18-days strike in the Belgian news!

Yesterday we contacted the Belgian local news about the situation in French Guiana. A couple of hours later two newspapers picked up the news:

http://www.hln.be/hln/nl/922/Nieuws/article/detail/3123953/2017/04/06/Franse-regering-maakt-meer-dan-een-miljard-euro-vrij-voor-Frans-Guyana.dhtml

http://www.hln.be/hln/nl/922/Nieuws/article/detail/3121405/2017/04/04/Conflict-tussen-Parijs-en-overzees-departement-Guyana-loopt-op.dhtml

http://www.demorgen.be/buitenland/franse-regering-maakt-meer-dan-een-miljard-euro-vrij-voor-frans-guyana-b35a77a1/

Some days ago both ‘De Standaard’ and De Morgen reported already about the situation here.

#NouBonKéSa!

Strike: 15 days and counting

15 Days ago it all started with 1 roadblock in Kourou. Strikers blocked the access road to the Space Center in an attempt to delay the planned rocket launch. It worked. It took the Guyanese people only 1 day to rise and with the whole community they dropped what they were doing, resulting in a general strike throughout the whole country. Well, the whole overseas department, as French Guiana is not really a country on its own. (In the French media there was quite some discussion about this subject: how you can talk about the ‘Peuple guyanais’ if there is only a ‘Peuple français’?).

On Thursday, 3 days after the first strike, roadblocks throughout the whole country were put up. You couldn’t get in or out any village in French Guiana anymore. This does not only count for individuals, but also for companies, resulting in empty shops: no more fresh fruits and vegetables, no more milk products in the fridges… We have never seen an empty shop like that. Luckily we still have canned food, pasta and rice, meaning we won’t die for quite some time 🙂

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Another problem that rises is the limited gasoline. Since ports and airports are cordoned off, there is no delivery of gasoline and right now all gas stations are running out… Our first reaction was ‘well, that’s no problem, we can’t leave Kourou anyway!’. But once in a while (at night and on Sundays) they open the roadblocks, so we decided on doing our weekly measurements in the forest on Sundays instead of on Thursdays. If this situation continues for a while, we won’t be able to get to our field site anymore.

Direct flights from Paris to Cayenne are almost all cancelled. You can still go via Martinique for the moment. Irene, a colleague of us, had to arrive today, but as expected her flight was cancelled. She’ll try the ‘new route’ to get here. Let’s see how it goes 🙂

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A lot of our friends are technically unemployed for the moment, as many of them work for the Space Center which has been blocked off continuously for over 2 weeks already. The first 2 days it’s funny and they enjoyed some days at the beach. But after a while it’s quite boring, as you can’t leave the village. As long as the weather is nice (we’re experiencing the ‘small summer’ in between two wet seasons) it is okay, but on a rainy day, you’re really trapped inside your house… It’s weird to write this, because we never thought we would consider ourselves lucky to be the only one to work while other people are enjoying the beach, but we’re lucky we can still get to campus and do some work (although we have fieldwork to do which we can’t for the moment) 🙂

Despite all strikes, roadblocks, closed shops… we agree with all the reasons for striking! So today we decided to join the big assembly in Kourou for a while! Now why are people on strike?

  • Better education, more schools: some kids can’t go to school because there are not enough available places
  • Better economy (which economy?)
  • Cleaner hospitals and NO to privatising the hospital: in Kourou they want to sell the hospital to a private company. This would increase the price of health care and make it impossible for a lot of the poverty stricken guyanese to pay for it. In Cayenne the hospital is in bad state: fungus on the walls, electricity cables are out in the open, dirty toilets and showers…
  • More security: It’s impossible to leave your house empty if you’re going away for a weekend. You’ll come back home in a real empty house! At night (it’s dark before 19h every day of the year!) you have to be careful with your belongings.

What also causes a lot of grief is the general French attitude. It took over a week for French media to pick up on the strike and when they finally did, one of the presidential candidates (Emmanual Macron) was asked for his opinion. He says it can’t be tolerated that the island is blocked off. The island. Running for president, but doesn’t know that French Guiana is a landlocked country on the south American continent. A lot of other French reactions were also filled with love, saying the ‘Guianese should shut up and be thankful for what they get’ or ‘If people want kids to be educated, they should send them to school’. This just shows that people in France either don’t care about French Guiana or don’t understand the plight of the locals.
If you want to read more about these strikes, we recommend this blogpost ‘When the Bastard has had enough: Nou Gon Ké Sa!’.

Annual Imbalance-P Meeting

The ERC Synergy Imbalance-P project (you know, the project that pays our salary and also the one where our PhD projects are integrated in) has been running for two years. A lot of work has already been done and therefore it was time for our annual meeting to sit together, present the subprojects, pool our data with other interested people and form collaborations.

Two years ago we had our kick-off meeting at Barcelona. Last year we went to Laxenburg (in Vienna, Austria) to visit our colleagues at Ilasa. This year our colleagues of LSCE hosted the annual meeting in the city of light, Paris.

The meeting was preceded by a workshop on Bayesian statistics. Dr. Kiona Ogle came all the way from the USA to Europe for an introduction into the magical world of Bayesian statistics. We can tell you now, it looks like a fairy land, filled with wonders and possibilities.

After two days of workshop we all had a good (some better than others) idea of what Bayesian statistics can offer us. Some simple and more complex examples helped us to understand how we can apply these methods to our own data. Many thanks to Kiona for this great workshop!!

On Wednesday night after a full day of presentations on experiments in the Imbalance P project we decided to explore the magical Paris. Together with seven colleagues, we dove into the cellar of a local jazz club to discover the music of the Swing Vandals Orchestra. Their music was awesome and a welcome release after some busy days! If you are so inclined, do give them a listen. Most of their work can be found on YouTube.

This annual meeting gave us the opportunity to learn more about the economical and biological modelling going on within this big project, about the progress of field experiments and all side-projects. Let’s meet again in one year, in Antwerp (or at least somewhere in Belgium)!

Fertilisation experiment

In September 2016 we started a big fertilisation experiment at our two field sites: Paracou and Nouragues. Annual doses of 125 kg nitrogen (N) and 50 kg of phosphorus (P) per hectare per year will be added to our plants by manual distribution in two equal doses. One dose is already administered in the dry season while the next dose will be added in the coming wet season. At each site we fertilised three plots with N, three plots with P and three plots with both N and P.

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Carrying 130 kg of fertiliser into the forest!

 

Since we have to repeat this process several times, we decided to install small PVC stakes of 40cm at every 5m in each plot, to create 10 rows of 5 m wide in each plot. This makes spreading the fertiliser easier. But this means we needed 2178 PVC stakes in total (121 stakes per plot, x 9 plots, x 2 sites = 2178). Clement and Leandro took care of this job: buying 6 m PVC stakes, cutting them into pieces and finally painting them orange.

The next step was to instal all those 2178 PVC stakes! We first put 50 m long tape measures in the forest to find out where exactly to put the stakes. Elodie, Clement and Leandro had their fun with it, but mainly with killing mosquito’s while hammering the stakes into the ground. What did we learn? Don’t try to kill mosquito’s while you have a hammer in your hand 😉
In the meanwhile Joke arranged the transport of all the P fertiliser (>600 kg) for two campaigns. N fertiliser was bought locally in Cayenne (> 600kg).

Before we could start fertilising, we made plastic zip lock bags with the exact amount of fertiliser we needed to spread out in the plots. Per plot we made 10 bags (as each plot consisted of 10 rows of 5 m wide).
For the P we made 10 bags of 3.11 kg triple super phosphate for each plot, so 60 bags in total (3 plots, 2 sites).
For the N we made 10 bags of 3.3 kg urea for each plot, with a total of 60 bags.
For the N-P we made 10 bags of 6.4 kg of N and P for each plot, with a total of 60 bags as well.

We fertilised three plots per day (always 1 P, 1 N and 1 NP). So every day we had to carry +-130 kg of fertiliser into the forest, and this does not include water and food.
Tough job! Luckily we were a team of 7 brave and strong people!! A lot of thanks to Elodie, Clement, Barbara (another PhD student), and three masterstudents: Bart, Nele and Annaïs

Next fertilisation will be in March. Then we don’t have to install the PVC tubes, but we still will have to carry 130kg of fertiliser in the forest every day. Good luck to us 🙂

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Global Change Ecology Centre initiates CO2 compensation of flights

The total carbon emission for a one-way trip from Paris to Cayenne is 745 kg CO2. The average monthly CO2 emission of a Dutch family is about 1.85 ton CO2. A round trip to French Guiana, and you’ve reached your monthly average… We know we already emit too much CO2, so a trip to French Guiana emits a lot! To compensate for all our trips (and those of our colleagues), the Global Change Ecology centre (for which we work) initiates CO2 compensation of flights. We post here the text you can read at the website of the GCE centre.

gce-centre

In a first step, all work related flights at the Global Change Ecology Centre will be CO2-compensated from January 1st 2017, in cooperation with the project Wildlife Works. Dr. Mwangi Githiru presented the “Wildlife Works” project on November 15th 2016. He provided information on the REDD+ programme and focused on the specific project area in Kenya that GCE will cooperate with. Wildlife Works has been certified through the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the “Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard” (CCB). Compensation will be a part of a larger sustainable flight strategy, where absolute necessity of each flight, as well as alternate transport options and tele-conferencing will be considered.

The basic principle is that all research related flights will be compensated (not only those paid through UAntwerpen), unless another third party has already arranged CO2 compensation. The compensation will be paid for flights of paid employees, postdocs, ATP, professors and PhD-aspirants on the occasion of:

  • Conferences, workshops, symposia, lectures, …
  • Sampling campaigns and field trips

This also includes the incoming and outgoing flights of invited guests, that were invited for lectures or cooperation talks.

Other research groups at University of Antwerp and beyond already indicated their interest to join the initiative. Interested people can always contact the GCE. Within the department of Biology, we have used the momentum to discuss the sustainability of the operation of the whole department. On January 27th , members form the different biology research groups will join for a first workgroup on sustainability.

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Summer madness

It’s been a while since anything we posted, 27th of April to be exact and unless I’m  misstaken that adds up to 129 days. High time for an update!

Our blog memory was full, so unfortunately we first had to delete some earlier pictures, before we could write this new message 🙂

So, without further ado, this is what we mean when we say “we’ve been keeping busy” 😀

First of all, we’ve been emptying the littertraps we installed in the forests every two weeks, drying and weighing the leaves to obtain the dry weight and later estimate the total belowground carbon allocation.

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Littertrap in Paracou

Leandro installed several ‘rainfall depostion containers’ in the forest and in the previous dropzone of the helicopter (to have an open space close to the forest). He collects  the content of the containers every two weeks and will analyse the water for i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus, to know the wet and dry deposition in our forest.

Fun trivia: Erik Verbruggen (new professor at Pleco) thought the name ‘rainfall deposition container’ was a bit dull, so we baptised them ‘Super Awesome Collectionators’ or SACs

Since the beginning of August we have 3 masterstudents (Anaïs, Nele and Bart) who are doing fieldwork for their masterthesis. Anaïs is collecting roots of small seedlings and a close-by adult tree to investigate the microbial communities and to see if the adult tree is ‘helping’ her small seedlings around her, or not at all.

During this time Nele and Bart are measuring sapling photosynthesis and estimating the degree of herbivory on the leaves to study if this varies between the four species we selected and how this is related to leaf nitrogen and phosphorous content. We are happy to have the 3 of them here with us doing great work!

 

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Bart and Nele measuring photosynthesis of saplings

And not to forget: Next week we’ll start with a big fertilisation experiment! We already put the fertiliser in smaller bags, installed little PVC tubes every 5m in our plots to know where to fertilise… But first a well-deserved and relaxing weekend, we’ve got some tough days ahead of us still!! 😀

 

And even more litter bags

Four days in the forest, that’s the number of outings it took us to install 108 litter traps in 12 different plots. (Watch our video here!) Luckily for you there’s no way you can smell us because let me tell you, sweat and forest gives a distinctive, quite repulsive, musk.

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Installing litter traps

The third day Lore wanted to take some pictures of us installing all the traps, but due to the bad weather she left her camera in the car. She regretted this the rest of the day, and mainly for three reasons:

We saw the biggest spider we’ve ever seen in our lives!! A tarantula bigger than Lore’s foot (size 40) yet smaller than Leandro’s foot (size 47). After looking at loads of pictures on the internet, our best guess is a Goliath birdeater (Theraposa blondi). Since we don’t have any pictures of the spider we can’t be sure. But just because it’s cool if we would have seen a Goliath birdeater and nobody can prove us wrong, we say that that’s the one we saw 🙂

In the next plot we saw a beautiful and big centipede, another reason why Lore regretted not having her camera.

As a lot of our friends know, Lore loves frogs. Something they probably don’t know but doesn’t surprise them is that Leandro likes to catch them. Apart from looking funny while doing so, it gets funnier because some of those frogs ‘squirt’ a jet of water once they’re caught, either as defense or out of pure stress (I don’ t know). Lore finds this hilarious because in her mind this is the frog literally ‘taking the piss’. She would have loved to get that moment on camera.

Workwise it was an efficient four days. All the litter traps are installed and from now on we have to empty them and dry and weigh the contents every 2-3 weeks, which is another big job!  But we love to be in the forest, any excuse to go there is a good one. 🙂

Conclusions:

  1. We saw a crazy big Goliath birdeater!!
  2. Frogs pee when Leandro catches them 🙂
  3. Never forget your camera when you go in the forest!

 

Life = expensive

We probably already told you that life here is expensive. However, it’s hard to put an exact number on how much more expensive it is, at least for us. Journalists, ever the curious type of people, apparently have a much better grasp on price differences. The local newspaper is reporting the differences in cost of living between France (l’Hexagone in the article) and French Guiana, and for us at least it feels like they came up with realistic numbers.

http://www.franceguyane.fr/actualite/economie-consommation/une-facture-guyanaise-toujours-plus-salee-289092.php

If you want to keep your way of living as you did in France (which is comparable to life-cost in Belgium), you need 44.9% more money to sustain it. Yes, that’s almost 50% more!

cartoonfood

Cartoon by Jantoo

Apparently, food is 34% more expensive than in mainland France. This is mainly due to a combination of extra costs that involve all port handling (yes, everything is imported from France!) and the limited market. Another example: medicine is 30-40% more expensive here than in Europe.

Potatobags, potatobags, and more potatobags

This is going to be a tough week. Not physically tough as some weeks can be, especially during field work, but rather mentally. Two main things need to get done soon and there’s no time like the present to do them.

Lore will study carbon allocation patterns and especially how belowground C allocation
varies along soil fertility gradients. We assume a steady state of soil carbon stocks and negligible leaching losses of soil carbon.  Total belowground carbon allocation (TBCA) can be estimated from the difference between  soil respiration and aboveground litter fall.

TBCA = soil respiration – litter fall

TBCA_Cartoon

Cartoon by Auke Herrema

To know how much carbon is stored in belowground parts of the trees, one needs to know the amount of litter that falls from the tree and the amount of carbon released in the air (soil respiration). Litter is defined as leaves, fruits and branches, even though leaves by far make up the largest portion. The idea is to use a litter trap to estimate the amount of litter coming down in a known area and to extrapolate this to a given area, either on plot or forest scale (depending on how accurate your ‘trapping’ is). In principle this is an easy measurement, but it requires quite some time and work to get it done.

 

What’s a litter trap, you ask? Easy, it literally is a trap that catches litter. It’s usually a net with a known aperture that’s hung between trees or put on a pole in the forest. Litter is captured during a specific time and afterwards the researcher (Lore) goes to collect the litter, sort it into leaves, fruit and branches and dries it. Dry weight is measured and this is used in the carbon allocation calculation formula.

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Measuring, cutting, ‘sewing’…

If you think that’s easy, you’re right! It’s however not fast. With 12 plots to sample and a minimum of 10 nets per plot Lore needs to make 120 litter traps, provided none break during the capturing period in which case they need to be replaced. Better have some spares. Making a single litter trap will take between 10 and 20 min depending on how fast your converting-a-potato-bag-into-a-sturdy-litter-trap skills are.

You heard it, potato bags!

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potatobags, potatobags and more potatobags…

This is what a finished litter trap looks like, now all that’s left is to hang it in the forest and capture litter.

And Leandro?

In theory he is R’ing away in an attempt to make an easily readable graphic representation of how our plot’s soil texture varies over sites, depth and topographies.

In practice he is often staring angrily at his laptop while muttering words such as ‘this does not work, again’ and ‘it’s not supposed to do that, I wanted the other thing’.

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Cartoon by Auke Herrema

He is almost there though, as can be seen in this image. It’s starting to look like a graph, but he’s not there yet since some things are not clear yet.

SoilTexture

Cartoon by Auke Herrema

Tomorrow a bit of field sampling, and looking forward to it!