2010 PFIG Recipient Danielle Murashige
College of Arts & Sciences
Human Biology Major
2012 Graduation Year
Internship: Drylands Natural Resources Center in Charlottesville
Notes on the first week
Like much of the rest of the world, the population growth in Africa is such that it is placing great strain on the continent’s natural resources. For many years, scientists and others have been concerned about the escalating problems caused by the deforestation and subsequent loss of species diversity in the dry lands of Africa. These forests are essential to the East African economy by producing timber and non-timber products. More importantly, the forests are home to extensive species diversity and they are essential to regulating the local and global climate. The population growth in east Africa results in to engage in unsustainable agricultural practices in a desperate and shortsighted attempt to meet the needs of the community.
The non-profit that I am working for is the Drylands Natural Resource Centre (DNRC), and its goal is to promote responsible, efficient, sustainable, and informed land use in the semi-arid region of Mbumbuni, Kenya. They carry out their mission through a nursery of native tree species that are then distributed to participating community members for planting locally or sold in the marketplace to fund the venture. The group also promotes environmental education in the region, encourages community involvement in forest reclamation, and is involved in the development of better agroforestry practices.
I’m really excited about getting to work with the DNRC; some of my greatest interests are biology, sustainable development, and education, so getting to work with an organization that works with all three is a great opportunity. I have been in contact with the group’s members who are working on the ground in Mbumbuni, and they have found that the current tree species in the nursery are doing well despite the record-low rainfall. As the biological research intern for the DNRC, I am conducting a literature review to provide advice on further plant species to introduce into the program. This week I spent a large amount of time researching the gum arabic species Acacia senegal. I am excited about the potential of this species as a new part of the DNRC nursery. It is abundantly available in semi-arid regions of Kenya and there is certainly a demand for high-quality gum Arabic. Acacia senegal increases soil fertility by fixing nitrogen, stabilizes soil through its deep roots, and helps buffer communities against dramatic climate changes by collecting and releasing water. It is also a good crop for income diversification, since the gum can be harvested during the dry season. The hurdle to be overcome with gum arabic is connecting the producers to the potential buyers. A traditionally erratic supply of low-quality Kenyan gum has caused buyers to stick to Sudan, Chad, Niger, and other regions in the Sahel. However, I found agroforestry literature maintaining that Kenya could benefit greatly from gum Arabic production and that all that remains to be done is establishing a strong link between suppliers and potential buyers. After I finish researching gum Arabic I will begin a review of the potential for carob, aloe, and jatropha as new species to introduce.
Since my last journal entry, I have received incredibly useful survey data from the DNRC interns on the ground in Mbumbuni who conducted interviews with community members. The primary concerns of the villagers have helped me to focus my research on the most pressing issues. The largest problem by far was the need for water access and conservation. Additional concerns included the need for transportation to a market to sell their goods, increased knowledge about soil quality and improvement, and the cost of saplings for community members interested in joining DNRC. These concerns have helped us to focus our short-term goals to include the need of a riparian buffer to protect the stream, an increased effort towards planting grasses, and the need for a long-term soil survey.
Since my last entry, I have finished creating profiles of each of the thirty species used in the nursery. Each profile includes data on management, products, pests, and a selection of relevant scholarly articles covering topics such as experimental symbiotic systems and other cultivation techniques. I am currently shifting the focus of my research towards improved water management techniques. I was very excited this past week to find the World Agroforestry Centre, a well-established organization based in Nairobi whose goal is to work with small households to use trees to increase food security, income, and environmental sustainability. This organization has based its work upon scientific research, which they make available to the public through an extensive online database. I am excited to connect the DNRC with the World Agroforestry Centre and I am confident that they will prove to be a very beneficial resource for us.
I have found this research internship particularly challenging and exciting because I have little background knowledge about agriculture, so I often find myself doing research to understand my research. While this slows my progress a little, I am very happy to do the work and learn about agroforestry. I hope that during the second half I can focus more on assembling my research into an easy-to-use format for the DNRC.
With the summer winding down to a close, I am sad to be finishing my internship with the Drylands Natural Resource Centre. It's hard to believe that three months ago I didn't know the first thing about agroforestry, soil restoration, or water management! After my work, not only do I have a greater understanding of these topics, but I also feel that my research will contribute to their efforts in empowering the residents of Mbumbuni.
One of the topics that I was most excited to research was water management. I found that conventional irrigation could actually degrade the land further by redirecting the limited water resources to only select locations. By consulting an online registry of indigenous best practices compiled by UNESCO, I found some relatively simple strategies practiced for thousands of years that could be implemented to restore a large area of land. For example, a technique called Zay uses an array of large manure-filled pits to catch run-off water during flooding to restore soil quality. While the technique originated thousands of years ago in Burkina Faso, it has spread recently to other semi-arid and arid regions and has great potential for our region.
Like many other dryland regions, the majority of their 250 mm of annual rainfall occurs in two brief rainy seasons, spanning mere days. The runoff during these seasons merely strips the land and unfortunately the village lacks sufficient infrastructure to collect the rainwater for use until the next rainfall. As a result, they have to walk long distances to obtain water from a well. So far, one water storage tank has been built in the village, and it has been very successful. One strategy that I think could have potential is rooftop water harvesting. By constructing gutters and small tanks outside of homes, a family can store the excess water during the rainy season that would otherwise flood the area surrounding their house.
I am certain that my involvement with the Drylands Natural Resource Centre will not end here. The organization would like to begin examining the advantages and disadvantages of GMO and non-GMO crops and trees. As a human biology major, I am very interested in this topic and would like to study the reception of GMO crops by communities in rural Kenya.
I would like to express my appreciation to the Parents' Committee for making my research this summer possible. I learned so much about the struggles of arid regions and even if my suggestions do not immediately solve any problems, I have found a lifelong dedication to sustainable development and agriculture.