Paolo Sartorelli

Profile

The will to explore how things run worldwide and how climate is affecting different environments led me to start a global adventure that took me from a small Italian institute to Kasetsart, the first agriculture university in Thailand, passing through Colombia, Hungary, Myanmar, the Netherlands and Ghana. After two years of Engineering studies, I decided to follow my passion for the primary sector, so I enrolled in the Faculty of Agriculture at Universitât dal Friûl (Udine University – Italy), where I obtained a BSc in Environmental Science. In Udine, I worked on an experimental thesis titled “Utilisation of biochar and coffee waste for the conservation of soil fertility”, based on months of field research in Tenza Valley, Colombia. During my experiment, I worked with a number of Tenza’s local smallholders, which provided me with both the land and the agricultural waste I needed to carry out my research.

Before graduating, I also spent four months as a teacher assistant and intern at Universidad de Ciencias Aplicadas y Ambientales in Bogota, Colombia, where I focused on biochar technology and its application to tropical soils. The experiences in South America taught me the role of soil conservation and agricultural waste management in sustainable food production. The same experiences revealed my unconscious passion for teaching and sharing my knowledge. In the Bogota savannah, we are observing a shift in precipitation regimes, which lead to a more blurred separation between dry and wet season, and dramatic consequences on the species composition and animal behaviour, and on people depending on them for living. Moreover, high population pressure and its demand for food are endangering the surrounding ecosystem, declining the presence of recreational areas which are vital for people’s welfare. When I was in South America I also had the opportunity to visit the Department of Amazonas, close to the borders with Peru and Brazil. In that area, I got close to some members of the Ticuna ethnic group, which lamented the massive presence of timber investors and mismanagement of land from the government, which literally confined them to reserves. They are losing their own habits which were once based on the cultivation of manioc, sugarcane, game and freshwater fish hunting. I was surprised by their knowledge of plant properties and how they could manage soils for agricultural purposes, using ashes to increase productivity. Those habits, together with their spiritual beliefs, allowed them to live in harmonious relationships with their natural environment. They are losing their own identity and now they need financial support from the government to survive. I guess this is just one example of many ethnic groups which are facing the same situation due to land use change.

After graduating, I moved to Myanmar, where I provided technical support in a program on sustainable agriculture funded by the Italian Embassy, focusing on hydroponics and organic agriculture in the Dry Zone aiming to enhance the livelihood of local people under changing environmental conditions. In Myanmar, I had the chance to apply my insight into soil improvements. I also conducted seminars and experiments on soil amendments with the students of Yezin Agricultural University in Magway, confirming my passion for teaching and getting closer to new cultures, to broaden my cultural horizons. Harsher climate conditions in the Dry Zone, which is becoming more and more unsuitable for the primary sector, are forcing people to migrate and leave their homeland, becoming environmental refugees. Unfortunately, this is leading to higher population pressure in other areas of Myanmar, with dangerous consequences on both natural ecosystems and on people’s culture and identity, who are negatively affected by the difference between the original and the new “home”.

I got an MSc degree in Forest and Nature Conservation at Wageningen University and Research, with a specialization in Management. During my time in the Netherlands, I spent two months as a consultant with Dutch organic dairy farmers which are directly affected by the ongoing climate change, importantly they lamented a shift in grazing time. Our project aimed to create a practical inventory containing practices, views and methods to decrease GHGs emissions.

For my experimental thesis, I spent three months in Northern Ghana where I joined a project financed by Form International investigating how endemic plant morphological and architectural traits are changing in response to climate change (hence how vegetation in the delicate border between savannah and forest is likely to change in the coming future), with negative consequences on people’s environment and habits and on ecosystem resilience. Due to the lack of material on vegetation history and records, as Fairhead and Leach wrote in their work “Misreading the African Landscape”, the African context is quite complex to assess (Fairhead and Leach, 1996). However, when I listened to the elders and their stories during my experiments in Northern Ghana, the landscape they described was completely different from the one I could see. I realized that in some areas, the alteration of the recruitment potential of woody plants is affecting the development of grass species, while in other areas the villagers remembered a thick tree cover where now there is only pure savannah. Overall, local people emphasised the ongoing habitat fragmentation trend which is strongly affecting local communities. The increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 should lead to a proportional increase in plant growth rate, but is this really the case for all African species? This is one of the questions that intrigued me during my research in Northern Ghana. This dilemma, mutatis mutandis, can be translated to other areas of the world with different climate and environmental conditions and challenges, such as South East Asia or South America, with direct consequences on human society.

I concluded the master degree with an internship at Kasetsart University, in Bangkok. I was collaborating on a project called “Enhancing conservation and sustainable management of Teak forests and legal and sustainable woody supply chains in the greater Mekong sub-region”. The project was financed by the German Government through the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and by the International Tropical Timber Organization. The objective of this project was to demonstrate a legal and sustainable teak supply chain with the engagement of local communities, smallholders and government actors in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. During my stay, I had the opportunity to give presentations to students and helping lecturers during their teaching, which helped me to boost both my communication and networking skills. Further, it confirmed that one should avoid considering local people as a monolithic block, rather each case should be analysed separately, because of the different variables affecting different environments and, primarily, different people needs (hence a local scale approach rather than a global scale one). Namely, each case should be shaped at a community level.

These experiences highlighted the vital role of local people in management/research projects, especially in tropical countries, where climate and environment are changing at a faster rate. I believe that sustainable management and conservation of natural resources is key to maintain and improve the quality of life, especially in countries in which the economy is mostly based on the primary sector. Working with diverse teams and cultural contexts I learnt to be flexible and adapt quickly to different settings and approaches to scientific research. 

Last year I started my PhD studies at the Faculty of Earth and Environment (University of Leeds). I am investigating how smallholders in central Vietnam might escape poverty through better forest plantation management. The improvement of the Acacia plantation has two main consequences: a decrease in logging from natural forests and better livelihood for local households. Due to the pandemic, we are still not sure whether fieldwork is possible or we need to relate to our Vietnamese partners.

Research interests

  • Rural development
  • Wood supply chain
  • Forest management strategies
  • Soil conservation/ biochar
  • Hydroponics/ Aquaponics

Qualifications

  • MSc Forest Management
  • BSc Environmental Science