One of UCLA’s many far-sighted efforts seeks to prevent irreversible catastrophe in Central Africa. Home to the world’s largest rainforest still absorbing carbon, the Congo Basin is one of the planet’s two “lungs.” Containing approximately one of every five animal species, it faces grave threats, including climate change, exploitation of natural resources, poverty and disease.
To help solve these massive challenges, UCLA and the nonprofit International Institute of Tropical Agriculture launched the Congo Basin Institute in 2015. While it unites a global network of partners, CBI crucially supports African scientists with resources and funds for labs, research and graduate students, slowing “brain drain” and bolstering their role as the continent’s greatest change agents.
In one of its most impactful initiatives to date, CBI launched the Ebony Project with the support of Bob and Cindy Taylor (of Taylor Guitars) and the expertise of UCLA’s Thomas B. Smith, founding director of the Center for Tropical Research as well as a distinguished professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Low numbers coupled with high demand have left tropical hardwood trees vulnerable. The project teams with communities to plant a combination of ebony trees and locally valuable fruit, medicinal and timber trees. The communities tend the trees and, for the first five years, receive stipends for this work. After the fifth year, the communities care for the trees independently and harvest the fruits and medicines to sell or use.
So far, 21,000 ebony trees and nearly 6,000 locally valuable fruit and medicinal trees have been planted — although ebony trees take up to 200 years to reach maturity. Because of the research and planting activities, ebony was moved from the “endangered” to the less critical “vulnerable” list, with thousands of additional saplings growing in project nurseries.
Closer to campus, UCLA is also laying careful groundwork as the first formal university partner of the newly formed Climate and Wildfire Institute. Although wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecosystems, they are burning with increasing frequency, ferocity and unpredictability due to climate change.
Key UCLA faculty leadership is involved: Alex Hall, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and director of the Center for Climate Science at UCLA, serves as CWI’s inaugural secretary. The institute has also spurred serious conversations about establishing a major regional research hub at UCLA.
Among the center’s ambitious goals are developing a prediction system that continuously produces maps of future fire risks; building climate, ecological and fire models that reflect changing conditions; and incorporating the monitoring of harmful smoke emissions.
Although progress may be slow and measured, it’s necessary: 2020 was the most destructive wildfire season in California’s recorded history, with 4.4 million acres burned — more than 4% of the state’s land.