As an environmental geographer and co-founding dean of the Columbia University Climate School, Dr. Ruth DeFries knows better than most that our planet now stands on the precipice of calamity. She has authored more than 100 scientific publications during a four-decade career working at the nexus of social and ecological systems. DeFries has a particular interest in linking science to policy and communicating to a broader audience the challenges of sustainability.
These are just a few of the reasons why we’re so excited to welcome her to the EcoAgriculture Partners Board, where she will help shape a more sustainable future.
Using satellites to see the big picture of climate change and land use
Dr. DeFries is currently Columbia’s Denning University Professor of Sustainable Development and co-founding Dean of the Climate School. Her research examines the human transformation of the landscape and its consequences for climate, biogeochemical cycling, biodiversity and other ecosystem services that make our planet habitable. The work is based on the premise that land-use change involves tradeoffs between human necessities such as food and unintended environmental consequences such as greenhouse gas emissions and habitat loss. Dr. DeFries examines land-use changes over broad scales through the lens of satellite observations. She focuses on evidence-based strategies to balance development and conservation goals in dry tropical forested regions of India.
Previously, Dr. DeFries was a University of Maryland geography department professor, a staff member at the National Research Council’s Committee on Global Change and a research associate at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. She was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2006 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2008, is a fellow of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2007.
Sara Scherr, EcoAgriculture Partners’ president and CEO, said that she is delighted to have a distinguished academic like Professor DeFries on board. “She has a comprehensive understanding of agroecological systems—how people and the planet interact in diverse parts of the world,” Scherr says. “She will help ensure that EcoAgriculture’s work is grounded in the best cutting-edge science while meeting the needs of communities on the ground.”
We asked Dr. DeFries a few questions to help our community get to know her better.
What made you excited to join EcoAgriculture’s board of directors?
I have been observing what EcoAgriculture Partners has been doing for well over a decade with a strong interest in how the organization has developed the field of integrated landscape management and now, particularly, with the developing implementation work of 1000 Landscapes for One Billion People initiative co-convened by EcoAg. The opportunity to be a part of it is an honor.
How do you understand or frame those significant challenges? Why are they so important to you?
The more I get into the details of the landscape where I work, in Central India, it becomes obvious that integrated landscape management is key to so many essential needs for livelihoods, water, forest management and conservation. Also, the more I get into the details of the Central Indian landscape where I work, the difficulty and challenges of this integrated approach become evident. This is why EcoAg’s focus on understanding and meeting these challenges head-on is necessary and applicable to so many different contexts.
What would you say to someone who asked, “Why is integrated landscape management important?”
We mostly silo our management of systems across areas such as agriculture, rural development and forests. However, we need to be taking an ecological perspective. These areas are all interrelated, so we need to figure out how to overcome the silos we ourselves have created.
What from your professional experience are you excited to contribute to EcoAg’s mission?
I am excited to support work on technology and make it more accessible to landscape partnerships. I am interested in, and have been working with, remote sensing for a long time. I can see how we could focus on developing technology, such as that built by the 1000L Tech Matters team in creating the Terraso platform, and find ways to make it actionable to the landscape partnerships on the ground with many different uses. There’s a lot of work that goes into creating all of these tools and technology, but how do you make it actionable for people in landscapes? That is an essential part of the puzzle!