Eroded farms: impediment for growthSoil conservation should be a top priority for an agricultural country like ours but our priorities are misplaced.
Five years ago, the General Assembly of the UN declared December 5 as World Soil Day. The purpose was to raise awareness on the importance of soil for healthy ecosystems and human wellbeing. Consequently, the theme of World Soil Day 2019 was 'stop soil erosion, save our future.' Little else makes more sense than linking human wellbeing to soil erosion. As the youngest and most fragile mountains, the Himalayas are bombarded by heavy monsoon downpours every year, this has led to catastrophic soil erosion from farms, riverbanks, and steep hill slopes. Nearly half of Nepal’s population lives in these erosion-prone mountains, which make up more than 80 percent of the country.
There are two significant points to note here. First, the UN has emphasised the need to recheck soil erosion after more than 45 years. The first environment conference held in Stockholm in 1972 had focused on the degrading environment across the globe, which helped shape global and country-specific environmental policies. Discussions regarding floods, landslides, and soil erosion dominated policy circles then. Second, this recognition has come after observing the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction in the 1990s. While disasters and biodiversity continued to be prioritised in the environmental sector, an issue as important as soil erosion gradually fizzled out from our planners’ memory.
Neglected farm soils
The official efforts of checking soil erosion in Nepal began in 1974. The government established its Soil Conservation Department to take the idea forward in selected areas. This initiative, over the following decades, spread throughout the country, and we saw an increased emphasis on curbing soil erosion. Organisations were interested in research and studies. Tree plantation was prescribed as a solution to combat erosion. But all these efforts did not adequately address the erosion of agricultural lands, which was rampant and directly affecting production and, subsequently, the livelihoods of millions. In addition, the methods used in stabilising landslides and gullies were either expensive or required a long time to be effective. Hence, the techniques prescribed never became farmer-friendly. Many communities that remained out of the government’s reach remained at the mercy of mother nature for soil conservation.
A lot has changed over the decades: understanding of natural science has improved substantially; emphasis on biodiversity, clean air and climate change is at the centre stage; access to information has never been so easy. However, the way we address the problem of erosion has not changed. Soil conservation is carried out using expensive physical structures; we never developed less costly ways that could be more accessible to farmers. We could not create champions to highlight the need to conserve soil beyond the scope of time-bound projects. When the projects ended, so did the enthusiasm of the experts. The fact that the only data available regarding the state of erosion is about four decades old demonstrates just how much the country has prioritised the issue.
The return on investment in soil conservation isn’t as visible and immediate as the investment in plantation or infrastructure. As a result, soil conservation gradually slid to the bottom of our list of development priorities. Awareness on its importance did not grow as expected among our policymakers. Consequently, when the state was being restructured into the federal system of governance, the Soil Conservation Department was merged with another department, further limiting the scope for enhancing soil conservation.
Why does it matter?
Perhaps no other words capture the value of soil so articulately and succinctly as the words of David Montgomery, the author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Montgomery describes dirt as something which 'we try to keep out of sight, out of mind, and outside. We spit on it, denigrate it, and kick it off of our shoes. But in the end, what’s more important? Everything comes from it, and everything returns to it. If that doesn’t earn dirt a little respect, consider how profoundly soil fertility and soil erosion shaped the course of history.’ From the Fertile Crescent to the Indus Valley, our very first civilisations were born of a prosperous marriage between abundant water and fertile soil.
Everything comes from this delicate layer of the earth—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, even the very paper this is printed on. Furthermore, even when large swaths of our youth have gone to foreign labour markets, nearly two-thirds of the population is still engaged in agriculture, contributing to a third of the national GDP.
Unlike the plains, where the soil is replenished during the floods, the soil in mountain farms is difficult to keep in situ without additional efforts. Mountain farms are inherently vulnerable to erosion. However, these issues are often lost when discussing the mountain environment, which is often described as being majestic, rich in biodiversity and culture and tradition. Drowning within these contradictions are the farmers who have always suffered from loss of food production capacity due to erosion. There is growing concern that the meagre, further-declining return from the farms is no longer able to meet the skyrocketing cost of living and rising aspirations. Unfortunately, our policies have failed to act upon this realisation.
Building soil health
The impact of soil erosion on agriculture is well known and obvious. Soil loses its capacity to hold moisture, loses nutrients, organic matter, and, eventually, its productivity. Soil health is, therefore, the foundation of any profitable agricultural pursuit. Agriculture policies have always focused on improved seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides, but never has it considered soil loss as an impediment to agricultural growth. Unless we focus on building soil health, there’s no way to improve the state of agriculture itself, even with higher inputs.
Unfortunately, the rampant road construction across the hills without proper planning has made our erosion problem worse. No one can deny the need for improved access, but not with the high cost of lasting consequences. One must reiterate that any improvement in soil conditions of the mountain farms would not only boost the income of many people, but also help reduce dependency upon imported food and save the environment for a long time. Perhaps the UN’s declaration of a World Soil Day reminds us, yet again, of the value of soil for our own future. It’s time to revisit our own history of soil conservation and reorient our strategy for soil conservation in agriculture.
What do you think?
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