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Covid-19, Lockdown and Migratory Birds: International Perspective

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In India, especially in the northern parts, this is a period of spring. A much-favored time for the visit of migratory birds, who migrate every year along global flyways between continents in search for breeding grounds in Europe, to warmer feeding grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. But due to habitat loss, land reclamation, poaching and changes in global agricultural pattern the migratory birds have suffered significantly across the world.

However, due to COVID-19 threat humans are forced to stay inside their houses and as a result nature is reviving. Two major contributors to this revival are: lowering of pollution level, and limited human interference. Migratory birds can fly freely without human interference or threat. This article explores the protection to their life and existence was acknowledged under various international documents.

International protection for flyways

Billions of birds of the avian world migrate vast distances across the globe twice a year. Avian species migrate along mainly similar and well-established routes known as fly­ways. The idea of a structured instrument for the flyway was first suggested in the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) document of 1983. A flyway is broadly defined as the migration route of a population, species or group of species of birds, between a breeding area, through a series of staging sites (passage) and non- breeding area (wintering area).The Ramsar Convention, 1971 (Ramsar Convention) provides for the protection of many important areas for migratory waterfowl, especially in the Western Palearctic region and in North and West Africa. Most of the States falling in these regions are parties to Ramsar Convention.

The Agreement of African–Eurasian Flyway(AEWA) stretches from Canada and the Russian Federation to the southernmost tip of Africa, covering 119 range-States covering Europe, parts of Asia and Canada, the Middle East and Africa. Currently, 77 countries and the European Union are contracting party to AEWA.

The Central Asian Flyway(CAF) covers migration routes of waterbirds from the northernmost breeding grounds in the Siberia to wintering grounds in West and South Asia, the Maldives and the Indian Ocean territory. Geographically this flyway region covers thirty countries of North, Central and South Asia and Trans-Caucasus. CAF, is entirely within the Northern Hemisphere, and is the shortest flyway in the world.

The overlap between AEWA and CAF

The overlap between the area of CAF and AEWA was concluded in 1995 at The Hague. It was agreed amongst the governing bodies of these agreements that they will work together to enable the parties in taking informed decision on the implementation or extension of safeguards agreed amongst them. Sixteen out of the thirty countries encompassed by the CAF are located in the AEWA Agreement Area. For instance, during the seasonal movements within the Indian subcon­tinent, more than 300 species travel along the CAF including bar-headed goose (Anserindicus), the world’s highest altitude migrant. India’s nearly 175 spe­cies of migratory birds are using the CAF areas including Siberia, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan and Gulf countries.

Wholesome international convention on protection for migratory birds

In international law, birds are protected within the four broader framework, namelyRamsar Convention, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), 1973, Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), 1979 and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) , 1992.The CITES, multilateral treaty, with twenty-five articles which are treated as ‘Magna Carta’ for wild animals and birds by most of conservationists in the world. It accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species but only a relatively small number of migratory bird species as Appendix I contains certain birds of prey and cranes and Appendix II includes all birds of prey. The CMS, adopted in Bonn, is an intergovernmental treaty concerned with the conservation of wildlife and habi­tats under the aegis of the UNEP.The Convention is therefore applicable to almost 2,000 species of birds, nearly a quarter of all existing species. CMS a powerful instrument aims to conserve not only migratory birds but also migratory terrestrial and marine animals of wide range including fish, reptiles and even insects.CBD was adopted at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro where 189 countries were the parties. It primarily focus on habitat protection and the term ‘wildlife’ is absent from the treaty whereas CITES regulates commercial trade of wildlife if a particular species is at risk of extinction. Though CMS, 1979 covers maximum number of migratory species but CBD, 1992 is successful one which attracts maximum countries as members. Ramsar Convention is specifically to provide the protection of habitats, more particularly wetlands of international importance as waterfowl habitats.

The Bonn Convention refers to the global conservation of migratory species as far as Appendix I are concerned, and migratory species listed in Appendix II are usually of a regional scope.So far,two regional agreements are formed for conserving Asian-Eurasian Migratory Water Birds(Hague, 1995), and Albatrosses and Petrels (Canberra, 2001).There are seven non-binding memorandum of understandings (MoUs)for Conservation of Siberian Crane (1993),Slender-Billed Curlew (1994), Great Bustard (2001),Aquatic Warbler (2003), Ruddy-Headed Goose (2006),Migratory Grassland Bird (2007), High Andean Flamingos (2008) and Migratory Birds of Prey (2008) have been concluded between states parties.

Early bilateral treaties for migratory birds

Although the first treaty on the protection of birds was signed as early as 1902 in Convention for the Protection of Birds Useful to Agriculture at Paris, migra­tory species were not specifically until the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds was concluded in 1916 between the United Kingdom (acting for Canada) and the United States. They concluded other treaties with Japan, Australia, China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR now Russia). India has a sole bilateral treaty with USSR on Protection of Migratory Birds (1984) where both parties agreed that special protection measures are desirable to preserve endan­gered species and subspecies, promote joint research programs and establish bird sanctuaries and endeavor to preserve and improve the natural environment of migratory birds.

From the perusal of above-mentioned international instruments, it is explanatory that migratory birds are subject of international protection. Meanwhile in the light of forthcoming World Migratory Bird Day it is important to realize their rights. For environmentalists these are good times, as their voices are heard, for all the efforts they made to the world to realize the importance of living in harmony with nature, is finally understood. However, humans have short memory and there is a good possibility that the lesson could very well be unlearned soon.

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Climate Change and its Effects on Europe

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If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia. 

According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around FloridaAside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder.  Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream. 

This relatively even weather in England has undergone change.  More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F.  There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions. 

Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters.  This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods. 

July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021.  Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region.  Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area.  At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion. 

If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.

England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades.  None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter.  London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.

When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences? 

One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.

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The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response

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Photo: NASA

While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased.  So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.

The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France.  Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC.  The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.

In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year.  One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside.  They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain.  Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.

Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames.  The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.

In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.

Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar.  In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated. 

The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared.  Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed. 

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming.  Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so.  Is runaway global warming then our future?

The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges.  The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.

Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants.  Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.

In the meantime, we have to change our ways:  Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine?  Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.

Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on.  It is easy and just a matter of habit.  In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. 

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Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist

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Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.

You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally? 

At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.

Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field? 

My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.

Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale? 

We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.  

What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in? 

Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.

Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment.  Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.

How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture? 

Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.

At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.

How can farmers be empowered globally? 

Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.

Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?

Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.

Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling? 

It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.

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