Mending the circle of soil
Article Moonatic Agency
This article is part of The Care Revolution issue #2, written for Mustardseed Trust.
Although the current state of our soils and natural ecosystems is worrisome, there are positive developments all around us. After many decades of
denial and confusion about the consequences of our behaviour on the planet, we have slowly come to realise that our own survival is at stake. We simply can’t continue like this. According to market surveys, sustainability is becoming increasingly important in consumers’ choices. Businesses respond by adapting their production and business models to the sustainability demands of their customers, sometimes cleverly wrapping their minor adjustments in a great deal of greenwashing. Technological innovations, such as solar and wind energy and the digitalisation of production, transport and communication, allow us to reduce our carbon footprint while maintaining or even enhancing functionalities and boosting human well-being. But can we repair the damage already done? If we look at the work of our partners,
there are ways to fix what we have broken.
Restore within context
Restoring degraded soil can be a challenge. Doing this successfully is extremely context-dependent. It took Koen van Seijen quite a few interviews to fully understand how “attention, care, and experimentation are most important in soil restoration. What works at one specific spot, may not work twenty, or even two kilometres down the road. That’s what makes this process complicated: there is not one single formula or blueprint.” Something that Pieter van der Gaag experienced as well during his work for Ecosystem Restoration Camps. “We don’t tell a community how to regreen or restore. The initiative comes from the people on the ground, who have all the knowledge to know what works best in that particular area or context.”
Ecosystem Restoration Camps is involved in projects across the globe that restore the natural, ecological processes in degraded areas. The rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems and the use of regenerative agriculture increases soil fertility, reduces soil erosion, floods and drought, and re-establishes entire food webs. When it comes to some regreening trends, such as planting trees, Pieter remains skeptical. “There is a lot of money invested in carbon, basically planting trees. It’s like trying to find an easy way out of a complex problem. In reality, simply planting trees could exhaust the soil even more. Ecosystem restoration needs a more holistic approach: you start with water works, ground coverage, bringing back organic matter, and then trees will flourish.” While every restoration method is location-specific, the results of regreening in different locations can be astonishingly similar. “A project in Syria has been helping 120 farmers to go regenerative. Within one year, they reported 75% less water use”, Pieter explains. “I barely wanted to believe these statistics at first, but 70 farmers in Egypt reported the same numbers after switching to regenerative farming methods.”
The African Rural University in Uganda embeds a sustainable agricultural focus in the minds of its students. Young, female community members are trained to assist households and communities by developing a clear vision of what they want to achieve in the medium-term future. As practically all the community members are smallholder farmers, the vision automatically includes aspirations about transforming their farming systems. The students receive education and practical training on how to turn the ideas of the communities into a sustainable reality. “There has been a lot of commercialisation in agriculture. Endless forests of exotic pines and eucalyptus have become an important source of income for farmers. Our work has been to systematically educate people about the short and long-term effects of Mwalimu monocropping on their soils – working from their own visions for the future”, the founder of the university, Dr Mwalimu Musheshe explains. “And we can see a strong regenerative transformation of their rural environments, which gives a lot of hope.”
How important are cooperation and a community spirit for creating a sustainable future? Many technological innovations are beyond individual scale and capacity. For example, large batteries to store solar energy. They require awareness, and massive public investments, regulation, enforcement and adoption stimuli. If we have learned one thing in the last few decades of environmental action, it is that the establishment will only move under pressure from organised communities of early adopters, concerned citizens, school children, voters, and consumers. These communities have been trailblazers for mainstream society. Think of local energy cooperatives, solar investment funds, or voluntary neighbourhood greening. Not to forget mass demonstrations and civil disobedience actions. All these community formations have shown what is needed globally and what is possible locally.
For ecosystem restoration, strong local communities also play a vital role. Pieter van der Gaag explains how communities are key in scaling Ecosystem Restoration Camps: “Our theory of change is like a spiral. We started with one camp, and we currently count fifty-one. Every camp inspires communities at a local level, causing the spiral to expand. More people get involved, learn, and generate new ideas. We then offer guidance to anyone who wants to start their own Ecosystem Restoration Camp in their area.” In Pieter’s experience, it works the other way too. “Working together on restoring your environment brings people closer as a community. By fighting a common enemy together – such as land degradation – people bond over a shared cause and find all sorts of ways to collaborate.”
Also Maddie sees the value of community collaboration when it comes to regreening within projects of The Weathermakers. “Just like nature itself, restoration is a symbiosis of actions, knowledge, people, and hard work. The Sinai is – politically and socially – the most challenging place to run a project like ours. To convince the right people that this is the right project to prioritise and establish effective collaboration, you need to speak different languages: from politics to business. Our proof of method plays a crucial part. As we are the first to do this, we rely and build on all the inspiring work done so far in ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture.”
In Uganda, Dr. Mwalimu Musheshe notices the symbiotic relationship between family collaboration, healthy soils and agricultural productivity. “Traditionally, agriculture was a family undertaking. Everyone in the household participated in farming the land. Now, as the children go to school, one or two adults are doing all the work to feed nine people. Naturally, they have to cut corners, at the expense of production and productivity. In the URDT Girls School and affiliated community schools, we teach children how to examine their home environment and apply sustainable, productive farming methods, sometimes going back to traditional seeds and farming techniques. Sharing and taking this knowledge home helps household structures change from dominance to partnership. Families collaborate again to attain food security, be healthy, and work together towards their family vision.”
Education is key
The URDT calls this their two-generation approach to education, which is at the core of their teaching methodology. They equip young girls with the skills and knowledge to create a vision for a sustainable future and systematically work towards it. By involving the parents or guardians of the girl student in the education process, awareness about the benefits and implementation of regenerative farming methods spreads within households and communities. Dr. Musheshe feels a personal connection with the cause. “I think I understand why we call it mother earth. She is feeding us, she keeps us healthy and sustains us.”
One significant lesson Koen van Seijen learned from the interviewees for his podcast, is that there is a huge gap in knowledge and education concerning regenerative agriculture. “Agricultural universities are still just exploring organic farming, let alone [teaching] circular or conservation agriculture. Herenboeren permanently has vacancies for regenerative farmers. They even had to start their own in-house training programme. Especially because regenerative farmers require such a diverse range of skills, they are hard to find.”
When it comes to the Ecosystem Restoration Camps, education helps to spread awareness far beyond the borders of a local area. By attracting enthusiasts on a local and international level to come and dig in the dirt, take courses on-site, and reconnect with nature, people learn about the symbiotic relationship between humans and natural ecosystems. According to Pieter, it does not only influence the daily choices of the participants once they return to their homes. It also combats eco-anxiety by bringing a new sense of hope. “Soil is the foundation of our lives. Regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration offer us a future of abundance, a way out. It only took me 2,5 minutes to see the transformation video of John D. Liu, co-founder of ERC, to show what ecosystem restoration can do. I was left with this amazing feeling that us humans will be okay if we give our soils a chance.”
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