Coping technologies, from ‘liquid trees’ to smart white canes

Scientists are planting trees in new places to help monarch butterflies cope with climate change. And both education and new laws are helping disadvantaged populations – including incarcerated people in Florida and children in the Philippines.

1. Mexico

A leveled tract of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is sprouting back to life thanks to calculated local reforestation efforts. Illegal logging – responsible for much of the region’s forest loss – decimated a 25-acre segment of the reserve in 2015. Hoping to save the area that monarch butterflies call home each winter, researchers embarked on a reforestation plan – and were surprised by their own success. Over 80% of the new trees survived, while previous government reforestation programs saw survival rates of between 10% and 35%.

Why We Wrote This

Applying solutions first requires recognition of the problem. In our progress roundup, poor air quality in Serbia’s capital led to its university developing a photobioreactor for a city street. And in Rwanda, we have an example of Africa’s blossoming disability sector.

In the restoration areas, teams planted three oyamel firs for every pine tree – a ratio they discovered in adjacent forests – with the help of nearly 200 local residents. “Nurse” shrubs nearby provided shade for the seedlings. Oyamel firs, critical for providing a safe habitat for monarchs, were also planted at higher altitudes as part of an “assisted migration” experiment to help them better resist a changing climate. With lower elevations becoming both hotter and drier in recent years, “everything we learned in our ecology classes no longer occurs,” said Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, one of the researchers working on the project. “It’s because of this that we have to [test ideas through] action.”

Marco Ugarte/AP/File
Monarch butterflies gather on flowers at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near Chincua, Mexico, in 2009.

2. United States

Peer-led education is creating a pipeline into the green job industry for incarcerated individuals. At the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) in Miami, peer instructors are guiding students in a wastewater management course that puts them on the path to becoming certified wastewater treatment operators. The class, which regularly enrolls 60 people, prepares them for an array of “green-collar” jobs in treatment plants, public utilities, septic tank installation, and more.

Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma Wire/Newscom/File
David Welch leads a class at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami in 2019.

The journey toward certification is rigorous. Students must pass chemistry, microbiology, and algebra tests through a college correspondence course, before passing a state exam. But the effort often pays off. A widely cited 2013 metastudy shows education and job training reduce the likelihood of recidivism by 43%. While not all organizations are open to hiring people convicted of serious crimes, many graduates of the ECI program have secured well-paying jobs in sustainable industries. “In the past it was hard to get a good job with a criminal record,” said Sean Smart, who is serving 10 years at ECI. “Now that I’ve completed this course and attended the wastewater class, I feel confident about having a future career when I go home next year.”
Reasons to Be Cheerful

3. Serbia

The city of Belgrade is cleaning polluted air with Serbia’s first “liquid tree.” What may look to some like a contemporary art installation is actually an urban photo-bioreactor, named Liquid3. The large green aquarium sits on a sidewalk in the historic center of Belgrade. It contains 600 liters (159 gallons) of water filled with microalgae performing as much photosynthesis as two 10-year-old trees. The design offers one solution to the problem of poor air quality in the capital city, where two large coal plants operate nearby.

The intention is to install the liquid tree in locations where there is no space to plant a real tree, according to Dr. Ivan Spasojevic, one of the researchers who developed the model. He hopes the design will popularize microalgae as a tool to address other issues as well, including for wastewater treatment, compost, and the production of biomass and biofuel. Liquid3, which won an award for climate-smart innovations through a United Nations Development Program challenge, also offers residents mobile phone chargers, a bench for sitting, and a lamp powered by a small solar panel.
Euronews, United Nations Development Program

4. Rwanda

Local developers teamed up with visually impaired Rwandans to co-design a smart cane that is expanding mobility. The smart white cane uses ultrasonic technology to detect obstacles within 4 feet and GPS tracking to locate the user. The device grew out of a partnership between the United Nations Development Program’s Rwanda Accelerator Lab, Rwandan technology company Beno Holdings, and the Rwanda Union of the Blind. Members of the union tested the cane throughout the development process.
So far, 40 “pilot” canes have been given to blind individuals to help them navigate their lives more confidently. While each stick currently costs $100 to make, the developers plan to bring down the cost as they scale up production to serve the 57,000 Rwandans living with visual impairments.

The project is just one example of Africa’s blossoming technology-for-disability sector, which aims to reverse some of the economic and social marginalization that people with disabilities face. Senso in South Africa created a sensored bracelet that alerts individuals with hearing impairments when a door opens, a baby cries, or a window breaks, and Tech Era in Ghana helps visually impaired students study for exams using text recognition and voicing.
The New Times

5. Philippines

Child marriage is no longer legal in the Philippines. A 2017 national survey found that 1 in 6 Filipina girls was married before she turned 18. Those children are more likely to drop out of school and to face domestic violence, according to UNICEF. The legislation, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte, aims to address those problems. Specifically, it states that the government “recognizes the role of women in nation-building and shall therefore protect and promote their empowerment” by eliminating “the unequal structures and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.” Violators face up to 12 years in prison.

The new measure also mandates local information campaigns and ensures that schools teach children about the impacts of child marriage. In communities where child marriage has historically been common, the move has been met with some backlash. With this in mind, portions of the legislation will not go into effect for a year.
Agence France-Presse, Newsweek

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