ATBC 2017

The ATBC 2017 meeting in Mexico was a success. About 750 people from 40 different countries came together to discuss ecological and social dimensions of tropical biodiversity conservation.

 

From the opening ceremony with musical performance, over the mentoring circle (where we get to know a lot of new people) and all the interesting sessions to the closing ceremony where Lore got awarded for best student poster (congratz!), we enjoyed ourselves and were happy to get this networking chance!

 

There were a lot of sessions on animal conservation, animal-plant interactions and many talks about fancy birds. We went to sessions talking about the importance of working together with farmers for better agricultural production within a highly bio diverse framework. There were sessions about aquatic tropical biology, about plant photosynthesis, about lianas and even a couple about soil nutrients and their impact on the ecosystem (even though the researcher in question mentioned that he disliked the fact that soil nutrients are important after all). We listened to talks about wild boar (white lipped pekaris, yeah!) and mangrove forests. All in all the conference spanned a broad range of topics within tropical ecology and most of them were very interesting to learn about.

Both Leandro and Lore presented a poster at the conference (see previous post). Each day about 70 people presented their poster. In practice this meant that those 70 people put up their poster during the morning break (between 10h30 and 11h00), and the poster presentations took place during the afternoon break (between 16h and 17h). So we (and all the other 740 people present) only had 1 hour to have a look at the posters, and every day we had new posters to visit. If you want to have a look at all of them, you spend less than a minute at each poster which is way too short!

 

Our poster session took place on Wednesday. A pity they put all posters of the same topic on the same day, so we couldn’t ‘visit’ the posters we were interested in. But we had a nice hour of presenting a poster. A lot of people were interested. Even so much that several people skipped the plenary session at 17h to stay longer to have a look at the posters.

 

On the last day of the conference several field trips were organized. The one we participated at was a trip to Uxmal and surrounding cenotes. Uxmal is an ancient Maya city and is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture (along with some others). A cenote is a natural pit resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. These are typical for the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

 

Both Uxmal and the visited cenotes were amazing! We were surprised that so few tourists find their way to Uxmal. Climbing one of the pyramids offered a nice view over the rainforests.

After this great conference, we took 10 days to travel around the Yucatan peninsula. More pictures will follow later 🙂

See you (hopefully) next year in Malaysia, ATBC!

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Team Barcelona vs. Team Antwerp

Almost three weeks ago our Spanish (or should we say ‘Catalan’, it’s a loaded issue appartently) colleagues came back to Kourou, French Guiana. This time they brought two new members to explore the rainforest: Ana and Pere, both technicians at CREAF. WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (Guns ‘N Roses, anyone?) 🙂
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Anna, Pere and Leandro in Nouragues

After a week of sampling (minus one day, they needed that one day to receive their shipment of equipment that got stuck in customs, again!) in Paracou the next mission the agenda was Nouragues. On Monday the 29th of May we all went to the Inselberg camp in the Nouragues reserve: the Spanish team and an Antwerp team, nine people in total. At 5h45 we left Kourou with our first destination Cayenne airport. At the industrial loading docks (they exist in FG, we couldn’t believe it at first!) the helicopter company HDF is situated, and there we had to drop off a large bottle of liquid nitrogen the Spanish team uses to freeze samples in the field. This helicopter would then deposit the liquid nitrogen, along with a lot of other equipment, at the station. You read it right, the liquid nitrogen got the short trip, we were bound for the long way round.

Next stop: Regina. Here we take the ‘pirogue’ to Nouragues. At 8h30 we arrive at the house of Mr. Agassi, our ‘piroguier’. One little problem: he wasn’t home. After a short phonecall we learned he was in Cayenne, shopping. Apparently he wasn’t informed about our trip, although we planned it two months in advance. A ‘small’ hiccup at the CNRS administration, they forgot to inform Mr Agassi of our travel plans. He was, luckily, so friendly to drive back to Regina (Cayenne-Regina is a 1,5h drive!) to help us out. So with some delay we could continue our trip.

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Mr. Agassi

Once in the pirogue we were quickly reminded that it was rainy season… so we arrived in camp Pararé being cold and completely wet. We speak from experience and can tell you that the heaviest raincoat does not help one bit in keeping you dry while the rain is pouring down and you’re moving at +-40km/h on a boat, in the middle of the river. Because of our delay (Mr. Agassi not being home and therefore leaving Regina much later than planned) we quickly grabbed some crackers for lunch, our torch and a bottle of water and started the 2-3h hike to camp Inselberg, in the hope to arrive before the dark!

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Ready… Set… GO!

Less than 2h after (usually they say the hike takes 3h, but without bagpack and with our colleague Elodie setting a murderous pace), we all arrived safely at the Inselberg camp. After a long day of transportation, happy to be at our destination, we all went early to our hammock.

The next few days we were really lucky with the weather and everybody worked very hard. Our Spanish colleagues sampled soil and litter for analyses of metabolomics, stoichiometry and enzymatic activity. Leandro installed PRS probes and started his campaign to measure nitrogen fixation in soil and litter, while Clement, Elodie and Laetitia (our new colleague!) and Lore measured soil gas fluxes!


The third day in Nouragues, while Laetitia and Lore were walking back to the camp, Lore thought she walked over a beautiful liana (as we have a lot of them in Nouragues!), whereas Laetitia pointed out to her that it wasn’t a liana, but a beautiful ‘serpent chasseur’!


Elodie, Clement, Laetitia and Lore were the first team to return from Nouragues. And lucky as they were, they saw a giant anteater on their way to camp Pararé, and a swimming tayra and a couple of ara’s on the pirogue going back to Regina (the rest of the team hate them now and are really jealous)!


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A swimming Tayra

Since one week, Lore is back from Nouragues, carrying out our weekly measurements of nitrogen deposition in Paracou and washing PRS probes, which can take up to 4 days on your own (for 92 samples). In the meanwhile Leandro is still in Nouragues, finishing his nitrogen fixation measurements and washing PRS probes as well, while the Spanish (Catalan) CREAF team is sieving and racing against the clock to get their samples shipped before they leave the country.

There’s deadlines for everyone, wish us luck!! 🙂

 

Camera trap

We recently installed a camera trap in Paracou.
And look who we found: bambi!

This beautiful deer walked past an experiment of Leandro close to the flux tower of Paracou.

Next week we’ll install the camera in Nouragues; curious to see which animals we can catch on our pictures!!

Adventure trails

The rainy season turns the walking trails in the forest into small rivers, and small rivers into bigger rivers.

While we can cross some small rivers in the dry season only by walking on big tree trunks, we’re happy these trees are still sticking out above the water level in the rainy season! And yes, if you lose your balance and fall in, it’s cold.

 

Rainy Season?!

Paralyzed for more than a month, the social movement in French Guiana ended on the 21st of April after an agreement was signed. 2.1 Billion will be made available for the future of French Guiana. Finally we could continue with our fertilisation experiment, after having to reschedule several times. Thanks to all the extra hands for carrying out this tough job together with us!

Recently we spent 1 week in Barcelona to meet our Spanish colleagues at CREAF, participating in the Imbalance-P project. We put most of our data together to make one big database and discuss synergies based on these data.
Forgotten that Barcelona can still be cold and wet in April, Lore only packed her sandals with very cold feet and a cold as a result. But luckily we also had some nice weather and some time to visit Leandro’s father and Barcelona city!

After that week we went back to French Guiana where we are continuing our weekly measures of N-deposition in the forest and on the old helicopter dropzone, which we use as open space. We discovered that our walking paths turn into rivers with some local waterfalls in the rainy season. We even had to ‘build’ blockades for our water bottles avoiding they would ‘go with the flow’! For information, the bottles serve to store the rainfall and we go to empty them once a week, after which we chemically analyse the water to know which ions are introduced into the environment through the rain.

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)!