The return of the zai hole

From the deserts of Niger to the labs of Northern California: Can low and high tech meet?

Published February 12, 2007 4:54PM (EST)

The phrase "zai hole" is never mentioned in the New York Times feature on reforestation in Niger published Sunday. The physical reality -- digging small holes in semi-desert hardpan, filling them with a handful or two of manure, and then planting trees or crops in the holes -- is referenced late in the piece, but there is no deeper exploration into the practice, thought to have been pioneered in contemporary times by Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer in Burkina Faso.

At How the World Works, we like zai holes and reforestation in the Sahel region of West Africa, which is why I wrote about them last October, and why I was delighted to see a more in-depth look at what was happening in Niger on the front page of the Times. As the quote that closes the story notes: "It demonstrates that with a little effort and foresight, you can reduce poverty in the Sahel. It is not impossible or hopeless, and does not have to cost a lot of money. It can be done."

But we were even happier to see, in the San Francisco Chronicle, a follow-up on another story How the World Works is very interested in -- the $500 million "strategic partnership" between British Petroleum and the University of California at Berkeley to create an Energy Biosciences Institute devoted to research in renewable sources of bioenergy.

The Chron's Rick Delvecchio presents us with a classic demonstration of value-added journalism. When Berkeley's bigwigs met with the media immediately following the announcement, they were showered with questions about how the partnership would work practically. Who would own the resulting intellectual property? Who would set the direction of research? The answers were bland and essentially uninformative -- as most press conference answers usually are. We were told there was a standard format for such kinds of industry-academic cooperation, and while the details hadn't quite been worked out, it would all be fair. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.

Delvecchio digs in, talks to several Berkeley professors, and compares the deal to a much-criticized collaboration between Novartis and Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Sciences in 1998. The terms of the Novartis deal, say critics, gave the pharmaceutical company too much control over Berkeley's research, and the "right of first refusal" to commercialize any resulting research. Those critics want more public discussion and transparency as the details of the new deal -- the biggest ever between private industry and academica, are hammered out.

Incidentally, two of the sources interviewed by Delvecchio have crossed paths with How the World Works. Berkeley professor Dan Kammen, director of the university's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, is listed as a co-author on a comprehensive review of biofuel energy efficiency studies that I wrote about a year ago. Miguel Altieri, a professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management, is a vociferous critic of genetic modification biotechnology who labeled anthropologist Glenn Stone's attempt to steer a "neutral" path between pro and anti positions on GM crops as itself a sellout to industry. (His "Comment" on Stone's paper, "Both Sides Now: Fallacies in the Genetic-Modification Wars, Implications for Developing Countries, and Anthropological Perspectives," can be found at the end of the article.)

So, everything is connected, or, at least, everything How the World Works is interested in is connected. But what line links the dots between zai holes in the Niger and the bioenergy research in Berkeley? Low-tech agro-ecology for pennies, and high-tech biotech for half a billion dollars? Is there any room for those trajectories to intersect?

One suspects that BP isn't particularly interested in African poverty. But Delvecchio reports in the Chronicle that university researchers at the institute "will focus not only on new technologies for making fuels from plant materials but also on the impact such breakthroughs could have on global poverty."

Let's hope that Devecchio keeps the heat on. Because the challenge lies in forcing those trajectories to connect, and not in just hoping that they will.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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