Letter from the Director: February 2018

As 2018 gains momentum, the ESI continues to grow. In this Director’s message, I want to highlight four emerging international relationships that we have been working on during these past few months.

First, we recently received a generous gift to develop a program for undergraduates to travel to and work in field offices of our partner, Conservation International (CI)[1]. CI maintains more than 30 global offices in Africa, the Americas and Europe, and Asia-Pacific regions. These offices engage in a wide variety of activities from scientific surveys to the training of local environmental leaders. With the new support to ESI, we will be able to fully fund the travel and residency of undergraduates who will work alongside CI scientists and field workers to advance conservation efforts at a local level. Please stay tuned for a formal announcement of the launch of this program and let us know if you are a student or faculty member who may be interested in participating.

Second, we are working with a team from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning led by Prof. Phil Thompson, PhD candidate Juan Camilo Osorio and the MIT CoLab to establish a technical collaboration between MIT and the Colombia Ministry of the Environment. As Phil has described, the collaboration is meant to result in the “design of comprehensive strategies that help address the country’s main environmental challenges regarding climate change mitigation and adaptation, ecosystem protection & natural resources management, and land use & environmental planning. The project will support Colombia’s transition to a post-conflict scenario by strengthening the connection between national environmental goals and sustainable local development — through the direct involvement of people living and working in affected communities.”

The situation in Colombia is extremely important because the country is at a social, political, and environmental crossroads. The 53-year conflict between the government and FARC rebels has come to an end with final ratification of the peace and disarmament agreement in late November 2016. While this is an historical step for the country and its people, it has led increasing land use conversion and development, once inhibited by the conflict, to creep into the Amazon. Some estimates note a rise in deforestation of 44 percent in post-conflict Colombia.[2] The Amazon tropical rain forest accounts for 35% of Colombia’s territory.

We will be collaborating, through the MIT CoLab, with the government and several organizations to define a sustainable future for Colombia’s Amazon, its people, cities, and economy. This is a long- term engagement, one that makes immediately and locally relevant nature-based climate strategies that engage local peoples and stakeholders.

Third, we are in the final stages of securing an agreement between MIT ESI and Argentina to assist in the analysis and development of sustainable urban infrastructure for a large poverty-stricken district of Buenos Aires, the Riachuelo-Matanza Basin (RMB).

The basin covers an area of 2200 square kilometers (850 square miles) and is home to 23 percent of the population of Buenos Aires and more than 9 percent of Argentina’s citizens. The Riachuelo River is well known as one of the most polluted urban waterways in the world. Currently a substantial water treatment plant is being constructed with more than 30 kilometers of tunnel traveling below Buenos Aires and into the Rio de la Plata. The RMB is also the site of 1.8 million square meters of urban solid waste landfills and open dumps. This is a major source of local environmental pollutants and leads to significant health problems for the basin’s residents. Between the lower and upper basins 5 million people make their homes, 1.7 million in informal settlements without reliable access to basic services. Fully one third of the basin’s residents live in poverty and 8 percent in extreme poverty. The Human Development Index of the basin is significantly lower than Argentina’s national average.

Engaging with the Argentine government, large local infrastructure companies, and a government-mandated non-governmental organization focused on development, the project holds promise as a model for sustainable urban development in other parts of Argentina and Latin America

Fourth, the ESI has been connected to discussions regarding the latest phase of the MIT Portugal Program. The alignment between the elements of the next phase and ESI’s agenda are excellent. In fact, the launch of ESI’s microplastic pollution program – with the prospect of a concentration in plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean – coincides well with an interest for one part of the program to focus on the interaction between coastal cities and the ecological and environmental health of the Atlantic. Building on the solid success of the MIT Portugal relationship, the ESI will be developing a research and engagement program that serves to advance earth system science, data science, cities, and climate change solutions. Stay tuned for an announcement of ESI’s portion of this next phase.

These collaborations are exciting and mark a new type of engagement for the ESI. In working to define and secure specific domains for international collaboration, two thoughts have regularly come to mind: one an observation on the nature of the work and the second on the contrast with our domestic situation.

First, the integrated nature of the challenges and the solutions for each of these projects is a common thread between all of them. Much of the work I have described above directly addresses both environmental and climate change research and actions and priorities for social, cultural, and economic development, and in this context the urgency of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) cannot be underestimated[3]. For example, the dire situation in the Riachuelo-Matanza Basin is primarily a social and economic one, though some important solutions that address education, health, and employment are also pathways toward sustainability. For example, local renewable energy production and storage and modular and resilient water and sanitation systems are not only critically needed but also serve to bring into focus solutions that are relevant to achieving the UN SDGs. We would do well to remember that several important elements of the previous set of audacious UN development goals, the Millennium Development Goals, were very successful.

Second, I must say it is extraordinarily inspiring to work with international partners who are serious about real and effective actions on climate change and environmental progress. A recent poll by the United Nations Development Program and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies reported that 98 percent of Colombians believe that climate change is real and needs to be addressed[4]. The Colombian military has committed to shifting significant resources to protecting and regenerating portions of the Amazon forest through afforestation and the development of high value and sustainable alternatives to business-as-usual agriculture as well as stopping the spread of illegal gold mining. Our own military here in the US is similarly aware and committed to limiting the risks associated with climate change, and yet – as we all know – the US federal government’s commitment is now seriously compromised.

It is heartening, and I believe a reasonable source of rational optimism to note that our international partners clearly have the long view in focus. These partnerships indicate that, as we hear often with regard to the uptake of renewable energy across the globe, the “train” has indeed “left the station”. In addition to moving toward a future of low carbon energy, our metaphorical train may also be moving toward a future of achieving the very difficult alignment of human development needs with environmental and ecological priorities.

John E. Fernández, Director
February, 2018
Cambridge, Massachusetts