Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship.

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship. Potts specializes in resource economics, an interdisciplinary field in which he conducts quantitative analyses of forest management, biofuels, plantation agriculture, land use planning, land use policy, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and tropical ecology.

“In my research group, we ask how interactions among human labor, history, technology, and nature are  shaping tropical lands and the well-being of resource dependent communities,” said Potts at a winter Blum Center Faculty Salon. 

Much of Potts’ research in tropical forests provides insights into how to sustainably manage these landscapes, which he says provide public and market goods. Public goods include carbon storage and animal habitats. Market goods include raw materials such as timber, land for agricultural production, and gold. 

At the salon, Potts highlighted stories of three commodities: the story of oil palm in Pasoh, Malaysia; the story of cacao in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and the story presented by Jimena Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, of gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

Potts presented findings from fieldwork he conducted in cross-boundary subsidies in a Malaysian plantation landscape, using oil palm as the primary crop in his analysis. (Cross-boundary subsidies are caused by organisms or materials that cross or traverse habitat patch boundaries, subsidizing the resident populations.) Using two decades of ecological data, Potts and his research colleagues illustrated how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary “cascading” effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. Specifically, they found that 1) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar, 2) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and 3) nest building caused a 62 percent decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. As described in their 2017 Nature Communications study, “The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.”

Next, Potts presented an analysis of sustainable cacao intensification initiatives in Southwest Sulawesi, conducted by his former student Lisa Kelley, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose initial research was supported by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab. Kelley explored how a rapid smallholder cacao boom in the 1980s-2000s produced mixed benefits for farmers and negatively impacted forests. Over the last 20 years, Sulawesi cacao farmers experienced significant yield losses due to the reduced profitability and sustainability of the crop. In one of Kelley’s interviewers, a farmer reported: “When chocolate is young, it produces well and doesn’t require too much work. After it’s mature, it produces little and requires too much work. Meanwhile the price of chocolate goes up and down. As soon as my peppercorn trees yield, I will leave it.” 

To improve sustainable cacao production, the Indonesian government, companies like Mars and Nestle, and international organizations like USAID and the World Agroforestry Centre have invested since 2000 half a billion dollars into farmer education and land improvements. Using GoogleEarth to understand land effects, Kelley is working on a study to determine the degree to which the investments have borne results. 

Concluding the salon, Potts’ graduate student, Jimena Diaz, presented her ongoing research on the social and ecological effects of small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru. Diaz emphasized that her research explores the intersection between the social relations of gold production, including labor practices and technologies used in mining, and the ecological consequences of these diverse mining production practices. Through her fieldwork, Diaz has found  that small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, causing ecological change and rapid deforestation. Mercury is present in almost all gold mining areas, because it is used to bind fine gold particles into an amalgam that is later burned to release the mercury. 

Informal gold miners in Madre de Dios, Peru. © Jimena Diaz

“Misconceptions of mercury and mining practices are common in Madre de Dios,” said Diaz. An important finding from her field research is that not all mining areas are contaminated by mercury and that the type of machinery used in mining may help to explain differences in mercury contamination. Different gold production practices also have different impacts on patterns of deforestation. Areas where miners use heavy machinery tend to show more uniform patterns in deforestation and forest regeneration in comparison to those areas worked with suction pump based technologies. Diaz recommends greater involvement of miners in the design of mining regulations and an explicit recognition of the importance of small-scale mining as a livelihood for a large portion of the region’s population.

“Nature is quite resilient and there are ways to mine that are less impactful,” said Diaz. “Miners themselves don’t want to destroy rainforests, but they also don’t have a lot of economic choices.” 

–Dalia Elkhalifa

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

By Jason Liu

How does one bring a social impact idea from conception to reality? 

That question is central to DEVENG C200: Design, Evaluate and Scale Development Technologies, a Development Engineering course taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science graduate students this fall.   

Because the emerging field of Development Engineering is highly interdisciplinary, DEVENG C200 is taught as a collaboration among Blum Center Education Director and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Haas School of Business Professor David Levine, and College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Matthew Potts, all of whom are faculty from the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher and coordinator for the Development Engineering program, also provides support for the student teams, especially in their project formulation and interactions with local communities. 

According to Levine, who specializes in the economic analysis of developing countries, the class is meant to help students practice design thinking and engineering in low-resource settings. 

During the first week of class, students participated in a project fair, where sponsors of ongoing Development Engineering projects introduced themselves to the students. Projects included a technology for arsenic removal from drinking water in California’s Central Valley and a community-based enterprise for recycling plastic waste for infrastructure in Kenya. Students were tasked with reconceptualizing the product design for user needs, performing needs assessments for stakeholders, and analyzing the social integration of the projects in their respective communities. 

“The goal of the class is for the students to learn how a product evolves through user interaction, how it is contextualized culturally and otherwise, and how to improve a design so it better serves the needs of its users,” said Perez, who completed a UC Berkeley PhD in Architecture focused on collaborative design. “Students will need to think beyond their initial conceptions of the project and seek feedback from stakeholders to adjust their ideas to the users’ needs in a particular place and context.” 

Levine, who has taught the course previously, added: “These projects are serving real communities and some will become real solutions that will operate on a real scale. Students will go through needs assessments, use their creativity to find new solutions, develop relevant business plans, and eventually get to see how impactful those solutions actually are.” 

When asked what he thought the most important skill will be for the students to succeed in their projects, Levine responded, “Nothing is more important than listening. The world is complicated and we have to try to understand what the problems are on a deep level. Too often we assume that really smart people at Berkeley have all the solutions and too often they’re wrong. Instead, we need to use all the surveys and data possible to understand the potential solutions to a problem, collect feedback, and continue refining the solution.” 

While listening is an important skill for DEVENG C200 students, Perez noted that the diversity of students is also an important characteristic. 

“Diversity in any company or team improves creativity, brings new ideas, and fosters new ways of thinking,” she said, citing a Harvard Business Review article.

Diversity is indeed reflected in the student makeup of DEVENG 200, in which a third are business students and the rest are pursuing advanced degrees in engineering, education, natural resources, and public policy. More than half the class also hails from outside the U.S. 

Student goals for the semester are similarly diverse. Haley Wohlever, a first-year Mechanical Engineering PhD student, Engineers Without Borders graduate, and fellow in the Blum Center’s program on Innovation in the Nexus of Food Energy and Water System (InFEWS), said, “My goal for DEVENG C200 is to be exposed to the process of creating a working business model to implement technology targeted towards a particular society. [I’ve seen] how multi-faceted these Development Engineering problems are, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to study the social and economic pieces of the solution.” Other students discussed team characteristic goals, such as being transparent, respectful, and proactive, as they formed into eight teams focused on seven projects.

One of the most popular projects chosen was TakatakaPlastics, sponsored by Paige Balcom, a Mechanical and Development Engineering PhD student, InFEWS Fellow, and advisee of Agogino. The main goal of the project is to convert the plastic waste in developing countries into durable and affordable construction material.

Explaining what excites her about Takataka Plastics, Balcom said, “I saw how [Takataka Plastics] could make a huge impact on the lives of my Ugandan friends. By turning waste into saleable products, we’re creating jobs, cleaning up litter, reducing public health issues, and reducing greenhouse gases released by burning plastic. Takataka is helping change people’s view of plastic waste from dirty, untouchable ‘rubbish’ to an untapped resource and helping them realize the impact plastic has on their environment.”

In 2018, Takataka Plastics successfully tested a prototype and recently received its first order from Uganda. DEVENG C200 students will create a marketing strategy to franchise the project across Uganda, design additional products from the available plastic, and tailor the technical product to better satisfy user needs. 

Another project, Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE): Arsenic Solutions, was introduced by InFEWS Fellow Dana Hernandez, an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and other members of his lab to develop an affordable arsenic removal treatment technology. The technology will provide clean water for communities in California’s Central Valley and has scalable prototypes in development. ACAIE: Arsenic Solution won Berkeley’s Big Idea Contest last year. Students will work with Hernandez to socially integrate the technology into the communities of the Central Valley, scale the project, and create a business model for the product. 

DEVENG C200 Students Adrian Hinkle and Soliver Fusi, both InFEWS PhD Fellows as well, are leading the Urine to Fertilizer project, which focuses on converting urine into an affordable fertilizer that increases food production while promoting sustainable sanitation in Kenya. Fusi said, “I’m attracted to the fundamental premise of my work because I’m not creating anything new–I’m just finding ways to make do with what we already have, such as urine.” Previous researchers, working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kara Nelson, have successfully tested a proof of concept in Kenya in 2017 while Fusi and Hinkle will finalize technical research, the needs assessments for their Kenyan stakeholders, and the economic viability of urine-derived fertilizers with the students of DEVENG C200.

Anaya Hall, an Energy and Resource Group Ph.D. student and InFEWS Fellow, is leading the Peel: Scaling Compost for Carbon Sequestration and Community Resilience project, which addresses the inefficiencies and significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from conventional composting practices in California. With the project still in its early stages, students will work on solving operational questions, such as how to scale and where to site the project, while also determining if compost utilization can be turned into an effective, socially beneficial, and environmentally friendly business model. 

Another project, Aakar Innovation, seeks to address the dearth of effective menstrual hygiene management in India through environmentally friendly, comfortable, and convenient menstrual pads. Sponsored by Aakar Social Board Members Jaydeep Mandal and Ajay Muttreja, Aakar Innovation aims to destigmatize menstruation and empower females in rural India. Students will work with the Indian nonprofit to conduct needs assessments and create a financial strategy to scale the project. 

Meanwhile, the Edu-Comp project is working to find bothsustainable technological and educational solutions to food waste at the Native American Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy, a school for indigenous people located near Sacramento. The project sponsors are Yael Perez and InFEWS Fellow George Moore, a Mechanical Engineering student of Professor Agogino, who are building on the work of students in Professor Kosa Goucher-Lambert’s ME290 class last spring. DEVENG C200 students will work to find educational supplements to technological solutions, customize the device itself to fit the needs of the school, and determine benchmarks for success.

Lastly, Shelby Witherby, an InFEWS Fellow with a PhD in Developmental Engineering, is leading the SAFR: Fluoride Removal project, which addresses the lack of an affordable solution to fluoride contaminated drinking water in rural India. Several field tests for the project have been completed and Witherby hopes to finalize the design of the prototype, address waste disposal, and organize local maintenance for the system with DEVENG C200 students this semester. 

By the end of the class, students will have immersed themselves in these projects and, as Professor Agogino stated, will have learned methodologies for working with underserved communities and developing  integrated solutions for complex sustainability challenges.

“Ultimately,” she said, “they will have also potentially co-designed innovative solutions for communities in need.