Gaia Ashram: Why Diversity Matters

Gaia Ashram is a small international sustainable living project based on 6-hectares of land which is being developed using deep ecology, permaculture and ecovillage design principles in the North-East of Thailand.  Gaia Ashram works on ecosystem restoration and  it has been focused on regenerating a bare unproductive ricefield into a productive biodiverse tropical forest. Gaia Ashram seeks to improve soil fertility, accelerate ecological succession and increase the biodiversity of  plants, trees, bacteria, fungi and animal species through cultivation of diverse forests.

The Earth is facing ecological crisis on multiple levels, solutions to avoid catastrophe have been focused on mitigation, specifically with the reduction of emissions and capture of CO2. Gaia Ashram offers an alternative sustainable narrative where the focus of cultivating diverse forests helps restore this damaged planet and rebuild its own preventative measures to manage and sequester CO2.

Gaia Ashram as the name implies,  seeks to see the Earth as James Lovelock once coined “Gaia” that sees the Earth as living superorganism . The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gaia as “the global ecosystem, understood to function in the manner of a vast self-regulating organism, in the context of which all living things collectively define and maintain the conditions conducive for life on earth” James Lovelock was the first to use the term in this way and created the Gaia theory that uses mathematical modelling to proof that our Earth is vast living organism that regulates itself. In exploring the complex nature of ecosystems, this article shall shed light into how these systems co-exist and operate interdependently, illustrating that for our own survival, diversity will be key.  

Ecology: What is the issue? 

Since 1990 the world emissions have increased by 40%, largely due to an increased use of fossil fuels and destruction of the environment. This has lead to an increase in worldwide temperature of between 1.5-1.8 degrees. In 2018 the world emitted 37.1 gigatonnes of CO2, a rise in 2.6% from the previous year.  These figures are headline statements that help the public quantify the sense of urgency and relate to the issue at hand by their direct actions. Other headline statements weave a picture that shows we are facing multiple ecological crises at once.. With reference to “the Future Centres”  we are undergoing the 6th mass extinction, with 58% loss in vertebrate species in the last 50 years and 75% loss in the insect population since 1990. Globally 40% of the soil used for agriculture is degraded with approximately 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil lost each year, far greater than the average rate of replenishment. Estimates say that 31.4% of global fish stocks are at biologically unsustainable levels. Coral habitats that act as havens for biodiversity are also under threat. Currently, 27% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost

Now why does this all matter and what do these figures mean? Well wen we consider things from the perspective of human existence there has been lots of publications and studies illustrating how this will affect access to food, increase flooding, droughts, extreme heat waves and fire risks, which all in turn undermine the economy, our property and normalized living patterns. All of this is stressed in a sense of urgency of 12 years to reach net zero emissions and a pursuit to implement solutions that maintain humans reliance of business as usual.

Its is out of these two factors that mankind will place a greater emphasis on mitigation through fossil fuel reduction and carbon capture and as such overlook the changes in human behaviour needed and the opportunities available from natural biodiverse forests. Before we can explore this opportunity and it’s systematic approach we first need to understand the implications of the mitigate approach. 

What is Carbon Sequestration? 

Carbon sequestration is a process by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere and held in liquid or solid form. These include the use of artificial processes such Carbon Capture technologies, which either pull the CO2 out of the atmosphere mechanically or extract CO2 from the source of emission and then lock it into the ground. A more natural alternative would be to plant trees and cultivate trees to capture CO2 and then locking it into the environment either within the soil, plant, tree or root structure. 

The former is evidence of man’s plight to overcome an existential crisis via the use of technology.  In this present day, the technology has limited application. From an economic perspective the cost of carbon capture and storage is astronomically high, the The Carbon Capture & Storage Association estimates at current rates it costs $69-$103 per tonne, with a prediction that with technology advancements this value will drop to $40-57 per tonne by early 2020. If further advances in lithium batteries are achieved this cost could reduce to $20 per tonne by 2040. When considering that the world’s global emissions are 37.1 gigatonnes per year, it would cost up to $0.62 trillion per year to capture all the carbon for that year in the most optimistic costing. To achieve this massive investment would be needed by both the public and private sectors, with development and implementation only accessible by institutions with large amounts of capital to invest or technological expertise. More worrying this approach places a direct focus on mitigation via creating a source for economic gains in a new industry and ignoring the more underlying issue of ecological break down.

In light of these drawbacks, the reality of reducing emissions below levels required for the targeted 1.5 degrees will be challenging. 

Large scale Afforestation

Large scale plantation of trees has become a trending solution at government and grass roots level. A study, published in the Journal Science, there is potential to utilize 0.9 billion hectares of available land to support tree plantation and sequester up to 205 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, reducing the atmosphere carbon pool by 25% . If within a hectare, 1000 trees are planted and  the most efficient projections estimate that it would cost $0.30 per tree, for 0.9 billion hectares, a trillion trees could be planted for a cost of around $300bn dollars. Considering that the global emissions per year is 37.1 gigatonnes, the cost of the mass scale tree plantation would be $54.34bn per year. 

Global projects such as the Bonn Challenge aims to partner with countries across the world to unlock 350 million hectares of land for afforestation by 2030 to sequester with the hope of sequestering 15 gigatonnes of CO2. A recent signatorie of this pledge was Pakistan who commited and completed a one  billion tree planting project covering 350,000 hectares, which was once degraded and deforested land.  

However a key part of this conversation in using natural methods of sequestration lies in long term effectiveness and resilience.  An article by the Putzier Centre illustrated that planting trees in high density and with a secondary role for harvesting for timber at maturity risked selection of trees that are vulnerable to forest fires. The result from these fires not only unlocks all the carbon stored in the trees but also degrades the soil for future plantation. This issue is not just problematic for afforestation in dry climates, in wetter climates where there is a high water table, high yield trees risk pushing the water table to deeper depths resulting in a drier soil condition. A study in China, where large scale afforestation has been undertaken argues that these programs may induce not only socio-economic problems of water shortages but also restrict other ecosystems from growing by lowering the groundwater table to depths not conducive for other vegetation and plant life, hindering the possibility for healthy soil needed for long term tree growth. A paper by PNAS  further emphasises that the productivity of tree growth is tied to biodiversity of the area, where 1% loss in biodiversity leads to 0.23% loss of tree productivity. This has been attributed to lowering the concentration of resources (resource acquisition) and increasing the distance to resources (resource partition) need for high efficiency growth. For example Understory vegetation, such as plant life has a significant effect on tree productivity, both by influencing tree seedling regeneration and by affecting belowground processes and soil nutrient buildup

So what we need is an alternative system of sequestration that is rooting on natural biological functions?  This is where diversity comes plays its part. 

Diversity: A story of Interdependence  

A bio-diverse  forest exists as an ecosystem, where organic species interact independently and symbiotically. A forest can be separated between producers, decomposers and stores.

Producers create their own energy through a biochemistry processes. They can be separated into primary, secondary and tertiary.

  • Primary producers, namely the green plants use photosynthesis and respiration as a mechanism of survival. These primary producers exist in four layers within the forest; the emergent layers at the top, consisting of very large trees that are spaced widely apart and attract the most amount of sunlight; the canopy layer composed of smaller trees with a greater density and produce fruits, nectars and seeds to other creatures; the understory, where most plants and shrubs exists  and finally the forest (undergrowth) floor, which extracts very little sunlight. 
  • Secondary produces, also known as herbivores, exist on all of these levels, eat the fruits, seeds and leaves provided by the primary producers, allowing their movement and digestion to fertilize the land and redistribute seeds across the forest.
  • Tertiary producers, generally exist on the undergrowth and prey on herbivores for sustenance, helping to manage and maintain population sizes of Secondary producers
   Relationship between Producers in Temperate Forest

                    

Decomposers of the forest ecosystem break down dead plants and animals to return nutrients to the soil to be made usable by the producers. This comes in the form of bacteria, ants, termites, earthworms and millipedes. Often this occurs within the microclimates caused from the other parts of the system such as warm and moist environment. 

The final part of the system is storage, which exists at forest ground level as either soil or water, where nutrients are stored for other producers to access. 

The presence of each of these components illustrate a story of interdependence where their very survival relies on a collaborative  system exchange of biological processes within feedback loops.  To explore even further, this system is not just interdependent but symbiotic where secondary behaviours of individual components create a more hospitable environment for others to flourish. A simple example of this in the Amazon, between Azteca Ants and cecropia trees. The ants, which thrive in hollow stems of the trees, depend on the special juice produced by the trees for food. In exchange, the ants chase away the insects that may harm the ceropias and kill the climbing vines that might  choke these trees. 

Now with a greater wider picture of how diversity operates, what role does this system play in carbon sequestration? 

The role of Diverse forests in Carbon Sequestration

According to LiveScience the 3 main carbon sinks that operate within the natural environment is the soil, plants and the ocean.   

In a biological diverse forest, soil and plants/trees sinks are the most applicable carbon sinks. Within the soil, the majority of carbon is held within the top 40 cm, where decomposing is taking place, to leave a fertile strata of soil. Within the plant life, carbon is held within either the above ground biomass (AGB), i.e the tree or plant structure or below ground biomass (BGB) i.e the root structure. To increase the diversity of a forest an appreciation of climate, species diversity, soil fertility and interdependence plant, animals and bacteria and fungi is needed. 

In a report by PNAS  shows that soil organic carbon storage is driven by the balance between two main processes; carbon inputs (net carbon gains by plants) and losses (microbiological decomposition), where biodiversity has the ability to influence the carbon sequestration to modify the process. 

High plant diversity increases carbon inputs (particularly at below ground level), increases the soil microbial community diversity/activity in the ground and suppressing carbon losses from decomposition, resulting in a gain in carbon storage in the soil.  A study in Science Daily further emphasises that species rich forests increase carbon sequestration by 50% against a monoculture approach. 

However, other studies have also shown that climate, vegetation and soil conditions also have a role to play. These additional variables can also be steered (within limitations) by diversity within the forest. 

Soil condition and fertility, which influence species richness, productivity and soil carbon storage is controlled by the availability of nutrients via adequate pH levels and water saturation. The diagram below from ENVIS Centre on Plants and Pollution  illustrates this point where the utilization of weeds and shrubs can be used to alter pH within the soil to increase fertility for other trees to propagate. 

Plant growth from changes in pH level


Shrubs and plants share nutrients and information with other plants, engage in the carbon-sugars-for-nutrients trade with fungi, shelter microbes in return for nitrogen and other nutrients, and thus contribute to a healthy, biodiverse, carbon-sequestering soil system. A recent article by National Geographic  show that shrubs and plants can offer up to a 30% reduction in CO2 within the atmosphere from locking in carbon within their expansive root network.

The nurturing of the soil to create a habitat for the next species of plant life is known as forest succession, an ecological process that allows one community of plant species to replace another and in doing so increase the productivity of carbon storage within the soil. 

Understanding Forest Succession:

Stages of Forest Succession 

If  a bare field is left undisturbed long enough in most places it will inevitably turn into a forest, given enough time. Nature will fill empty, barren or disturbed ground with plants which quickly stabilize and build the soil, to prepare the ground for progressively larger plants, until the area is filled with trees, and many layers of understory plants beneath them. Forest succession is one of Nature’s system of repairing degraded ground to prevent soil erosion and to reconstruct and restore ecosystems. This process of natural ecosystem restoration through forest succession generally goes as followed:

Pioneering plants: First to arrive on bare soil are the pioneering plant which are most often hardy annual weeds with a lot of seeds that spread fast to allow for maximum soil coverage. These pioneering weed species are key in restoring the soil and ecosystem restoration and they can be:

-Plants with deep tap roots that help decompact the soil and can mine minerals from lower areas of the soil and bring them up to make them available for other plants.

-Plants with fine net-like root structures

-Plants with thorns, itchy or poisonous plants to stop herbivores from overgrazing and prevent compaction of the soil with their hooves by keeping them moving along.

Perennial Plants and Grasses: Pioneer plants create an environment which can support perennial plants and grasses, which then start inhabiting this space. Many perennials have their own special adaptations and survival mechanisms which allow them to transform what the pioneer plants have left behind into a grassy meadow. Many of these perennials through their leaves and roots structure will add carbon and also essential minerals and trace elements to the soil. Shade intolerant tree seedlings also begin growing in this space. 

Woody Pioneers and Shrubs: Once these changes have taken place, the space becomes suitable for the growth of woody pioneers or shrubs. The transformation into a shrubland elevates the height of the vegetation, and creates a protective microclimate which supports the growth of other small trees.

Young forest of fast growing short-lived pioneer trees: The thicket of annual & perennial weeds is then transformed into a young forest of which many trees will be short lived pioneer trees who are at the service of the larger forest creation story and they will be phased out once the forest grows bigger. The young trees are often softwood and can in many cases be legumes nitrogen fixing trees that help feed the soil through their root systems and the leaf litter that feeds the live in the soil.

Mature forest: Longer lived hardwood trees – the climax trees and understory of shade tolerant species to the younger forest turns into a mature forest where mostly shade tolerant species can survive.

Once it is  established, it does not remain static. Nothing in Nature does! Nature and forests are living and dynamic systems. If any disturbance occurs the forest succession will reset itself, for example through a fire or a tree falling because it dies of old age. (the above clear explanation of forest succession was taken from the following link: https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/permaculture/permaculture-design-principles/8-accelerating-succession-and-evolution/

Different layer of a tropical forest

Forest succession and the layers of plant & tree vegetation help to create different microclimates for plant/tree life and helps to grow the life of  biological decomposers. Broadly speaking, climates in forests are influenced by wind, sunlight and moisture content. One of the outcomes of succession as in relation to capturing CO2 and mitigating Climate Change is the presence of multiple leaf layers. A study in Science Daily, illustrated that these multiple layers create a more structurally diverse forest, which allows sunlight to be captured at varying heights with the forest strata, ensuring that a greater amount of carbon can be sequestered through species richness. In addition where greater shade is provided from leafy canopies, the biological process of decomposition is slowed down from lower temperature thus reducing the rate of carbon released back into the atmosphere.

The role of diversity in the forest landscape is endless, from broad overarching systems to microscale feedback loops, which has been present with the natural world over the millennia. The whole of Earth or Gaia’s evolutionary trajectory has been about creating abundance, creating the right conditions for life to exist and to maximise the diversity of life. Important part of Gaia’s journey has been about regulating the atmospheric gases, CO2 being one of them, and temperatures. One of the main tools Gaia created to enable this is rich biodiverse forests and the life that exists within it with all its interconnectedness.  In simple terms nature biodiverse forest ecosystems are one of the best tools of capturing carbon and tools for restoring damaged ecosystems. It is for this reason that nature has evolved itself and created forest systems. It is humanity that seems to be reversing nature evolutionary drive to create living processes and for the last two hundred years accelerating this trend of humans have been going against nature’s evolutionary drive to support, sustain and grow life in all its diversity and beauty by literally destroying the processes that all life depends on. 

Looking back to Gaia Ashram and their pursuit for diversity, how do they implement the creation of forest diversity and enrich biodiversity?

Gaia Ashram: Where diversity matters

Gaia Ashram spans over 6 hectares and is situated next to a river and river ecosystem, historically the main part of the land used to be a dry dipterocarp forest which was cut down for wood and other purposes, later it turned into a eucalyptus plantation and later it was used for growing rice which was not very productive because of the degraded soil and lack of access to water. 

Gaia Ashram Ecosystem Restoration

Gaia Ashram overarching aim is to work on ecosystem restoration, to create a deeper connection with nature, to be a learning center and to spread this to the local bioregion by setting a practical example and an economic model that can be followed by the local farmers. 

The current land use is as follows:

Wild Nature:

About 40% of the Gaia Ashram land is left to nature to go wild and a space where nature can evolve itself. People of Gaia Ashram only enter these spaces with respect to learn from nature and to create a deeper connect to wild nature to remember where we come from. The whole project focuses on ecosystem restoration but in these wild spaces nature is allowed to do it by itself without much human intervention.

Human Interaction with nature

The other 60 % of about 3 1/2 hectares is more human interaction with the land and nature. Gaia Ashram has some annual vegetable gardens to grow food for the people living on the land and in areas rice is grown as the staple crop. There are buildings on the land scattered over about 2 hectares of the land integrated into the natural system where people live, work and learn about taking care of nature. At the moment Gaia Ashram can have up to 30 people living on the land but on average there live about 14 people. Then there are four big established ponds for water harvesting for irrigation and recreation. Recently more space has been created for water harvesting and creating aquatic ecosystems. There are agroforestry, alley cropping and food forest systems being established throughout this part of the land.

Accelerating Forest Succession & Ecosystem Restoration: 

On about 2 ½ hectares Gaia Ashram aims to use nature’s evolutionary drive of ecological/forest succession and work with nature to accelerate this process of natural succession by introducing the different layers of a forest at the same time. This potentially can dramatically reduce the time frame by which we can reach the stage of a climax forest and speeding up the CO2 capturing capacity of the land.  

Young food forest after pruning in rainy season

                                                        
Interdependent and Symbiotic Systems 

Gaia Ashram utilizes  both perennials and annuals to allow for increased density of plantation with in a specific area. This is particularly important considering that annuals roots are generally within the top layer of the soil whilst  the slower growing perennials roots reach much deeper, allowing for better utilization of the soil strata. In a more interdependent role perennials often grow slower but larger offering useful shade and wind protection for the annuals, likewise the annuals with their faster growth will die out faster offering valuable nutrients back to the preninals.  Where possible weeds and shrubs will also be left to grow to alter the pH of the sois for more stable plants and trees to be grown  

Trapping carbon in the soil  

Gaia Ashram is home to many indigenous species of tropical trees as well as grassy vegetation. This has allowed the soil to trap and retain valuable bacteria (as well as carbon) over the years and further fed by biological decay of dead vegetation. With a limited tilling approach, the soils retain all these valuable processors to continue to create nutrients needed for fertile soil. The act of tilling exposes the bacteria to sunlight, killing them. This is also important in carbon storage as carbon oxides with the air when exposed to produce CO2. 

Diverse past, diverse future  

Natural diverse forests have been rooted in the functionality of our ecosystem for thousands of years. 

Our approach over our short time of technological and intellectual progression has been to work against it to suit the needs of our finite needs. As we progress further into this ecological crisis and come to terms to the sheer complexity of the ecological and biological systems that governs the world we live in, we need to recognize that being part of something much grander and older than our-selves means to play by its rules and it rules through diversity. 

History, though has shown us that ecological diversity will take time and time is the one thing we do not have. So when we consider our future, the road map we build to steer us away from extinction, we need to appreciate that diverse solutions are needed. Ones that both utilize the hard engineering of carbon capture whilst also laying a blueprint for how we manage and interact and create more natural forests and also can have an agriculture that integrates trees and forest through agroforestry, food forests and other methods.

Authors
Yasin Hussain

Tom Deiters