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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 01, Number 1, 1978 (UNU, 1978, 53 pages)
close this folderUnited Nations University programmes
View the documentGlobal Use of the Instruments of Scholarship for the Conquest of Hunger: The World Hunger Programme of the United Nations University
View the documentHuman and Social Development Programme (HSDP)
View the documentProgramme on the use and Management of Natural Resources (NRP)

Programme on the use and Management of Natural Resources (NRP)

Initiated only in February 1977, the University's Programme on the Use and Management of Natural Resources is focusing its scientific and scholarly efforts on ways to protect the environment and increase productivity through improved management of natural resources in the humid tropics; on the effective application of existing knowledge to the problems of arid lands, and on the shortage of energy in rural areas of developing countries. Working in co-operation with the programmes on World Hunger (WHP) and on Human and Social Development (HSDP), NRP is setting up a comprehensive programme of activities in each of the three areas mentioned above. These are: the Ecological Basis for Rural Development in the Humid Tropics-Sub-programme I; Assessment of the Application of Knowledge to Arid Lands Problems-Sub-programme II; and Energy for Rural Communities-Sub-programme III. Although the sub-programmes and the projects are presented here for convenience as separate topics, they should not be regarded as independent and separate endeavours. There are many interactions among the projects, and efforts are being made to maximize these through the networks.

1. The Ecological Basis for Rural Development in the Humid Tropics

The purpose of this sub-programme is to analyse traditional resource systems, and then determine how modifications, adaptations, and the introduction of new technologies can be made to protect the environment, maintain or increase productivity, and satisfy the aspirations of local populations, Problems in this area are being researched by utilizing the concept of "resource systems", which can be roughly defined as the chain of processes through which resources, human or natural, undergo transformation into an end product or a service. Such a concept is useful for both research and education, as it provides a comprehensive view of the problems and facilitates interdisciplinary cooperation. Four resource systems were selected for the initial investigation; these are:

(a) rural energy systems,
(b) agro-forestry systems,
(c) water-land interactive systems, and
(d) highland-lowland interactive systems.

Furthermore, the resource systems approach itself is being assessed, and attempts are being made to further develop theory and methodology.

a. Rural Energy Systems

Adequate energy supplies are critical to development. Therefore, the first area under investigation is rural energy systems. The primary source of fuel in many rural areas of the humid tropics is wood, and an over-dependence on this source can lead to environmental deterioration and hinder progress. BY examining the various energy sources available and analysing the economic and social processes that determine the production and distribution of fuels, both practical and theoretical insights can be gained. A better understanding of rural energy systems will contribute to effective management policies, which could not only increase available energy supplies, but also lessen long-term environmental deterioration. The possibilities for technological innovation, whether through non-conventional energy sources such as biogas, or through simpler means, such as more efficient cookstoves, are also being investigated.

A comprehensive study has begun at the University of Ife. Encompassing much of southwestern Nigeria, it is investigating fuel-supply systems serving the cities of Ile-Ife and Ogbomosho, and the large urban centre of Ibadan. Negotiations for the University of If e to become an associated institution are in their final stage, and several University Fellows are expected to begin working there with the project in early 1979.

b. Agro-Forestry Systems

In much of the humid tropics, increasing population and rising demands for food and raw materials for export are putting a great strain on traditional systems that have evolved mainly to meet subsistence needs and local exchange. The resulting intensification of agriculture, often using inappropriate techniques developed in temperate areas, has almost invariably led to the vicious circle of environmental deterioration and a lowering of productive capacity. One of the most promising methods for sustaining high productivity while minimizing social and environmental damage is agroforestry systems that combine tree and field crops, and sometimes livestock as well. Studies of traditional land-use practices could provide much of the information needed to develop farming methods that are location and culture-specific.

The Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Centre (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica, became the first NRP associated institution in October 1977. A workshop on agroforestry systems for small farmers will be held there late in 1978. Research on the scientific basis of agro-forestry systems and traditional land-use practices will take place in co-operation with the newly-formed International Centre for Research in Agro-Forestry (ICRAF).

Other activities in agro-forestry systems will be initiated at associated institutions in Thailand and Indonesia. The exchange of Fellows and participation in meetings will serve as the first step toward an exchange of scholars and information, particularly among developing countries.

c. Water-Land Interactive Systems

Given the pressures for development and an expansion of production on the one hand, and the environmental constraints so often present on the other, an examination of the interactions between land and water is critical for the future development of the humid tropics, especially in coastal areas. Fresh-water swamps, rivers, and estuaries are important sources of protein over extremely large areas for people who often live on minimal diets. In these areas, changes in the watershed caused either by development projects, or through the chain reaction of deforestation, erosion, flooding, and sedimentation can severely disrupt the local economic and social system and reduce its resource base. This project will seek a better understanding of the role of water management in systems such as rice paddies or estuarine fisheries, and more comprehensive knowledge of the interactions between land and water. Results envisioned include policy guidelines and possible techniques for the enhancement of productive capacity.

The Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia is expected to be the initial base for these activites, and negotiations to make it an associated institution are under way. A workshop was held in September 1978, and research and advanced training activities will begin soon.

Coastal zone resource management is another area being studied, and because coastal zones are also regarded as water land interactive systems, close ties between the two projects should develop. A task force meeting on coastal zones was held in late April 1978 in Tokyo, and a number of proposals were discussed regarding activities in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

d. Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems

Highlands in the humid tropics have a limited but none the less valuable resource base to support large populations. Excessive pressure on the resources can result in severe environmental damage, such as erosion, flooding, and sedimentation, and highland-lowland interactions have typically been evaluated only in these terms. However, the social and economic exchanges between these geographic areas must also be considered, not only the effects of the highlands on the lowlands, but also the effects of the lowlands on the highlands.

Whereas the effects of highland-lowland interactions have long been known in areas such as Southeast Asia and Latin America, such interactions are only now beginning to have significant effects in Papua New Guinea. A comprehensive study there to increase understanding of these interactions will yield long-term benefits for improving resource planning and minimizing future environmental damage. As a result of an evaluation mission to Papua New Guinea in May 1978, a study is being planned in conjunction with an associated institution. This project is complementary to UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme, and the possibility of making it a joint UNU-UNESCO venture is being explored.

As part of highland-lowland studies, the NRP task force meeting in October 1977 recommended that a pilot project on mapping natural hazards be initiated. Present plans are for a pilot study in the southern Himalayan region, with the goal of improving land-use and resource planning through the mapping of areas susceptible to natural hazards such as landslides, avalanches, and flooding. Early identification and proper planning can significantly lessen future difficulties.

2. Assessement of the Application of Knowledge to Arid Lands Problems

Arid lands (including semi-arid and hyper-arid) comprise some 30 per cent of the world's land surface and include 14 per cent of the world's population, many of whom are considered as the "poorest of the poor". The patchy coverage of development planning and projects have generally passed over arid lands, resulting in even larger income gaps for their populations when compared to other areas. Over-grazing, dryland farming, and the stripping of wood and other organic materials for feed and fuel have been found to impair seriously the capacity of the land to sustain life. Fluctuations in rainfall, a natural characteristic of arid lands, intensifies the existing problems of poverty and environmental deterioration.

In recent years, considerable funds have been spent, and much knowledge has been gathered about arid lands, but major mismanagement-or lack of management-has continued. The United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in August and September 1977, emphasized that existing knowledge, while by no means complete, is sufficient to alleviate the most immediate problems of arid lands. Thus, the UN University programme is focusing on factors that prevent the effective use of knowledge and the subsequent development and implementation of means to overcome these difficulties.

More specifically, NRP will assess past development projects in order to determine to what extent existing knowledge was applied and the effect this had on the eventual outcome of the projects. NRP has already commissioned studies on the settlement of nomads, the criteria for the assessment of past development projects, and the evaluation of various projects in specific areas. Of great potential value are other assessment studies, sponsored by NRP, that are examining the obstacles to the application of knowledge from desert research institutes to local problems. A workshop is scheduled for early 1979 to draw together the results of these studies and plan the next set of activities. Plans also call for a publication integrating the studies. It is hoped that this approach will reduce the present resistance to assessment studies, and encourage evaluation as a feedback mechanism to the planning process.

The ways in which people perceive their environment and their problems must be understood if any development project is to succeed. All too often there are large differences in the goals and values of planners and decision makers on the one hand and the local population on the other. These topics are the concern of several more NRP-sponsored studies being conducted in both developing and industrialized countries.

Efforts are also being made to strengthen the research and training capabilities of existing institutions in the areas of interest to NRP. Based upon the recommendations of an evaluation mission, the University of Khartoum in the Sudan will serve as the primary institutional base for NRP arid lands projects, and negotiations to make the University of Khartoum an associated institution are in their final stage. In addition to sponsoring research and advanced training, NRP will assist the University of Khartoum in developing a curriculum for an advanced degree in arid lands management, as such a programme apparently does not exist anywhere.

An evaluation mission was sent to the Middle East in June 1978 to explore possible links between the University of Khartoum and other institutions. Advanced training programmes in Australia, India, and the United States for scientists and decision makers from developing countries are also under consideration.

3. Energy for Rural Communities

The sharp and sudden increases in oil prices beginning in late 1973 have made many nations, both rich and poor, aware that oil is a finite resource that is now being rapidly depleted. Many are coming to the realization that alternate energy sources, particularly renewable sources such as the sun, biogas, and wind, must be developed. However, there are basic differences between the energy requirements of industrialized countries and those of developing countries, and differing capacities for adapting to renewable sources. Industrialized countries need to adapt alternative sources of energy to a complex system that is centralized and largely dependent on electricity, oil, and natural gas. In maintaining high levels of energy use at least cost, they have access to various high-technology and capital-intensive alternatives such as nuclear fission.

On the other hand, developing countries require increasing amounts of energy merely to satisfy minimal needs. They generally do not have complex production and distribution systems, and most of their needs can be satisfied by decentralized, low-temperature sources.

At present, much of the energy in developing countries is supplied by locally available fuels, primarily wood, but an over-dependence on these resources can hinder development and bring about environmental deterioration. Alternative sources of energy could have their greatest and most immediate impact in rural communities in developing countries where the energy crisis is most acute and where the long-term effects can be most damaging.

a. Pilot Projects

A primary activity of the NRP sub-programme on energy is the establishment of a series of integrated pilot projects to test and demonstrate the use of solar, biogas, and wind energy in rural communities in developing countries. As the technology for non-conventional energy sources is either already well developed or under intensive study, NRP will emphasize three topics: (i) the integration and adaptation of existing technology to local conditions and local materials; (ii) socio-cultural problems of introducing non-conventional energy sources, including economic and political aspects; and (iii) training, and dissemination of information. In each pilot project a mixture of energy sources will be utilized depending on the resources available and the type of energy required (heat, mechanical or electrical ).

NRP is establishing the first pilot project in central Iran with Pahlavi University as an associated institution, and with financial support to be provided by the Government of Iran over a period of five years. Research and training will focus on various devices such as hot-water heaters, solar autoclaves for sterilizing medical instruments, solar cookers, and solar power-generation.

A second project, concerned primarily with architecture, building materials, and energy use, is planned for Algeria. With the country building large numbers of new villages, the development of energy-efficient houses and building materials would be of obvious benefit. Part of the work will involve applications of solar energy, in, for examples, desalinization and pumping water.

b. Bioconversion

One of the priority areas of NRP is the development of appropriate methodologies for the production of biomass and biogas from organic wastes, especially in rural areas. For its part, the World Hunger Programme (WHP) is concerned with the establishment of the nutritional value and safety of non-conventional feed and food products derived from organic wastes. Given their converging interests, NRP and WHP activities in these areas are being planned as joint projects.

c. Energy Studies

In addition to these technology-oriented projects, the Natural Resources Programme is actively exploring the possibility of setting up, with financial support from the Government, a centre of expertise in India to analyse trends in energy production and consumption helpful in recommending policies. A feasibility study is being conducted by the UN University with the United Nations Development Programme in order to determine the value and purpose of such an institution.

d. Dissemination of Information

At the global level, one of the major handicaps to developing alternative rural energy sources is the isolation of researchers in developing countries. To solve this pressing need, the NRP has set up a network to collect and distribute the most recent scientific publications at minimal costs to those scientists active in developing countries. Based in Japan, this information network is just beginning to operate on a trial basis. It should lead to less duplication, much greater cooperation, and a generally better diffusion of knowledge than has hitherto been the case.

The University is planning a workshop in early 1979 on the global assessment of energy alternatives. To be held in cooperation with IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) and the East-West Center in Honolulu, this workshop will examine the various barriers, both social and technological, to the utilization of non-conventional energy sources.

e. Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is another area of concern in NRP, although as a result of its relative complexity and centralized nature, it is often more appropriate to those countries that already have a well-developed energy distribution system. The purpose of the NRP's activities is to give those developing countries that have the potential for utilizing geothermal energy the capability to develop these resources. Thus the NRP is negotiating with the National Energy Authority and the University of Reykjavik in Iceland for the establishment of an associated institution that will serve as a UNU centre for research and advanced training. A workshop in June 1978 planned the project and brought together experts now involved in geothermal training.