Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Conventional v. Creative? The Father of Vetiver weighs in.

John Greenfield, the author of the groundbreaking Green Book, Vetiver: The Thin Green Line Against Erosion, and the "Father of Vetiver," just posted his views about well-intentioned but misguided efforts to help developing countries conserve soil and water.  They're well worth considering:
Misguided Aid to the Third World: the ‘Poverty’ Gap

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It most certainly is.

Eighty percent of Third World poverty occurs among rainfed farmers and their extended families in the tropics. More than 40 years spent on the ground in these countries exposed me to a huge variety of well-intentioned aid agencies, donor countries and myriad alphabet agencies from the United Nations.  Their  researchers, engineers and theoretical economists have battled for decades, and battle today, to develop a workable solution to the poverty and hunger in these areas. I've met many outstanding individuals over the years, but these brilliant minds are no match for the lack of coordination and different demands and agendas of the many and varied donor agencies involved in every developing country.

Donor countries with no experience in the tropics send their "experts" into the field and make multi-million dollar investment in schemes that are doomed to failure right from the start. Government heads and UN departments listen to economists who lack field experience and allocate aid according to textbook assumptions.

A major reason for near universal failure is the myth perpetrated by successions of aid experts from developed countries that the poverty of subsistence farmers resulted from a complex historical process that does not lend itself to simple or quick solutions. Economists are injected to explain the situation, anthropologists to analyse farmers’ needs, and then engineers to construct interventions developed for temperate climes, all without seeming to reach an understanding of the basic problem. However, an interesting historical fact is that very advanced agricultural civilizations developed and flourished in some of the most arid zones of the world – in the Near East, North Africa and Central America – and then disappeared, either because they failed to conserve precious soil, water, and fuel wood, or because they employed irrigation schemes that lacked a drainage component, and ultimately salinized the most fertile alluvial areas.

The world’s population is growing at a rate close to two percent annually, and by as much as four percent in parts of Africa. Typically there are two methods of farming – irrigated and rainfed.  Irrigated land accounts for about 20% of worldwide cultivation and 40% of global crop production. However, the cost of irrigation and drainage in the 1990s averaged around $10,000/hectare but could be as high as $25,000/hectare in the drier parts of Africa. Can developing countries really be expected to establish and maintain irrigated agriculture?


It's quite obvious that the additional food production needed in future years must come from the 80% of cultivated land that is rainfed.  The only way to address the hunger and poverty situation on a sustainable basis for subsistence farmers in the tropics is through moisture conservation, specifically by controlling runoff and making the best use of the rainfall in an area. Because of increased pressure on the land, the average subsistence rainfed farmer today, loses as much as 60% of his rainfall as runoff to the drainage network, which also causes major flooding in delta areas (Bangladesh, for instance). The runoff also carries off his soil and any remaining nutrients. Annual rainfall of 1000mm is thus reduced to an effective rainfall of only 400mm, which, if it arrives at sporadic intervals, cannot sustain a good crop, and another “drought” is declared.

Over the years, many organizations have recognized the need to control runoff and resulting soil erosion and loss and have invested a lot of effort and money in rainfed regions to address the problem mechanically, employing a battery of engineering "solutions." Contour banks, diversion banks, absorption banks, waterways, retainer walls, gabions, low dams and water harvesting schemes have proven to be unsustainable in the long term. The subsistence farmer lacks the equipment and labour required to maintain such interventions, and also takes issue with the amount of productive land taken out of production by such schemes.

The upshot is that all of this aid into rainfed areas has increased erosion, compromised production which reduces food and water, and increases poverty.  The increased runoff doesn't recharge the underground aquifers that supplied fresh water to village wells or sustained perennial streams, and the resulting floods are becoming horrendous.

Lesotho, a little country in Southern Africa, is a classic example of a well-intentioned but totally inappropriate constructed soil and water conservation system that virtually destroyed it. Diversion banks and waterways have eroded into gullies and canyons, making it impossible for farmers to cross from one side of their fields to the other.  Erosion is unchecked.  Aid agencies have abandoned the country to its fate, never admitting their constructed conservation system was a tragic mistake.

Man’s efforts to intervene in nature have failed miserably. We are too impatient. We demand an immediate fix.  Companies bring in the bulldozers, get paid and get out. The results are worldwide engineering disasters. Levees (stop banks) that are expected to control rivers in a meander plain, end with the river 30 feet above the town. Diversion systems that deprive an area of its natural runoff concentrate it in drainage networks that were never meant to handle it. All of these systems requirie massive construction and maintenance costs before ultimately failing completely and disastrously.  Hurricane Katrina, for example, burst through unprotected levees in Louisiana.

What subsistent rainfed farmers need throughout the tropical world is in situ moisture conservation to produce their crops on a sustainable basis; in situ moisture conservation to produce their fuel wood; in situ moisture conservation to replenish their aquifers and once perennial streams; in situ conservation systems that farmers can install themselves and maintain without assistance.

Decades of field trials and research by dedicated scientists, extension workers and organizations across the globe have proved there is an alternative, cheaper, biological solution to resolve our erosion and pollution problems that doesn't include complicated, expensive engineering and structural designs, and contrived bureaucratic accounting and bidding procedures.  It's a grass – a quite remarkable and astonishing plant known as Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides). 

High intensity rain storms in the tropics that cause runoff severe enough to cause erosion, landslides and mudslides, is a dynamic system that can't be controlled by static measures such as gabions, retainer walls, contour banks or even trees.

Use nature to control nature!

When planted as a single line, Vetiver forms a stiff, dense hedge that prevents erosion, forms natural terraces, increases soil moisture, and doesn't compete with companion crops.  Once established, Vetiver can withstand droughts, fire and floods, and will grow on highly acid or alkaline soils.  It can reclaim mine dumps, stabilize road cuttings, embankments and river banks, is economical to propagate and install, and requires only labor and hand tools.

Vetiver roots can absorb surplus nitrates and phosphates, can tolerate high levels of toxic elements such as arsenic, mercury, aluminium, and manganese,  and can protect dams and harbours from siltation.  This plant increases crop yields through moisture and nutrient conservation, grows only where planted, and is not a weed. Vetiver hedges will grow anywhere on any soil in the tropics (and subtropics), and, once established, will last for more than 100 years.

Over the past 20 years, The Vetiver Network International has had a major impact in the private sector and through worldwide NGOs (Non-Government Organisations), promoting Vetiver contour hedges to subsistence farmers in rainfed areas. Vetiver Systems are breathtakingly simple, and they work.

Vetiver.org provides a wealth of information, evidence, case studies and extensive references from field people who have successfully installed the Vetiver System, for those willing to open their minds and tackle sustainable development in a truly sustainable manner.

Thank you, California!! Come in, please!!

California Cleans Up Waste Water Using the Vetiver System

It is always exciting to see that Vetiver can be applied so successfully to resolve a problem, and its versatility in application. Bio Clean Environmental Services in Oceanside, which specializes in storm water treatment, used just a few Vetiver plants to "scrub" highly contaminated water.   Zack Kent, Storm Water Engineer, reported that the Oceanside project was an interesting opportunity because it's a very dirty site that treats wash down water from a harbor boat wash site, along with many smaller sewer spills coming from recreational vehicles (RVs) on a continuous basis. In the last two years, the system removed more than 4,000 pounds of oil-laden sediment from the pre-treatment chamber, treating 2,000 to 8,000 gallons of water daily.

Kent said that Bio-Clean chose Vetiver because of its ability to grow in saline water and address the high pollutant loads that characterize the installation.  "It was a great choice and a real success story." A power point containing images and data about this project are available for viewing on TVNI's website:    http://www.vetiver.org/USA_oceanside02.pdf

Approximately 18 Vetiver plants were installed in a concrete treatment box containing a special media.  Said Kent, "One of the ways we get the Vetiver to grow so quickly is we don’t use any soil. It’s a soil-less media made consisting of expanded aggregates and a proprietary hydroponics media. This allows for fast growth." Within 15 months the plants developed a massive root system, which collected high uptakes of N, P and a range of heavy metals.  Trimmed periodically, the Vetiver was dug up after 15 months.

The key data includes removal efficiency when comparing effluent inflow to outflow: nitrate 76%, phosphate 70%, TSS <15 microns 82% , copper 53% (undetectable), lead 100%, Zinc 79%, TPH (gasoline) 42%, TPH (diesel) 100%; TPH (motor oil) 100%, fecal coliform 84%,E. coli 79%, and Enterococci 70%

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guyana (yes, Guyana!) takes the lead. Oh, USA, is anyone there?

Guyana leaps to the fore as its agricultural minister allows that Vetiver, the simple, complex plant that we love, just might be the solution to some of his country's coastal woes.  The shocking convergence of international economic meltdown and horrific natural disasters might, just might, pave the way to increased adoption of Vetiver Systems on a scale heretofore unseen!  It's about time, don't you think!?

"The use of Vetiver grass as a form of sea defense protection may be considered by the authorities but planting of the perennial grass will have to be tested first before widespread planting can begin, says Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud, when asked by the Stabroek News last week for a comment on use of the plant as a sea defense protector.

He stated that the authorities are studying the use of the plant, and has identified the Mon Repos Beach area as an excellent site for the test planting.

According to the Agriculture Minister, a mangrove specialist will establish the areas and try different methods of planting. He noted that the perennial grass has “great potential in the area of mud bank stabilization.”

According to Persaud, Vetiver is an effective, low cost bio-engineering technology that strengthens infrastructure protection and marsh replenishment by reliably enhancing control over soil and water management. He stated that using the plant as a form of sea defense involves planting Vetiver in a geometric or natural pattern that reinforces the dynamic processes of flow and deposition.

Vetiver is a uniquely dense, erect, deeply-rooted clump grass that is non-fertile and non-invasive. The grass, whose roots mat together, can grow as high as 1.5 meters and its roots grows downwards between six and 12 feet deep, making it an excellent erosion control plant in the tropical climate. It is also utilized for perfumery, aromatherapy and medicinal purposes in some parts of the world.

For more than a year now, Joe Coxall, a commenter on Stabroek News’ website, has extolled the virtues of Vetiver. In one of his December 2008 posts, he said “This grass can grow anywhere, but it does not spread.  Instead it grows thick root bundles over 12 feet long, straight down into the earth.”

The grass itself is good cow fodder. The roots hold the soil to the land and stop the silting. Oils can be extracted from the roots, which can be twisted into string. This grass will hold together high mud embankments.

When contacted for a comment on the issue, Engineer Charles Sohan expressed reservations, recommending that authorities pursue sea and river defense infrastructure works of a more stable and permanent nature that have stood the test of time. [Perhaps Mr. Sohan should review Fiji's century-long history of Vetiver stabilization.  Ed.]

Minister Persaud, while addressing the vulnerability of Guyana’s coastland to flooding and the high cost to maintain rigid engineered structures during a workshop on mangrove restoration at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre on March 5, opined that there are other “least cost” techniques which the Mangrove Management Implementation Comewmittee (MMIC) could examine, listing the cultivation of Vetiver as an option.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Minister outlined several areas that the Mangrove restoration project, for which some $125 million have been allocated in this year’s budget, will adopt in accordance with the Ecological Restoration of Mangroves Protoco, including:

-understanding the normal hydrologic patterns controlling the distribution and successful establishment and growth of the targeted mangrove species,

-determining the modifications and stresses of the previous mangrove environment that are currently preventing natural secondary succession, and,

-designing the restoration program to first establish the appropriate hydrology at an appropriate restoration site, and then utilizing natural volunteer mangrove propagules for plant establishment.

The MMIC, which was formed last month, is spearheading the restoration project. The committee includes ten relevant agencies, including the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) which is coordinating the technical aspect of the implementation of the restoration program. NARI has since advertised for a Community Development Specialist to lead the Guyana Mangrove Restoration Project.