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.

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