The Largest Urban Rooftop Farm in the World is Now Bearing Fruit (and More) in Paris

Getting fresh produce into the heart of a major city used to be done by a fleet of rumbling, polluting trucks—now it’s a matter of bringing it down from the roof.

The largest urban rooftop farm in the world uses vertical growing techniques to create fruits and vegetables right in the center of Paris without the use of pesticides, refrigerated trucks, chemical fertilizer, or even soil.

Nature Urbaine uses aeroponic techniques that are now supplying produce to local residents, including nearby hotels, catering halls, and more. For a price of 15 euro, residents can order a basket of produce online containing a large bouquet of mint or sage, a head of lettuce, various young sprouts, two bunches of radishes and one of chard, as well as a jar of jam or puree.

“The composition may change slightly depending on the harvest,” Sophie Hardy, director of Nature Urbaine, tells French publication Agri City. Growing on 3.4 acres, about the size of two soccer pitches, atop the Paris Exhibition Center, they are also producing about 150 baskets of strawberries, as well as aubergines, tomatoes, and more.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pascal Hardy, a sustainable development consultant and member of Agripolis, an urban farming firm, called the Nature Urbaine project in Paris “a clean, productive and sustainable model of agriculture that can in time make a real contribution to the resilience—social, economic and also environmental—of the kind of big cities where most of humanity now lives.”

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Sci-Fi Farming

Currently only a third of the total space on hall 6 of the expo center is utilized for Pascal’s alien-looking garden, and when the project is finished, 20 staff will be able to harvest up to 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg) of perhaps 35 different kinds of fruits and vegetables every day.

Photos by Agripolis

In plastic towers honeycombed with little holes, small amounts of water carrying nutrients, bacteria, and minerals, aerate roots which hang in midair.

As strange as the pipes and towers out of which grow everything other than root vegetables might seem, Hardy says the science-fiction farming has major benefits over traditional agriculture.

“I don’t know about you,” he begins, “but I don’t much like the fact that most of the fruit and vegetables we eat have been treated with something like 17 different pesticides, or that the intensive farming techniques that produced them are such huge generators of greenhouse gases.”

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“It uses less space. An ordinary intensive farm can grow nine salads per square meter of soil; I can grow 50 in a single tower. You can select crop varieties for their flavor, not their resistance to the transport and storage chain, and you can pick them when they’re really at their best, and not before.”

Agripolis

Breaking the chain

Agripolis is currently discussing projects in the U.S., the UK, and Germany, and they have finished several other rooftop farms in France including one on the roof of the Mercure hotel in 2016, which cultivates eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, salads, watercress, strawberries, nasturtiums and aromatics all directly serving the hotel restaurant.

Growing on the roof and selling on the floor can play a big part in the production of carbon-neutral food because, according to Agripolis, fruit and veg on average travel by refrigerated air and land transport between 2,400 and 4,800 kilometers from farm to market.

The global transportation force is the largest of humanity’s carbon-emitting activities, and reducing the number of flights and truckloads of produce is a great place to start cutting the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere.

For a culinary city like Paris, the Parisian mayor’s proposal to install an additional 320 acres (130 ha) of rooftop and wall-mounted urban farming space could significantly reduce the number of trucks entering the city, easing traffic and reducing pollution.

With rooftop farming being embraced from Detroit to Shanghai, the future is looking up.

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Unemployed Single Women Are Saving Fish and Making Money by Farming Sea Sponges

This article was reprinted with permission from World At Large—a news website which covers politics, nature, science, health, and travel.

In an area characterized by poverty, overexploitation of sea resources, and high rates of unemployment, these women from Zanzibar are beginning to farm sea sponges as a more reliable source of income.

Organized by Marine Cultures, a small Zanzibar-focused nonprofit headquartered in Zurich, 3 to 4 sea sponge farms are being launched every year to help unemployed and single mothers support their families.

Historically relying on seaweed for income, the people of Jambiani have been unable to rely on the trade because of disruptions in production from diseases and pests, and the crop’s low market price worldwide.

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Marine Cultures’s Christian Vaterlaus recently detailed how sponge farming became the primary idea for saving the livelihoods of these seaweed farmers in an article published in PANORAMA: a platform hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for nonprofits and other organizations to host solutions that benefit the natural world.

Trial and error

“When searching for alternative means of income, many aspects such as the know-how of the parties involved, eco-friendliness, market opportunities, investment requirements, general acceptance of the method, scalability, and availability of resources need to be considered,” wrote Vaterlaus. However, “aquaculture of sponges was identified to be a suitable alternative to seaweed farming promising substantially higher incomes.”

A research trip to Southeast Asia and the Pacific yielded this idea after the group witnessed an organization working with community members to farm sea sponges and invertebrates with materials and methods that were both sustainable and very cheap.

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Sea sponges are used around the world as shower luffas and sustainable methods for removing makeup and paint. Since the sponges are anti-allergenic, dermatologists often recommend them for washing infants or for those with sensitive skin.

After Marine Cultures opened up their first sea sponge farm in Zanzibar back in 2009, they started testing more than 120 species of sponges to find one that was not only suitable for use in the bath, but also sustainable and environmentally harmless.

“We had to invest a lot of time to figure out best farming methods,” writes Vaterlaus.

Photo by Marine Cultures

Acquaculturalist’s almanac

Since their sponge farming operation was slow to get off the ground, Marine Cultures also started coral farming for the international aquarium trade in 2014.

Vaterlaus says that aquaculture practices—such as sea sponge farming—is “like land-based agriculture where years of experience and trial and error are key to shape best practices.” That being said, the hard work can certainly pay off; one single farm can feed 2 to 3 large families while 3 new farms can be launched each year.

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In contrast to pearl or fish farming, a sponge farm can be started with little to no effort while simultaneously empowering local women to learn the skills of a fisherman, marine biologist, merchant, entrepreneur, swimmer, and farmer all at once.

“To save the created jobs in the long-term, the coastal communities of Zanzibar have to learn more about the sea, the importance of corals, sea grass, mangroves and biodiversity to manage their natural marine resources themselves sustainably,” added Vaterlaus.

Photo by Marine Cultures

Sponge farming 2020

A Marine Cultures update published in February 2020 says the sponge farming operations are going well. The older sponge farms managed by some of the Jambiani women are producing more sponges these days than in previous years, as ecological conditions improve and knowledge is shared among participants.

Shemsa is just one of the Zanzibar women who have found success in sea sponge farming. She told Marine Cultures: “We’ve always lived in the lagoon with sponges—but only now have we learned how they help us to improve our lives and those of our children.

“Sometimes something is very close to us without us knowing how to make money with it,” she added. “Thanks to my training as a sponge farmer, I can feed my family, build my own house and have electricity. We may never achieve all of our goals, but I have already achieved half of mine.”

Reprinted with permission from World at Large

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In Groundbreaking Vote for Sustainability, EU Moves to Approve Insects for Human Consumption

As famed adventure television host, world record holder, former British Special Forces operator, and all around feel-good motivational guy Bear Grylls repeatedly reminded us on his television programs Man vs Wild and Running Wild, insects have more protein than beef or fish—sometimes as much as 8x more, if measured pound for pound.

After a long television career of pounding back worms, grubs, spiders, crickets, and ants for our amusement, Grylls would certainly be applauding the new proposed European Union legislation that would allow for mealworms, lesser mealworms, crickets, and locusts to be sold as “novel food sources,” pumping life into an industry that, while small, produces 500 tons of food annually according to The Guardian.

The products include things like cricket protein bars, locust aperitif, or mealworm burgers, and the new regulations from the European Food Safety Authority are likely to open the floodgates for insect food to flow from countries where they are made like Holland, the UK, Denmark, Belgium, and Finland, into countries where they are banned, such as Italy, France, and Spain.

“We reckon these authorizations will be a breakthrough for the sector,” Christophe Derrien, secretary general of the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, added.

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“They are taking the necessary time, they are very demanding on information, which is not bad. But we believe that once we have the first novel food given a green light from EFSA that will have a snowball effect.”

Companies in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Spain are all preparing to ramp up operations to prepare for the demand, perceiving through market signals that people actually want insect food.

Chirps Chips submitted

An Obvious Solution

Insects have been part of the staple diet of many world cultures, even now in modern times. They represent a rich source of animal protein that is practically immune to extinction, and just like traditionally harvested animals are perfectly safe to eat if you can control the conditions in which they live.

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With some of the most basic brain functions of anything in kingdom Animalia, insects are also less-likely to offend the sensibilities of vegetarians who, being more likely to be vitamin B12 deficient than omnivores, might be able to utilize the occasional cricket bar as a means of supplementing their plant based diet with bioavailable and dietary sources of B12 which can’t be made by plants, coming only from bacteria which live on plants.

Furthermore, unlike hoofed mammals, the process of enteric fermentation which, using the United States as an example, accounts for a small percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions (about 2.5% in the U.S.) is absent in insect agriculture, and so there’s a small potential reduction in GHG emissions to be gained from a switch.

Lastly trillions of insects are killed every year both by combine-harvesters and pesticides to protect major crops like wheat, rice, soya, corn, and cotton, representing millions of tons of lost nutrients. And, in a world where many communities are protein-deficient, insect products might never be more needed.

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Swedish Oat Milk Pioneers Offer a Successful Win-Win Path to Struggling U.S Dairy Farmers

Self-proclaimed as the manufacturer of the world’s only true 100% environmentally-friendly dairy-free yogurt, Hälsa Foods is sharing their secret of success with struggling American dairy farmers.

Scandinavians Helena Lumme and Mika Manninen, the co-founders of Hälsa—which is Swedish for health—use oats to make their ‘oatgurt’ and milk drink substitutes.

Research has shown that oats crops are far more sustainable than the production of coconut, almond, or rice milk which create a more negative impact on both the ecosystems and the workers.

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“We are currently importing our organic oats from Scandinavia because we cannot find the quality that meets our standard in the United States,” Lumme and Manninen explain.  “At the same time, U.S. dairy farms are struggling due to slumping milk sales. So we thought, why not come up with a solution that benefits both of us—and our planet?”

Hälsa, which is headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, did just that by advancing their oat outreach with a structured program to help small U.S. dairy farms—stung by recent trade wars—to stay in business by converting their pasturage to oat crops.

A dairy farming business in the New York town of Hoosick was the first to jump onboard with Hälsa’s conversion process. The farm, with 200 dairy cows, consists of 300 acres of certified-organic land overlooking the Vermont border.

Helena Lumme and Mika Manninen

“We’re excited to get started,” said Eric and Jamie Ziehm, co-owners of the High Meadows of Hoosick farm. “Our goal is to build a biodiverse and biodynamic ecosystem that has the ability to regenerate its resources. We hope this will have a positive impact and also inspire our fellow farmers who are facing many challenges today.”

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Hälsa is not the only business with Scandinavian roots now catering to America’s exploding desire for oats as a dairy substitute. Swedish manufacturers Oatly opened a $15 million production facility for their oat beverage in New Jersey, and their products are now available in 7,000 stores nationwide.

But, Bloomberg Business News reports there is plenty of demand, with sales up nearly 700% since 2017—from $4.4 million a year to $29 million.

Hälsa sources their ingredients with organic, non-GMO oats that haven’t been exposed to any glyphosate-containing pesticides. Their products contain no artificial ingredients and are sold throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states at ShopRite, Fairway Market, Fresh Direct, all NYC airports, and at select New York metro area stores.

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Cherokee Nation First U.S. Tribe to be Invited to Preserve Their Heirloom Species in Global Seed Vault

With close to 1 million samples from nearly every country on earth, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Svalbard Island, between Norway and the Arctic, contains the largest collection of seeds and other plant specimens in the world.

Last week, the Cherokee Nation became the first Native-American tribe to receive an invitation to contribute seeds of their own heirloom crops and join the effort to ensure biodiversity and food security in the uncertain centuries ahead.

“This is history in the making,” said a Cherokee Nation press release. “It is such an honor to have a piece of our culture preserved forever. Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world.”

The tribal office of the Secretary of Natural Resources collected nine samples of Cherokee heirloom crops to send to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, including Cherokee White Eagle Corn, the tribe’s most sacred corn, which is typically used during cultural activities, and three other varieties of corn grown for consumption in distinct locations to keep the strains pure.

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Other seeds sent to the Svalbard seed bank include Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Cherokee Turkey Gizzard black and brown beans, and Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash.

These heirloom species predate the arrival of Europeans on the American continents, and their preservation offers a chance to secure critical biodiversity for the central North American region in case of crop shortages or other disasters that could result in flora extinction events.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Tiq, CC license

It also ensure that the proud history of the Cherokee will live on through the ages.

In 2019, after being interviewed by National Public Radio about the Cherokee Nation’s own heirloom seed bank program, their Senior Director of Environmental Resources, Pat Gwin was contacted by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

“He sent me an email and said they would be honored to have the tribe’s seeds in the seed vault,” said Gwin. “…Knowing the Cherokee Nation’s seeds will be forever protected and available to us … is a quite valuable thing indeed.”

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Scientists and Refugees Are Growing Crops in the Desert Using Discarded Mattresses Bound for the Landfill

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

British scientists have succeeded in cultivating tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and herbs in the desert using discarded mattresses bound for landfill.

The innovative system, which was tested in a refugee camp in Jordan, could be rolled out to every shelter in the world, helping millions of people to thrive in barren landscapes.

Since aid workers often discard thousands of used foam mattresses in refugee camps across the globe, University of Sheffield scientists began developing foam “soils” in their labs in hopes of using old bed materials as a growing medium for crops.

The research team, led by Professor Tony Ryan, is made up of experts in hydroponics: a technique in which plants are grown with their roots resting in a solution of water and essential nutrients instead of soil. The method uses 70-80% less water than planting straight into the soil and eliminates the need for pesticides.

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In the first trial of its kind, his researchers worked with a group of Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp, which serves as a shelter to many who are already experienced farmers themselves.

They showed the study participants how to fill waste containers from around the camp with mattress foam and a carefully balanced nutrient solution. Seedlings were then planted straight into the foam so it could support the roots as the plant grew.

Working closely with the refugees, the team successfully created “desert gardens” that provide people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities, and longed-for greenery in a challenging desert.

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

“The refugees we have worked with have taken our training and made the project their own, growing things we never thought would be possible in the desert environment using recycled materials,” said Ryan.

“We are only at the start of what might be possible, in terms of what refugees and their situation has to teach us about all of our potential futures.”

Nearly 1,000 refugees have been taught how to manage the hydroponic system thus far—and the team believes it could benefit even more people around the world.

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The project gives people the tools and techniques they need to grow their own food and gain future employment as well as boosting mental health and greening the camp.

In turn, the scientists have learned from the refugees whose use of the foam in real-world conditions has demonstrated its potential to grow crops more sustainably—and in places with degraded soils.

Desert Garden Project Manager Dr. Moaed Al Meselmani said: “I’m a researcher and a Syrian refugee myself—and now I’m helping others like me to learn new skills and feed their families with fresh herbs and vegetables in the desert.

Photo by University of Sheffield / Desert Gardens

“When you’re forced to flee your home, it’s the simple things you miss—like a cup of fresh mint tea or showing your children how to plant a seed. This project connects people with home and gives them hope for the future.”

The Sheffield researchers now hope to raise £250,000 with their Desert Garden appeal to make the project sustainable. The money will be used to supply seeds, nutrients, and training for another 3,000 refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs Zaatari camp, provides Syrian refugees with enough money to buy staples like bread and chickpeas. Nutritious fruit and vegetables, however, are often out of reach—and traditional fresh mint tea is considered a luxury.

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Professor Ryan, director of the university’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said: “UNHCR see this as something that can work in nearly every refugee camp to improve mental health and well-being.

“If we can make desert gardens economically and culturally sustainable in Jordan, we can ultimately roll this out around the world and help millions of refugees to thrive.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at Sheffield, said: “It’s astonishing what happens to the collective human imagination when it meets and is ignited by urgent reality.

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“Our research on synthetic soils meant we could re-imagine the UNHCR’s waste disposal problem—where aid workers saw used mattresses, we saw an alternative growth substrate.

“This project is about co-creation, not ‘smart ideas’ parachuted in. As scientists, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the refugees about how our research can be applied in the real world, and they’ve gained valuable skills for the future.”

(WATCH the University of Sheffield video below)

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Revised Farm Payments Will Let UK Farmers Serve the Environment and Public Good

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, an ambitious new piece of agricultural legislation presented in Parliament last week is set to unleash an “agricultural revolution” that aims to restore forests and peatlands, wildlife and pollinator habit.

The lawmakers view the focus on ‘environmental and public goods’ as the best way to reform farm subsidies in the UK and Europe—giving 21st century goals a new seat at the table to replace the outdated EU ones that focus almost entirely on incentivizing production.

Much of this £3 billion ($3.9 billion) in annual UK agriculture spending will be refocused to help farmers take a little time away from food production to pause and focus on improving their ecosystems and the environment at large.

After the destruction Europe endured during World War II, farm subsidies were simple and direct. “It was just about production, it didn’t matter what you did to the environment,” Ian Bateman, an environmental economist at the University of Exeter tells Science Magazine.

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Erik Stokstad writing for Science details how land was being torn up by the plow all over the continent which led to massive soil erosion, and excessive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides polluted rivers and coastlines.

While that post-WWII model still forms the basis for European farm legislation, the UK’s ambitious new plan aims to financially incentivize farms to provide “public goods” such as the tried and tested “payment for environmental service” (PES) model that has been so successful in countries like Costa Rica.

The new subsidies will be tested in England first, as the UK allows Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to determine their own farm policy.

File photo by Robert Graham, CC

Getting Paid for Being Stewards of the Environment

The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in England plans to prioritize public goods with the new legislation while phasing out existing EU payment programs over 7 years.

The public goods that DEFRA has in mind would include payments for sequestering carbon, replanting forests, and aiding the recovery of pollinator species, likely by utilizing marginal land for planting pollinator-preferred species of flowers. Marginal land, the acreage around the perimeter of a field or paddock, is a prime place for this activity as it doesn’t impact yields, and adds beneficial microbial diversity to the soil while reducing erosion.

According to Stokstad, 33% of the current UK farm subsidies are diverted to activities that benefit local environments and the nation’s climate change goals. As things stand now these include activities like maintaining hedgerows and other habitat which Stokstad writes will be expanded upon.

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Taking the example from certain UK water companies, DEFRA plans to use public auctions where farmers and land managers can bid for government contracts for PES opportunities. The water companies have been auctioning off PES contracts to farmers living and working around their major water sources to develop and manage land in ways that protect them, such as using less-harmful fertilizers and reducing runoff and soil erosion. “The impact has been amazing,” said Bateman.

In parts of England where farming is more difficult, certain producers like cattle and sheep herders rely more on the current form of direct payment subsidies than other farmers, and without them they may choose to move to other forms of production. Keeping this in mind, DEFRA has been looking at all manner of different PES opportunities for areas where ranching and herding are common, such as on moors and peatlands.

On peatlands, the potential for carbon sequestering in the soil is far greater than in forests, and so restoring and growing them, along with enhancing other landscapes and even restoring heritage buildings to help increase tourism, have all been hypothesized for utilization in some of the northern parts of the country.

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The National Farmers Union, the United Kingdom’s biggest agricultural trade group, was concerned about the lack of emphasis placed on farmers to produce. Agreeing with the union, DEFRA will “take regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England,” reads a clause in the final bill.

Satisfied, the trade union described the clause as a “robust starting point” to ensure the well-being of farmers who don’t have as many opportunities for PES on their land.

The rest of the UK, and—according to Alan Mathews, an agricultural economist at Trinity College Dublin—the rest of Europe will be watching closely.

“If it’s successful, that will be a very powerful argument for the Europeans to follow,” said Mathews.

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Couple Protects Endangered Lemurs in Madagascar By Launching Mobile Library to Teach Indigenous People to Read

When a young couple went on their 2014 honeymoon in Madagascar—one of the most cherished environments in the world—the heartbreaking problems of indigenous people, forests, and lemurs swirled around in their minds until one day a holistic solution revealed itself, like a bright sunbeam through the tangle of jungle canopy.

Their notion of how they could benefit both wildlife and people is today a program that is easing the poverty of the Malagasy people, while helping to save the endangered lemurs, which are found on the island of Madagascar, and no where else.

The nation’s economy is the fourth fastest-growing in the world. In fact, one fourth of the globe’s vanilla comes from the island. Yet the vast majority of the adult Malagasy people can’t even read, so they don’t benefit from the higher-paying jobs. They are left to fend for themselves, living off the land—which encroaches on and endangers the wildlife surrounding them.

The couple, Shana and Vlad Vassilieva, learned all this from their tour guide, JJ (Jean-Jacques Rafenomahazomanana), a passionate local who shared his vast experiences of Malagasy culture and led them beyond designated tourist zones, into isolated villages.

There, they noticed that the schools for children had no books—and the agricultural practices in villages were not sustainable. They decided they could address both these problems, by tackling the literacy issue.

They partnered with JJ to create the Mobile Library Project, designed not only to teach people about letters, but also about their lemurs.

“One of the main goals is to help the Malagasy see how much can be gained from the forests and nature when you take care of it and practice more sustainable methods,” said Shana. “So while kids and adults are learning to read, they are also learning how to thrive off the lands in more mutually beneficial ways.”

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The non-profit Mobile Library Project employs two additional educators and operates out of a van that travels to four villages every month in coordination with local schools.

They not only provide books and lessons on reading and writing, the group also offers workshops on how to improve your crop yield and how to rely less on the forests. That way, the Malagasy can develop new resources and leave more of the forest to the indigenous animals—80 percent of which are not seen anywhere else in the world.

“When the people read books, they start to see the relation between the environment and people,” said Madagascar native JJ, who serves as manager of the nonprofit. Speaking to Shana, an Idaho filmmaker, as part of a short documentary, he explained that the people are learning “if they protect the forest, they can get a lot of benefit from it.”

The project also gives families seeds to plant. Whenever a family joins the book project they also get some seeds, along with a book. Each school the project visits also gets fruit trees. When it’s grown, the students can eat the fruit, or teachers can sell the fruit to help pay for supplies and other needed improvements. The trees also help retain water in the soil, provide shade cover for plants, and prevent soil erosion. They are also sharing ananambo trees because they have medicinal benefits and a denser nutritional value, and beans since they are easy to grow.

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Since 2016, the group has helped to educate 6,200 people, planted 80 trees at 14 schools, and distributed 66 pounds of seeds for 46 families—as well as thousands of books.

Photos by Mobile Library Project on Facebook

The couple also partners with Zara Aina, a Madagascar nonprofit, and received some grant funding to launch the first tour in 2016. Since adding the seed and tree sharing program in November 2018, they’ve expanded their vision further, hoping to offer micro loans to help Malagasy natives develop their own businesses.

“I love the idea of becoming, not just a mobile library for education, but also a mobile ‘re-greener’ and conservation based financial empowerment tool on wheels,” she said.

WATCH the video about the Lemur connection, and FIND more info at mobilelibraryproject.com

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