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Women helped to recover degraded land

Posted by Lindy on October 28, 2011


18.10.2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/oct/18/fight-against-desertification

Preventing irreversible degradation should be a global fight tackled with local, national and regional solutions. One-third of the world’s population lives in drylands where land degradation is reducing food supplies, biodiversity, water quality and soil fertility. Many of the poorest and most food-insecure people live off these lands as small-scale farmers and herders. Because they have no fallback options if this land deteriorates, they are the worst hit by desertification.

Solutions exist to help communities living in harsh environments to improve their livelihoods. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) is working with local, national and international partners on initiatives that revitalise soils and conserve water, enabling communities to reap the health benefits and incomes from otherwise degraded or soon to become degraded lands.

The approach of bioreclamation of degraded lands shows how women’s groups could revitalise barren lands by using simple water and soil conservation techniques, such as zai pits (small holes enriched with compost), to plant drought-tolerant trees and crops, and applying small amounts of fertiliser to the plant root, a technique known as microdosing.

In west Africa, most women have no or few rights to agricultural land, so Icrisat has been working with local NGOs to help them form associations and gain access to communal village wasteland. Scientists showed the women how to plant a range of crops, nutritious trees and high-value vegetables using zai pits and demi lunes (semi-permanent planting basins) to harvest rainwater and concentrate nutrients for the plants.

Their work shows that degraded lands can be made productive by plants such as the hardy Pommes du Sahel, which have 10 times the vitamin C of ordinary apples and are rich in calcium, iron, and phosphorus, and Moringa trees, the leaves of which contain four times the vitamin A in carrots, four times the calcium and double the protein in milk and three times the potassium in bananas. Drought-tolerant pigeon pea was found to help soil fertility by fixing nitrogen in the soil. It also traps pests that would otherwise attack and damage the okra that the women plant in the zai pits, and gives harvests even when rainfall is scarce.

However, most crucially, we must look at how we can prevent soils becoming degraded in the first place. By involving farmers in sustainable water and soil management, Kothapalli, a village in Andhra Pradesh, India, which was previously below the poverty line due to recurrent drought, is now prosperous and serving as a model for other villages in Thailand, Vietnam, China and Africa. Farmers have been shown how to carry out a healthcheck and feed it the nutrients that are missing so that the soil recovers before it is too late. By adding nutrients such as zinc and boron to exhausted soil, farmers are getting better and more nutritious harvests.

• William Dar is director general of the Icrisat in Andhra Pradesh, India

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