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Living with the Soil/8

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Living with the Soil[edit | edit source]

Utilising the Soil to Protect it[edit | edit source]

Thus where soils are not adequately protected, this is not due to the lack of methods, but to the fact that applying those methods is too costly and time-consuming for farmers. Protective measures such as terracing or the planting of hedgerows and trees require a great deal of labour, and generate costs. These investments are only worthwhile if they lead to rising income, be it through higher yields or state subsidies. In other words, benefits and increases in income that are perceptible in the short term are key to the acceptance and dissemination of appropriate measures. A further precondition is that they be adapted to local circumstances and needs in close cooperation with the population.


Utilising the soil sustainably, yet at the same time productively, poses a major challenge. The Green Revolution of the seventies provides an instructive example. Because that attempt to reduce hunger through genetic and technological means produced not only improvements for the soil, but also undesired side-effects. Although high-yielding varieties are conducive to an increased grain yield, they at the same time produce a smaller quantity of harvest residues, and thus of livestock fodder. As a result, existing pasture is placed under increased pressure. Overgrazing and increasing soil erosion are often the outcome.

Just how much hunger and the destruction of natural resources go hand in hand was demonstrated by the major famine disasters in Biafra, in the Sahel, in Ethiopia and in India during the sixties to eighties. For a long time, a regional policy of hillside terracing and afforestation, usually within the scope of food-for-work programmes, was considered the approach of choice, until it became clear that farmers were not maintaining these terraces. This was due to the fact that, although hillside terraces do reduce erosion effectively, without farm manure and fertiliser they produce only little. They also take up land, and thus reduce yields.


Development cooperation responds to this problem with an alternative strategy for sustainability: The protection of soils must be linked to a sustainable increase in production. Only larger and above all secure yields will create a framework conducive to soil conservation measures being accepted on a permanent basis.

Nicaragua: Programa de Agricultura Sostenible en laderas en America Central (PASOLAC)

In Central America, 80% of the surface are hillsides, where the major part of the basic food (maize and bean) is produced, mainly by small farmers. Population pressure, the actual patterns of land tenure and the decline of yields due to soil erosion forced farmers to expand the cultivated land towards forests and slopes not adequate for agricultural use.

In the 80ies, when the degradation of natural resources on the hillsides received increasing public interest, different NGOÂ’s and farmer associations started activities with the double purpose of improving productivity and to reducing soil erosion. But they worked in isolation and without any co-ordination. This was the moment, when PASOLAC started its work. The entry point was to improve practices that allow the small farmers to increase the productivity of their fields and to rise their income. But which are the local appropriate technologies? How can they be identified and validated? How should they be implemented?

The answer to these key questions was found in improving coordination between the existing organisations. PASOLAC has formed a platform for the exchange of experience between the different organisations and has been acting as a hinge between research institutes and extension projects. In a first phase, PASOLAC elaborated studies, inventories and organised seminars. In the second phase of the project, interested organisations were invited to submit each year proposals for specific activities in the Held of identification and validation of adapted technologies, extension methods, training and inter-institutional coordination. Special attention has been paid to the participation of the farmers and the identification of their own knowledge. These proposals were reviewed together in planning workshops.

As a result the area with soil protection measures increased within 3 years from 10% to 39% and the percentage of farmers applying these measures increased from 3% to 15%. This was due to the strengthening of the partner organisations, who could improve the identification and validation of locally appropriate soil conservation technologies, the extension methods, the training of their own staff and their impact evaluation methods. The model of collaboration turned out to be successful and has been extended from Nicaragua to Honduras and El Salvador in a third phase.