Land and life
E: "The Scoop on Dirt: Why We Should all Worship the Ground We Walk On"
by Tamsyn Jones
It’s one of nature’s most perfect contradictions: a substance that is ubiquitous but unseen; humble but essential; surprisingly strong but profoundly fragile. It nurtures life and death; undergirds cities, forests and oceans; and feeds all terrestrial life on Earth. It is a substance few people understand and most take for granted. Yet, it is arguably one of Earth’s most critical natural resources—and humans, quite literally, owe to it their very existence.
From the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the air we breathe, humanity depends upon the dirt beneath our feet. Gardeners understand this intuitively; to them, the saying “cherish the soil” is gospel. But for the better part of society, dirt barely gets a sideways glance. To most, it’s just part of the background, something so obvious it’s ignored.
Even among the environmentally minded, soil sags well below the radar of important causes. But the relationship between soil quality and other aspects of environmental health is intricately entwined. What’s more, it’s a relationship that encompasses a vast swath of territory, from agricultural practices to global climate change, and from the well being of oceans to that of people.
Despite humankind’s long relationship with soil, the stuff remains a mystery. Even our language manages to maligns it. Somehow, “dirt” has acquired a bad reputation. And it’s been codified in some of our most common idioms, with people described as “dirty rotten scoundrels,” “poor as dirt” or “dirtbags.” The modern word “dirt” itself descends from the less than complimentary Old English word “drit,” meaning “excrement.” Instead of marveling at the mystery of soil, we have mocked it, by dredging and paving; desiccating and polluting; and working it to exhaustion.Now our poor husbandry of this essential resource is catching up with us, in the form of disconcertingly rapid erosion and loss of farmland, widespread agricultural pollution, damage to fisheries, and alarming levels of pesticides and other chemicals building up in our bodies. The subject of soil is rarely billed as glamorous or sexy, but it should be. From its remarkable properties to its critical ecological importance, the dirt under our feet is a goldmine of scientific wonderment, and it’s about time people got excited about soil.
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Walk through countless small villages in sub-Saharan Africa, and you will find the same scene repeated again and again: women bent over double, hoeing scrawny plants in dirt packed so hard it's tough to imagine anything ever growing in it. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent over the past half-century trying to do something about the region's crushing poverty, but the situation remains desperate. Rural Africa is hollowing out, unable to feed itself, let alone supply food to the continent's rapidly growing megacities.
In this context, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations announced last week their plan to spend $150 million over the next five years to boost agricultural productivity on the continent. The initial investments will go to developing hardy seed varieties of regionally appropriate crops, creating markets for the distribution of those seeds and educating a new generation of African plant scientists. It's a back-to-basics approach that avoids gambling on shortcuts. But to be successful the new initiative--dubbed the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa--will very soon have to address two equally pressing issues: the need for widespread use of chemical fertilizers to replenish exhausted soil and some sort of system to ensure greater participation of women--who perform the bulk of the work on Africa's farms.
Action is urgently needed. More than 80% of African soil is seriously degraded, and in many areas it is on the verge of permanent failure. For centuries, farmers survived by clearing new land for each season's plantings and allowing old fields to lie fallow and replenish their nutrients. But the continent's fourfold increase in population since the 1950s has forced farmers to grow crop after crop on the same fields, draining them of all nourishment. Do that for a long enough time, and the physical nature of the soil changes. It becomes so tightly compacted that it can't hold water or let roots spread. "Eventually you get to the point where even weeds won't grow," says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. "Just adding fertilizer back doesn't help. You actually have to replace the soil." The loss of productive land has driven farmers to clear ever more marginal areas, including forests and hillsides, for agriculture.
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The family of young cotton farmer Kailash Jhade wanted to marry him off before the cash crop season began in June. The timing is considered auspicious, and symbolises hope.
But the family's hopes were dashed when they discovered their eldest son's body in a communal well a few weeks ago.
Why did he kill himself? "Mounting debt," his family said.
The 26-year-old farmer's cousin, Pramod Manorathi, knew how disturbed he had been.
"He had a loan from the bank and he used to be quite worried about how to pay it back," he says. "He often thought about how he'll finance his wedding."
Kailash was one of the most eligible bachelors in Linga village of 400 farmers, just a stone's throw from Maharashtra state's prosperous Nagpur city, famous for oranges.
Ironically, the pesticide he consumed was also bought on debt.
'Three deaths a day'
The plight of 3.2 million cotton growers in Maharashtra's cotton-growing region of Vidarbha is no different. Crippling debts have resulted in 470 farmers committing suicide since June last year.
"On average, three farmers are killing themselves here every day," says Kishor Tiwari, who left a lucrative job with General Electric a decade ago to devote himself to the farmers' cause.
Kailash's debt - an initial loan of $200, with interest stacking up another $300 - was five times his annual income, on which he was already making a loss every year.
But relatively well-off farmers are committing suicide too.
Vitobha Shette, 40 and one of the richest farmers in the backward district of Yuvatmal's Mangi village, borrowed $6,111 from a government bank and a private village money lender.
But he wasn't able to pay the money back - so, his brother said, he killed himself.
Another wealthy farmer, Chandra Bhan, owed $3,000. On 1 April, while his family was taking the afternoon siesta, he poured kerosene all over himself and then lit a match.
For men such as these, the debt trap proves a death trap.
And usually the final straw is a blizzard of money-lenders' threats and bank notices.
In Kailash's case, a bank notice was accompanied by the threat of confiscation of his land. Chandra Bhan died in hospital two days after his self-immolation saying that money-lenders' demands had pushed him to the edge.
Unfortunately, for the families of the farmers who take their own lives, the tragic loss of sons, husbands and fathers is only the start of their problems.
Chandra Bhan's wife Rekha is angry with her dead husband.
"I'm very angry with him," she says. "I have to look after our two children, his old parents - and I have to pay his debt back."
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