NASA Early Career Scientist Grant to Fund Colorado State University Professor’s Research in Southeast Asia

Colorado State University professor Stephen Leisz has been awarded a $298,000 Early Career Scientist Grant from NASA’s Land Cover/Land Use Change Program to study how the construction and improvement of road infrastructure affect land use /land cover and people’s livelihoods in central Vietnam, southern Laos and eastern Thailand.

His study focuses on the impact of road improvement within an area referred to as the East-West Economic Corridor in Southeast Asia. This transportation corridor was opened in 2006 to promote economic development and integration in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The all-weather road stretches approximately 900 miles across mainland Southeast Asia.

Leisz, an assistant professor of geography at Colorado State, has spent the past 20 years exploring the human dimensions of land-use and land-cover changes in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. He utilizes modern technology, including GPS, multi-spectral satellite imagery and aerial photography, as well as personal interviews to better understand the complexities of these changes and what is driving them.

“The changes taking place in the region along the East-West Corridor are profound,” Leisz said, adding that his research would focus on the 500-mile stretch of the corridor from Da Nang, Vietnam, across Laos to Khon Kaen, Thailand. “I am looking at changes in livelihood systems in that region and how the new road and related transportation infrastructure is affecting day-to-day life and by extension driving changes in the land use and land cover of the area.”

The East-West Corridor, he said, was designed to ease transportation and spur economic growth in Southeast Asia. Just six years after opening, the road system has connected previously remote regions of the countries to the global market system. This has led to profound changes for many in the region whose lifestyles and livelihood systems had previously been little changed for hundreds of years.

All of this is happening in an area that spans four countries with different governing and economic systems. Leisz’s research will also focus on the environmental impact of the road, which cuts across long stretches of previously remote landscapes.

“Similar changes to these are taking place all over the world,” he said. “In some places, such as in parts of Amazonia, road construction has led to people leaving urban areas to travel into forested areas and convert forest lands to agricultural lands, while in other areas road construction serves to provide a conduit for people to migrate from rural to urban areas. In the case of Southeast Asia we want to determine what the implications of road construction are for the region’s rural and urban land cover and, by extension, for the wider world.”

The NASA grant will fund three years of Leisz’s research in the area.