial waters have been designated as protected areas which play a crucial part in tourism, a major contributor to the economy as its second largest industry, and fuelling growth in many other sectors. The ads tail off by the time we reach Toledo, a safer but poorer district. From here to the River Sarstoon, the border with Guatemala, lie dense wetlands, forest and mangroves, and some of the country’s poorest communities, including many Q’eqchi Maya and Garifuna indigenous peoples.

Over four weeks I spent time here in SATIIM’s office, in the villages they work with, and in the forest, learning about their work and recording the voices of community members. On a visit to the sleepy Q’eqchi Mayan village of Crique Sarco Andres Bo, an active member of SATIIM, explained how the organisation began. Belize has been praised for its pioneering approach to conservation, using a series of legislative acts for protecting areas since gaining independence in 1981. But when it ringfenced a wetlands and forest area in order to create the Sarstoon-Temash National Park in 1994, the government ignored the collective land tenure of many Maya and Garifuna communities in the area, neglecting to consult or even inform them. Villages are largely forest dependent, employing milpa farming, a form of slash and burn subsistence agriculture - but using forest resources such as materials for house building, farming, hunting and fishing on part of their ancestral lands was now outlawed. “We can't do hunting, we can't do fishing, we can't take out logs in there, we can't have plantations there. But that is land we used, part of Crique Sarco….the vines and sticks which we used to build houses and posts are in those areas,” Andres explained.

Community conservation

In order to try to maintain influence in the area, and recognising that conserving the forest would have a beneficial impact on the surrounding areas’ ecosystems and resources, six villages came together to form SATIIM. The organisation then formed a successful partnership with the Belize Government to monitor the park under a co-management agreement using community led patrols. The community led element is key: SATIIM’s aims are to integrate environmental protection, human rights and development, and their work challenges any notion of conservation which promote reforestation at the expense of or exclusive from the forest communities whose livelihoods depend on it. “If you want to have effective development and effective conservation, the communities must be involved in the development of any plan that affects their livelihood,” explains SATIIM’s Director Froyla Tzalam.

Froyla and the SATIIM office team

Oil and development?

However in radical opposition to the NGO’s approach and in contradiction to the park’s protected status, the government decided to relax its ban on extractive activities and grant oil exploration permits to Texas-based corporation US Capital Energy, who began to cut paths and build exploratory oil drills, wreaking havoc on the forest’s ecosystems. They constructed a major drill site in a low-lying and extremely wet area, where any spills would quickly impact surrounding wildlife and waterways. I learnt more about the site on joining a community forest patrol in the following weeks, which is described in the second-part of this blog series.

The incident brought to the fore tensions between national development, local community interests, and land tenure rights. While environmental protection strategies have been used to bolster the success of the tourism industry and economic development in other areas of Belize, the government had clearly decided to pursue a different strategy in the impoverished and underinvested Toledo District, with Prime Minister Dean Barrow stating that US Capital be allowed to “Drill at Will” in the STNP.

Are you telling us that we may spend decades protecting an area which over night can be turned into an extractive zone?” Froyla Tzalam

Concerned about the environmental impacts and effect on the villages’ livelihoods, SATIIM decided to fight back. In 2006 they filed a case against the government at the Supreme Court on the basis of its own environmental policy, as no environmental impact assessment has been conducted prior to the explorations. The court ruled against the government, triggering a string of cases in which the communities built the case for their land rights. Rulings from the Supreme Court and the Caribbean Court of Justice have subsequently stated that the government and US Capital Energy acted without the ‘Free, Prior, Informed Consent’ (FPI) of the Mayan and Garifuna communities, a principle defined by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and recognised in international law. FPI recognises indigenous people and forest communities’ rights to consent to projects in lands that they customarily own, occupy or use. Court cases up to 2016 have reaffirmed tenure rights of the Maya and Garifuna communities in southern Belize, that their traditional land rights constitute property equal in legitimacy to any other form of property under Belizean law. In addition the Supreme Court has ordered the government to conduct work on the communities’ land boundaries and  is ‘supervising’ its implementation.

Choosing development

The arrival of the oil company brought villages into conflict. Some labelled SATIIM as ‘anti-development’ for challenging US Capital. But Juan Choc, Village Leader of Crique Sarco tells me that since promises of job offers with US Capital haven’t materialised, more and more villagers are coming to realise that oil extraction may not be the type of development they need. The few short term jobs that appeared during oil exploration offered poor working conditions and were poorly paid. Better paid roles were reserved for staff with special skills brought in from Mexico. Orange and green paint, US Capital colours, coats the village schools around the exploration site. However the schools remain government funded, and the paint jobs seem little more than a branding exercise. Tangible benefits from the oil company have been few and far between.

Crique Sarco Village School

Community land tenure

SATIIM will now be working on georeferencing their ancestral land boundaries in order to get more solid legal recognition, and focusing on land rights awareness and environmental education. For the moment the low global oil price has meant that the impetus from US Capital has been lost and the drill site sits empty. But as the government has extended their permits to Feb 2017 in spite of court rulings, further drilling remains a possibility. Even once their land is demarcated communities will still have to decide whether they are for oil extraction or against it. SATIIM has been working on a program of environmental education so that communities are able to make more informed decisions about the benefits and risks involved. For Froyla the communities are now more informed, empowered and more ready to fight for what happens in their land: “It is clear when I attend the community meetings now that the villagers have a different vision of development for themselves. So that's what gives me hope”.

Rachel Simon is a former part-time Environmental Policy MSc student, graduating in 2016. During her time at university Rachel was part of the Fossil Free Bristol University group. Following the completion of her MSc Rachel spent time with an indigenous conservation organisation in Belize, recording voices of land rights activists for the Latin American Bureau’s [] forthcoming book, Voices of Latin America.

The second blog in this series is available here.

1-in-200 year events

You often read or hear references to the ‘1-in-200 year event’, or ‘200-year event’, or ‘event with a return period of 200 years’. Other popular horizons are 1-in-30 years and 1-in-10,000 years. This term applies to hazards which can occur over a range of magnitudes, like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, space weather, and various hydro-meteorological hazards like floods, storms, hot or cold spells, and droughts.

‘1-in-200 years’ refers to a particular magnitude. In floods this might be represented as a contour on a map, showing an area that is inundated. If this contour is labelled as ‘1-in-200 years’ this means that the current rate of floods at least as large as this is 1/200 /yr, or 0.005 /yr. So if your house is inside the contour, there is currently a 0.005 (0.5%) chance of being flooded in the next year, and a 0.025 (2.5%) chance of being flooded in the next five years. The general definition is this:
‘1-in-200 year magnitude is x’ = ‘the current rate for events with magnitude at least x is 1/200 /yr’.

Statisticians and risk communicators strongly deprecate the use of ‘1-in-200’ and its ilk.

First, it gives the impression, wrongly, that the forecast is expected to hold for the next 200 years, but it is not: 0.005 /yr is our assessment of the current rate, and this could change next year, in response to more observations or modelling, or a change in the environment.

Second, even if the rate is unchanged for several hundred years, 200 yr is the not the average waiting time until the next large-magnitude event. It is the mathematical expectation of the waiting time, which is a different thing. The average is better represented by the median, which is 30% lower, i.e. about 140 yr. This difference between the expectation and the median arises because the waiting-time distribution has a strong positive skew, so that lots of short waiting-times are balanced out a few long ones. In 25% of all outcomes, the waiting time is less than 60 yr, and in 10% of outcomes it is less than 20 yr.

So to use ‘1-in-200 year’ in public discourse is very misleading. It gives people the impression that the event will not happen even to their children’s children, but in fact it could easily happen to them. If it does happen to them, people will understandably feel that they have been very misled, and science and policy will suffer reputational loss, which degrades its future effectiveness.

So what to use instead? 'Annual rate of 0.005 /yr' is much less graspable than its reciprocal, '200 yr'. But ‘1-in-200 year’ gives people the misleading impression that they have understood something. As Mark Twain said “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” To demystify ‘annual rate of 0.005 /yr’, it can be associated with a much larger probability, such as 0.1 (or 10%). So I suggest ‘event with a 10% chance of happening in the next 20 yr’.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.

Previous blog in series here

Age of the Anthropocene

“We’ve killed off the dodo, released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and raised sea levels: welcome to the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humankind has permanently left our mark on the planet.”

This was the description I gave to my new unit ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’, hoping to catch the attention of second year students keen to explore the impact and meaning of global environmental change. It worked: students from History, English Literature, Religion and Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, and Study Abroad students joined me this autumn to explore how the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ has gained traction as a definition of time that recognises the unprecedented Earth-altering impact of the human species. We engaged with debates among scientists and humanities scholars over the concept, while also exploring how it has captured popular and scholarly imagination. 

One of the activities that I looked forward to was holding an inaugural Bristol ‘Anthropocene Slam’ – inspired by the original Anthropocene Slam at the Nelson Institute, Centre for Culture History and Environment (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014); the Anthropocene exhibition at the Deutsches Museum (Munich, 2014-16); and the BBC/British Museum initiative, ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’. The challenge was to select an object/visual/sound that encapsulates and communicates the Anthropocene to a wide audience. Here, the students describe the unit, the Slam, and present their selection of objects which best communicate the Anthropocene to you, the public. 

What is the Age of Anthropocene unit? 
The Anthropocene is the notion that humanity has become a geological force in its own right, moving us in to a new epoch. Proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, it has inspired this unit ‘The Age of Anthropocene’, which explores the origins, reality and future of the changing planet. Expect hard-hitting truths about the changing relationship between humans and the environment, using the most innovative of recent scholarship, but also material and technology sources.

What is the Anthropocene Slam?
Slam! Now I've got your attention. For the Anthropocene slam we were each tasked with presenting a material source ranging from audio to bleach bottles, which represented our perceptions of what the broad concept of the Anthropocene meant. Our overall purpose was to present the Anthropocene with clarity, in the most effective fashion. Our broad scope reflected how the Anthropocene affects all areas of life. 

Object 1:  Fordite /Detroit agate
Proposed by Thecla Horton 
Image via
I chose this as an item that I think most represents the Anthropocene for a number of reasons. Fordite is layers and layers of old car paint, from when cars were hand spray-painted, which built up in the painting bays on the ‘tracks’ and ‘skids’ that cars were painted on. The colourful layers show many years of this, these layers were then ‘baked’ when the car bodies went into ovens to set the paint. This process is now extinct as cars are no longer hand sprayed.

Firstly, I think it is a good representation of the Anthropocene as a product of the automobile industry-a significant driver behind the oil industry, mass consumption, and a significant contributor to global warming. The fact that the production of this material is now extinct seems symbolic to the proposed idea that we are entering the 6th mass extinction. Technology and our world is moving so quickly that even these man made materials are becoming rare.

It looks natural and beautiful, even the name ‘Fordite/Detroit agate’ is suggestive of a natural mineral, the pattern of multiple layers making it look like it is millions of years old.  Yet it is a fossil of the beginning of the Anthropocene. While fossils have taken millions of years to form, the human impact on the planet has happened so rapidly and violently to produce fossils within just a few years, and then for it also to become virtually ‘extinct’.

Object 2: Photograph of Male, Maldives
Proposed by Toby Lane
Image: Creative Commons/Flickr/la_camera_obscura
This is Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Situated in the Indian Ocean it is home to over 130,000 people and is the fifth most densely populated island globally. It is the world’s lowest lying nation with the islands that make up the Maldives being on average only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise consequently jeopardises the future existence of the Maldives and the way of life for all those who live on the island. 

The example of the Maldives epitomises the problems offered by the onset of the Anthropocene but also its unjust nature. Those who live on Malé have contributed little towards anthropogenic climate change but will be massively affected by the decisions and excesses of others. Furthermore the fate of Maldives is almost entirely outside of its inhabitants’ influence and the country lacks the ability to defend itself. Malé itself is only protected by a 3m high sea wall which took 14 years to construct at an expense of $63 million (99% of which was funded by Japan). 

Finally, a study of the Maldives also emphasises how little time is left in order to take action on climate change if catastrophic levels of disruption are to be avoided. In April 2012 President Nasheed of the Maldives declared that "If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years."

Object 3: Emojis
Proposed by Noa Leach
Emoji story by Noa Leach ©

Object 4: Video of a turtle (warning: scenes of an animal in distress)
Proposed by George Mumford

Object 5: Pollution mask 
Proposed by Matt Davis
A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN
Since the end of the Second World War and the onset of the ‘Great Acceleration’ phase of the Anthropocene, air pollution has risen rapidly.

In the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games held in Beijing, the Chinese media became fixated on the city’s choking pollution. During an air quality crisis in February 2015, the concentration of ‘hazardous particulate matter’, known as 'PM 2.5', since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, rose to nearly twenty times the safe level.

Due to the health risk, many people who live in China’s major cities have started wearing pollution masks in an attempt to keep themselves safe from PM 2.5, that are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs or bloodstream. The cause of the ridiculously high air pollution has been attributed to the Chinese industrial sector as the nation’s heaviest polluters. Despite the use of pollution masks a recent report has claimed air pollution is killing around four thousand people per day in China, and accounts for one in six premature deaths.

Air pollution masks represent much about human interaction and the general consequences of the Anthropocene. It has been predicted by scientists that continued burning of fossil fuels and high pollution levels will make much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable by the year 2100. Pollution masks represent how Beijing has arguably become the closest city yet to be rendered unfit for human habitation due to the effects of the Anthropocene, and although the government is taking action to reduce pollution, the staggering number of deaths caused already begs the question ‘are they acting too late?’ The mask also represents the human reliance upon technological remedies to the Anthropocene, a quick fix that makes the immediate threat smaller and yet fails to address the cause of the problem, that of a constant striving for economic growth, over consumption and a frame of mind that prioritises the pursuit of human progress over nature.

Object 6: Bunch of Keys
Proposed by Beth Gaffney
Photographer: ©M Dudley 
This object consists of a household key chain, three different sized keys, a combination padlock, and a supermarket points fob. This object symbolises Paul Crutzen and John McNeill’s third stage of the Anthropocene: ‘The Age of the Stewards’, which marks mankind’s recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth system as a whole and is filtering through to decision making. Just as a steward is an official person responsible to take care of something, mankind uses keys to lock something into a safe space. This illustrates how humans have come to acknowledge their responsibility for the earth systems, which they value for continuance of human life.

However, keys are generally forgotten about; they remain hidden in our pockets for most of the day and are often misplaced. This suggests that mankind “knows” the importance of protecting the Earth systems, but often forget to act appropriately in everyday life. Mankind’s planetary ecological consciousness has not formed. 

In addition, the different sized keys illustrate how human individuals have been given various “solutions” to protect the environment. However, neither of these three keys fit into the padlock. The keys also sit alongside a plastic supermarket key fob. The solutions provided by market environmentalism often falsely legitimatize the idea that one can continue his or her consumption habits without adjustment, and no broader systematic or structural changes are required. For example, polluters pay distant others, frequently located in the global south, to engage in emission reduction activities as a substitute for reductions at the source. These solutions prioritise the western anthropogenic world and are tokenistic. 

By Dr Marianna Dudley (Lecturer in Environmental Humanities), Lucy Bennett (Religion and Theology), Matt Davis (History), James Foss (History), Beth Gaffney (History), Thecla Horton (History), Lydia Hunt (Philosophy and Theology), Yejin Jeong (Study Abroad), Toby Lane (History), Noa Leach (English), Rupert Liddell (Ancient History), George Mumford (History), Roisin Murphy (History), Olivia Nathan-King (Religion and Theology), and Cassie Rist (Religion and Theology) . Thanks go to Bristol Museum Curator Bonnie Griffin for joining our workshop and sharing her expertise, and to Cabot Innovation Fund for their support. 

Monday, 19 December 2016

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet.

Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%).

Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability.

This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example, to scale a probability of 0.04 in the next 5 years up to 20 years we cannot simply multiply by 4, because the result, 0.16 (or 16%), is larger than 0.1. In this case we have to use the proper rule, which is

p_new = 1 - (1 - p_orig)^(int_new / int_orig)

where ‘^’ reads ‘to the power of’. The example above becomes

p_new = 1 - (1 - 0.04)^(20 / 5) = 0.15 (or 15%).

So the approximation would have been 1 percentage point out in this case. The highlighted text in yellow can be pasted directly into a spreadsheet cell (the answer is 0.1507).

Of course it is unlikely to matter in practice whether the probability is 0.15 or 0.16.  But the difference gets bigger as the probabilities get bigger.  For example, it would definitely be a mistake to multiply a 0.25 one-year probability by 5 to find the five-year probability, because the result would be greater than 1.  Using the formula, the correct answer is a five-year probability of 0.76.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.

Next blog in series here

Image: By Hovik Avetisyan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Deploying and Servicing a Seismic Network in Central Italy

From a scientific point of view, the seismicity that is hitting Central Italy presents itself as an unmissable opportunity for seismologists to analyse the triggering and the evolution of an earthquake sequence. From the tens of instruments installed in the affected area, a huge amount of data is being collected. Such a well-recorded sequence will allow us to produce a comprehensive seismic catalogue of events. On this big quantity of data, new algorithms will be developed and tested for the characterisation of even the smallest earthquakes. Moreover, they will enable the validation of more accurate and testable statistical and physics-based forecast models, which is the core objective of my Ph.D. project.

Seismicity map of the Amatrice-Norcia sequence updated 5 November 2016.

The Central Apennines are one of the most seismically hazardous areas in Italy and in Europe. Many destructive earthquakes have occurred throughout this region in the past, most recently the 2009 MW = 6.4 L’Aquila event. On August 24th, just 43 km North of the 2009 epicentre, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 occurred and devastated the villages of Amatrice and Accumuli, leading to 298 fatalities, hundreds of injured and tens of thousands people affected. The mainshock was followed, in under an hour, by a MW = 5.4 aftershock. Two months later, on October 26th, the northern sector of the affected area was struck by two earthquakes of magnitude 5.4 and 5.9, respectively, with epicentres near the village of Visso. To make things even worse, on October 30th the city of Norcia was hit by a magnitude 6.5 mainshock, which has been the biggest event of the sequence to date and the strongest earthquake in Italy in the last 36 years. Building collapses and damages were very heavy for many villages and many historical heritage buildings have reported irreparable damages, such as the 14th century St. Benedict cathedral. Luckily, the has been no further fatalities since the very first event of August 24.

St. Benedict cathedral (Norcia), erected in the late 14th century and completely destroyed after the Mw 6.5 earthquake of October 30th.

Immediately after the first big event, an emergency scientific response team was formed by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, to support the rapid deployment of high-accuracy seismometers in collaboration with the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV). The high detection capabilities, made possible by such a dense network, will let us derive a seismic catalogue with a great regional coverage and improved magnitude sensitivity. This new, accurate, catalogue will be crucial in developing operational forecast models. The ultimate aim is to understand the potential migration of seismic activity to neighbouring faults as well as the anatomy of the seismogenic structure and to shed light into the underlying physical processes that produce the hazard.

Thanks to the quick response of the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) and SEIS-UK, 30 broadband stations have been promptly dispatched from Leicester and arrived in less than 48 hours in Rome. There, a group of 9 people composed by INGV and BGS seismologists, technicians and Ph.D. students (including myself) from University of Bristol, Dublin Institute for Advanced Study (DIAS) and University of Ulster were ready to travel across the Apennines to deploy this equipment. The first days in Rome were all about planning; the location of each station was carefully decided so as to integrate the existing Italian permanent and temporary networks in the most appropriate way. After having performed the 'huddle test' in the INGV, which involves parallel checking of all the field instrumentation in order to ensure its correct functioning, we packed all the equipment and headed to the village of Leonessa, a location considered safe enough to be used as our base camp (despite the village being damaged and evacuated after the 30th October event).

Preparing instrumentation for the huddle test in one of INGV’s storage rooms.

In order to optimise time and resources, and to start recording data as soon as possible, we decided to split in 3 groups so that we could finish our work between the end of August and the first week of September. Each seismic station is composed of a buried sensor, a GPS antenna, a car battery, a regulator and two solar panels. The current deployment will stay for 1 year and will be collecting data continually. Each sensor had to be carefully buried and levelled to guarantee the highest quality of recording, which was a strenuous challenge when the ground was quite rocky!

Typical setting of our deployed stations. On the left, the buried sensor. Its cables, buried as well, connect it to the instrumentation inside the black box (a car battery, and a regulator). On the right, the solar panel (a second one was added in October service) and the white GPS antenna.

Aside from the scientific value of the expedition, the deployment week was a great opportunity to get to know each other, share opinions, ideas and, of course, get some training in seismology! At the end, we managed to install 24 stations around an area of approximately 2700 km2

As this type of seismic station didn’t have telemetry, each needed to be revisited to retrieve data. For this purpose, from October 17th, David Hawthorn (BGS) and I flew to Italy again and stayed there for the following ten days to service the seismometers and to do the first data dump. Our goals were also  to check the quality of the first month of recordings, to add a second solar panel where needed, and to prepare the stations for the forthcoming winter. To do that, a lot of hammering and woodworking was needed. We serviced all the sites, raising the solar panels and GPS antennas on posts, which were securely anchored to the ground, to prevent snow from covering them. The stations were all in good conditions, with just minor damages due to some very snoopy cows.

David Hawthorn (BGS) servicing the stations – A second solar panel was added. Panels and GPS antennas were raised on posts anchored to the ground through timbers.

Dumping data from the stations using a netbook and specific hard drive.

On October 26, just the night before leaving for Rome, we experienced first-hand the frightening feeling of a mainshock just below our feet. Both the quakes of that evening surprised us while we were inside a building; the rumble just few seconds before the quake was shocking and the shaking was very strong. Fortunately, there were no severe damages in Leonessa but many people in the village refused to spend the night in their own houses. Also, it was impressive to see the local emergency services response: only a few minutes after the first quake, policemen were already out to patrol the inner village checking for any people experiencing difficulties.

The small village of Pescara del Tronto suffered many collapses and severe damages after the 24 August earthquakes. View from the motorway above.

Throughout our car transfers from one site to another we frequently found roads interrupted by a building collapse or by a landslide, but we could also admire the mountains with a mantle of beautiful autumnal colours and the spectacular landscapes offered by the Apennines, like the Monte Vettore, the Gran Sasso (the highest peak in the Apennines) and the breath-taking Castelluccio plain near Norcia.

View of the Norcia plain, near to the 24th August magnitude 5.4 and the 30th October magnitude 6.5 epicentres.

View of the Castelluccio plain. This picture was taken from the village of Castelluccio, just 5 days before it was totally destroyed by the magnitude 6.5 mainshock.

From my point of view, I learned a lot and really enjoyed this experience. I feel privileged to have started my Ph.D. in leading institutions like the University of Bristol and the BGS and, at the same time, to be able to spend time in my home country (yes, I am Italian…) with such interesting scientific questions. What I know for sure is that we will be back there again.

Blog written by Simone Mancini, 1st year Ph.D. student, University of Bristol and British Geological Survey.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Brexit: can research light the way?

What could Brexit mean for UK science? What impact will it have on UK fisheries? Could Brexit be bad news for emissions reductions? These were just some questions discussed at a Parliamentary conference last week, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Commons Library and Parliament’s Universities Outreach team.

MPs researchers, Parliamentary staff and academic researchers from across the country came together to consider some of the key policy areas affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Why does academic research matter to Parliament?

Given the unchartered waters that Parliament is facing as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, it is more important than ever that Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is informed by robust and reliable evidence.

Academic research is expected to meet rigorous standards of quality, independence and transparency. Although it is far from being the only source of evidence relevant to Parliament, it has vital role to play in the effective scrutiny of Government.

“Academics can help ensure that we get the best possible outcome for the British public through describing the state of knowledge, setting out comparative knowledge (whether in different territories or over time), and evaluating what’s happening as it plays out” said Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian, in her keynote speech.

Last week’s meeting showcased relevant UK academic research as well as giving participants the opportunity to hear the perspectives and concerns of different groups. With over 100 participants, the organisers made the wise decision to split us up into smaller groups to discuss specific policy areas.  This worked rather well, although most people would have liked to be in several groups at once!

What does the future hold for UK research?

In the session on science and research funding a mix of early career researchers and more seasoned academics set out their top issues. The discussion quickly moved beyond research funding. All the researchers agreed free movement of researchers between the UK, other parts of the EU, and beyond the EU, was a top priority.  Several researchers were concerned that the UK research community would become more isolated as a result of Brexit, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best academic staff.

The group also discussed what kind of data we needed to gauge the impact of Brexit on UK research.  One researcher argued that if we wait until we have “hard data” – such as statistics on citations, publications and collaborations, it might be too late for decision-makers to intervene in any meaningful way.

Economic Impact of Brexit: New Models Needed

Researchers participating in the session on “trade relations and economic impact” highlighted that research on the economic impact of Brexit tends to focus on trade.  New models are needed that take trade into account, along with other relevant factors such as investment, migration and regulation. Participants also felt that more data on the local effects of trade deals would be useful to policymakers, but there are very few studies looking at such effects because of the many uncertainties involved.

Environment, agriculture and fisheries: ‘Cod Wars’?

What would the loss of subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy mean for UK agriculture? Participants highlighted that areas such as horticulture and fisheries in particular could end up struggling with workforce retention. On a brighter note, one researcher thought there could be some financial gain for UK fisheries if the UK took back its Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), but warned of possible future “Cod Wars” if countries clashed over fishing rights.

Immigration: how many EU nationals live in the UK?

Participants in the immigration discussion group highlighted that we do not have reliable figures for how many EU nationals live in the UK. According to some estimates the figure is around 3 million, but this is based on survey data. More reliable data is needed to make informed policy decisions. Participants also highlighted that while most of the discussion around border control focuses on people, movement of goods across borders was also vitally important.

Energy and climate: who will drive emissions reductions targets?

The energy and climate group considered the impact of Brexit across Europe as a whole. The UK has been a strong driver for ambitious emissions reduction targets for the EU. Would other nations continue to drive such targets? Participants also speculated over whether UK would remain part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme and stay involved with some of the EU’s internal energy market regulatory bodies after Brexit.

Foreign and security policy

Participants covered a huge range of topics from UK-Irish relations to the future of NATO and drug trafficking and border control. The importance of learning lessons from history was a key theme in the session, whether it related to the future of NATO or to major treaty negotiations more generally.

What next…

These conversations were not based entirely on research evidence, not least because it there are simply too many uncertainties for research to answer all our questions on the impact of Brexit. In the end our discussions were based around a mix of anecdote, opinion, and ‘hard’ evidence. Overall it was a very enriching experience and we came away with lots of new contacts and ideas.

Many of the researchers said that they’d had relatively few opportunities to feed into policy discussions with parliament and government and that there needed to be many more meetings like this one!

This article was written for The House of Commons Library Blog Second Reading by Chandy Nath, acting Director of the POST and Cressida Auckland, a POST fellow.

Picture credit: Brexit Scrabble, by Jeff Djevdet; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)