The two oldest monotheistic religions, wherever they’ve taken hold for long enough, are accompanied by desertification. Is that a coincidence? Or did the same occur to cities of the Zoroastrians and nearly all non-nature worshiping religions before monotheism arose? And did the same not occur in the American Plains up until the 1930s? The Soil Conservation Service, today’s NRCS, did much to limit this trend, but many parts of the United States are still becoming desert due to overgrazing and other misuse by man. Other areas, though not yet desert (see Iowa) lose more topsoil in one heavy downpour than can be replaced by natural processes in hundreds of years.
The “subdue the earth” religion zealots along with similarly zealous atheists haven’t had control of the Americas long enough for it to become as barren as much of Africa and central Asia, but we are working on it. The recent pictures sent back by the Mars Rover show a landscape very similar to many parts of Kenya and Ethiopia where I have worked and which used to be verdant, productive lands with deep soils.
Is Mars our future? Or can something be done to halt the worldwide desertification caused directly by man?
I sure hope so, but the trends in Africa, the former Soviet Union and America are not encouraging.
For the past month, I’ve been working with smallholders in Malawi and Kenya to try to design production systems which can reverse those trends. Thanks to the Farmer-to-Farmer program implemented by CNFA in Malawi and CRS in Kenya, I’ve been able to get out in some rural areas where booming populations of people, goats and cattle are denuding the land, making erosion and desertification all but inevitable.
Farmer cooperatives in these regions have to focus on increasing income because these folks are dirt poor. Lost luggage meant that I had to survive with just two shirts and two pair of pants for the first part of this trip, but most of the folks in my trainings are lucky to have one outfit they can wear out among their peers. We hand out 20 cent exercise books and 10 cent ink pens and the farmers are so happy. Paper is something they don’t see much in their houses–except maybe the pages of a Bible in the flusher homes.
Making more money from your land is often seen as requiring environmental damage. NRCS calculates “tolerable erosion”or “T” values for US cropland. Whether any erosion is tolerable is debatable, but let’s discuss that later. Estimated erosion by rainfall has decreased in the US since 1982 n relation to T values on cultivated cropland. But wind erosion has increased. Over 42% of total cultivated cropland in the US has an estimated wind erosion about the tolerable level. This 42% (8,309,300 acres) accounts for 82% of estimated annual soil loss in the US.
For those of us living in the Delta the blowing clouds of dust are matched only by the billowing clouds of smoke from burning crop residues when farmers are preparing their fields for planting.
Delta farmers are willing to trade off ecological damage for the money that has made many of them rich and enabled them to have houses in town and the Ozarks and Little Rock–where their families don’t have to endure the smoke and dust their farming practices kick up.
Farmers in Kitui, Kenya, and Kasungu, Malawi are not so lucky. They have to live with the destruction of their ecosystems. I was glad I had wrap-around sunglasses to keep the dust out of my eyes during our sessions. My students just squinted and teared up and carried on.
I hope I’m leaving them with plans for productive, ecologically resilient food systems. We’ll see. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as we say in the “Show Me” state. So I’ll be back every year for the forseeable future to see if we can stop the desertification which has been going on for generations and shows no sign of abating.