Education betters the individual; but the best education betters society as a whole. This is particularly pertinent in Latin American, where universities face the challenge of generating knowledge and transferring it to society.

The Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (UTPL) addresses this challenge, in part, by carrying out an initiative called Smart Land. Smart Land brings together organisations, both public and private, with the objective of preserving and maintaining local areas of high biodiversity. Based in Loja in southern Ecuador, the university is well-placed for such an undertaking.

Its principal research area is in the neighbouring Podocarpus-El Condor Biosphere Reserve – formally recognised by UNESCO in 2007. There, more than 300 researchers collect information on social, biological, environmental, cultural and infrastructural data, with the purpose of contributing to the optimal use of natural and cultural resources – for the ultimate benefit of all.


Harvesting research

For instance, for many years harvesting the oil from the native Palo Santo tree was a valuable source of income for the local population. However, this was mainly achieved through deforestation, and the land clearing was threatening to destroy part of the region’s spectacular landscape. Thanks to a partnership between a local NGO and UTPL, the oil is now harvested from the fruit of the tree (a method that leaves the tree intact), a fact that has contributed significantly to the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable business practices in the area.

UTPL is a research-intensive university with around 5,000 students and an additional 35,000 engaged in distance learning courses. “Smart Land envisions biodiversity and ecosystems as being managed through the cooperation of computing scientists, biologists, natural resource managers, political leaders and other stakeholders who are willing to overcome real-world challenges while, at the same time, advancing the underlying scientific subjects,” says Juan Pablo Suárez Chacón, Vice-Rector. “This approach allows the university to have a bearing on improving the quality of life of the population.”

Smart Land sprang to life in 2014. Spearheading 38 research projects, the initiative involved a total of 162 researchers from UTPL and 51 external researchers. The following year, the total number of researchers climbed to 287, 172 of whom were external, working on 17 research programmes and 25 seed projects. All those involved are committed to the monitoring and management of data from different scientific perspectives.


Applied intelligence

“The ‘intelligent’ management of a territory refers to the promotion of more intelligent and sustainable uses of biodiversity,” says Suárez Chacón, “and a fair sharing of the benefits arising from the use of biodiversity resources. It’s a complex subject, and can only be achieved through an interdisciplinary focus on research, development, innovation and public policies.”

Ultimately, the initiative will contribute to preserving the biodiversity and improving the quality of life of inhabitants of the region. It will also allow them to take an active part in local government decisions.

“Mega-diverse countries are those with the highest indexes of biodiversity on the planet,” says Suárez Chacón. “Protecting this heritage in Latin America and the Caribbean is a top priority. Innovation and technology also provide opportunities to improve the quality of life of citizens and make our territories more sustainable and competitive in the long run.”