The amount of severely damaged land in the world is growing at an alarming rate, and nowhere is the problem worse than in the tropics. Yet it is both possible and practical to turn this disaster around, as this article illustrates.
David Wickenden, who now lives in Washington, DC, where he works with United Press International, spent many years living at the experimental international community of Auroville in southern India where he participated in the re- greening he describes.
On a few acres of windswept, sunburnt land in the south of India, an experiment has been underway for the past 16 years that offers hope of a small-scale solution to an ecological crisis threatening to overwhelm much of the developing world.
Exponential population growth combined with increased demand for food, fuel, shelter and manufactured goods have put a severe strain on the Earth’s forests and agricultural lands. In countries like India, this has resulted in the wholesale clearing of forest cover, the adoption of unsound agricultural practices, and the loss of billions of tons of topsoil due to erosion. The world’s total arable land mass diminishes each year while the loss of ground cover and its ability to retain rain water pushes the water table in many areas beyond recall.
The scope of the problem defies quantitative analysis.
Currently one-third of the planet’s surface is desert or semi- arid and the percentage is growing rapidly. Richard St. Barbe-Baker has pointed out that
“if a man loses one-third of his skin, he dies. If a tree loses one-third of its bark, it too dies. If the earth is a sentient being, would it not be reasonable to expect that if it loses one-third of its trees and vegetative covering, it will also die?
The glorious, rich, colorful, quilted covering of vegetation is not there merely to feed and please us: its presence is essential to earth as an organism. It is the first condition of all life; it is the skin of the earth, for without it there can be no water and, therefore, no life.”
Auroville is an international community begun in 1968 on a severely eroded plateau in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India. Intended to manifest a vision of human unity, the community of 500 people from 25 nations stretches over a 19-square-mile area interspersed with village, government and temple owned lands.
The state of the plateau in 1968 reflected in microcosm the larger, global problem. Severely deforested, overgrazed and overcropped, the land was subject to chronic erosion. Less than 10% of the annual rainfall of four feet was retained on unchecked land, while washouts had created a network of gullies and ravines and had robbed wide areas entirely of topsoil. Expanding human and grazing populations, increased exploitation, and decreasing restorative care threatened the land’s ability to sustain human life at all.
Starting point- Desertification: Heavy erosion, no protection; growth of ravines; no definition of cultivatable areas; very marginal agriculture. If no change, agriculture will be impossible within 2 to 3 years.
In response, the community has concentrated much of its efforts in stabilizing and rebuilding its devastated ecosystem – with results that are viewed increasingly by Indian environmentalists as an outstanding example of how degraded land areas can be reclaimed and restored to health. Though the problem has not been completely alleviated, enough has been accomplished to raise hopes that a long- range solution is in sight.
Out of necessity, Auroville has become a laboratory for research in ecological development, and has, through trial and error, developed a strategy that can be applied to restoring health and beauty to the earth wherever the will to do so is actively present.
The program undertaken to restore the environment has been comprehensive, with several facets.
Soil And Water Conservation The first phase of the regenerative process involves retaining soil and water and checking erosion. Like much of the sub-tropics, the Auroville area tends to alternate from deluge to drought: one or two months of heavy monsoon rains are followed by long, dry months with temperatures of over 100°F and week- long dust storms. This climatic pattern is symptomatic of imbalance – and one of the long-term aims of Auroville foresters is to create a microclimate extensive enough to change the rainfall pattern.
Both wind and rain contribute to heavy topsoil erosion. By 1968, much of the topsoil had already been lost, leaving a barren moonscape of pitted laterite – a rust-colored hardpan consisting almost entirely of oxides of iron and aluminum, solid as concrete and agriculturally worthless.
Work began from the top of the water tables to halt soil and water erosion through extensive contour “bunding” (construction of earthen microcatchment areas) which keep rainfall on the land, preserve what is left of the topsoil, and enable the water to percolate down to replenish the ground water table.
As runoff is checked, gullies and ravines are blocked with a series of small checkdams which hold the remaining runoff. Existing catchment ponds are excavated where necessary to improve water retention, and new dams and ponds are constructed to create new bodies of water that enhance the flora and fauna necessary for a balanced ecological system.
Stage 1- Soil & Water Conservation: Define cultivatable areas and build “bunds” – microcatchments with trenches dug on the inside of the plot, earthen mounds on the outside, to hold soil and water.
Reforestation The single most powerful factor in the land reclamation process is the planting of trees which protect and stabilize the soil, retain moisture and provide the shade and nutrients necessary to sustain life.
Along with bunding and the creation of check dams, a first mixed plantation of drought-resistant indigenous shrubs, grasses and trees is planted. On lands that have suffered from severe erosion and can be used only as a meager source of grazing for local herds of cattle and goats, intensive reforestation has been undertaken using a variety of tree species selected for drought resistance and rapid growth.
Seedlings are raised in plastic bags or seed beds and planted out with the monsoon rains in pits dug into the laterite and filled with topsoils or silt. During their first dry season, the seedlings are watered when possible to ensure survival. Ideally, seedlings become sufficiently well-established during the monsoon to survive the dry season without watering.
Areas taken up for reforestation must be protected from grazing animals and foragers by live thorny hedges. New seedlings are provided individual protective baskets if needed, and “watchpeople” patrol the areas until the young trees are established.
Stage 2- Initial Reforestation: Plant windbreak hedges on outside with thorny cactus to hold the earthen mounds and for protection. Inside plant tree crops – cashew, palmyra, jackfruit – all of which can be pruned for fuel and building materials as well as providing fruit. Cultivation continues inside.
After the first round of hardy, drought-resistant species has been established, the trees are interspersed with other species from throughout India and the tropical world, chosen for qualities of soil enrichment, beauty, shade and for economic values such as provision of firewood, fodder, building materials, and food. After nearly two decades, Auroville has grown to become a large botanical preserve containing several hundred rare or endangered ornamental, timber, fruit, and leguminous species.
Stage 3 – Reforestation Growth: Tree growth in and around plot. Good wind protection, addition of moisture and organic matter from the trees.
Biological Farming And Agroforestry In the protected and inhabited areas where enough topsoil is available to plough and plant, experimental work has also been underway to develop a polycultural, intensive land use pattern incorporating windbreaks and hedges, fruit trees, and annual or seasonal crops. The aim is to arrive at the maximum intensity of production while increasing and sustaining soil fertility.
The first necessity for cultivation is obvious: the soil must be fertile. Before it can be made fertile it must be protected and nurtured. Thus, all initial agricultural work in Auroville includes bunding, hedge plantation, and water conservation – measures not strictly food-related but which begin to define cultivable areas and are the first steps toward recreating the biological balance necessary for a healthy, productive habitat.
Leguminous hedge plants such as Sesbania, Leucaena, Gliricidia, Tephrosia, and Prosipis are cultivated in and around agricultural lands as windbreaks, soil-builders and for use in coppicing (harvesting by heavy pruning that allows new growth from the old roots) to produce compost. Because of the depleted state of the soil, massive amounts of compost are necessary, and considerable effort has gone into experimenting with composting systems to find the most appropriate for the climate.
Cows, horses, chickens and ducks play an important part in this effort not only because they form a natural part of a balanced, productive environment – producing milk, eggs, and transport among other things – but also for the manure essential for composting and rebuilding the soil base.
Soil is also rebuilt through sound cultivation measures. For Auroville farmers this means practices such as crop rotation which balances leguminous crops with heavy feeders; turning fields over periodically to leguminous ground cover; plowing in the green manure; tillage which minimizes susceptibility to erosion; careful timing of planting; and intercropping leguminous and non-leguminous plants such as millet or pulses with a fodder tree like Leucaena.
In small-scale vegetable cultivation many Auroville farmers prefer the French-intensive method which utilizes raised beds and close spacing of plants, which helps eliminates weeds, conserves soil and water, and gives a higher yield than traditional techniques.
Auroville land workers, however, believe the agriculture of the future, especially in the tropics, will be based increasingly on trees. Agroforestry – the fusion of agriculture and forestry – is concerned with developing a permanent self- sustaining agriculture utilizing trees as a high-protein source for humans, as fodder for livestock and as fuel in the form of wood.
The food-growing process has moved in Auroville toward the full utilization of orchard plantation – mango, cashew, and jackfruit trees in particular – protected by leguminous forest and fuelwood trees. Where sufficient water is available, these tree crops protect a still wider variety of more sensitive fruit trees such as guava, chikku, acerola, carambola, lime, papaya and banana.
A system of intercropping field crops such as millet or pulses with fruit trees works well for about three years until the shade cover becomes too pronounced for crop growth, by which time the fruit trees are self-sustaining and productive.
As fertility has begun to return to cultivated areas, food production in Auroville has increased geometrically. From being able to produce virtually none of the community’s food in the beginning, Auroville farms now yield over 75 varieties of vegetables, fruit, grains, and dairy products. In the near future, Auroville farmers expect to produce a surplus in some areas which can be sold in local markets, with the profits re-invested in the farms.
Stage 4 – Micro-climate/Agroforestry: Maturation, Supportive, environmentally balanced surroundings. Trees are fruit bearing Adding productivity in plot due to fuel, protection, moisture, etc..
Auroville has reached the point where its own land is, for the most part, stabilized. Some intensively developed areas have reached maturation and are visually beautiful as well as ecologically balanced and productive.
The next stage of the work will involve a comprehensive outreach program in which Auroville foresters and farmers work more actively with Indian forestry and environmental agencies and local village projects.
This effort – though now being intensified – has in fact been part of Auroville’s own development from the beginning. Because the ecosystem is an indivisible whole, it has been both undesirable and impossible to segregate Auroville land from village and government-owned lands which share the plateau. Auroville cannot be an ecologically healthy island in the midst of an unbalanced surrounding environment; the community would more properly be fulfilling its role if it acted as a germ cell – spreading out and encouraging the creation of similar “islands” elsewhere, until there was no division left at all.
For this reason, Aurovillians have worked closely with local villagers in providing seeds and seedlings for their own fields; assisting with bunding on their land; and providing general assistance whenever it is asked for.
The work has not been without challenges. Auroville’s approach to land use represents something new to a very conservative culture and its benefits are not always apparent. Moreover, this kind of change is not something that can be enforced: it must be seen, understood and assimilated over time. With the passing of time and the obvious rewards of increased productivity the amount of collaboration has grown.
Last spring, Auroville began a program in cooperation with the Indian Department of the Environment and UNESCO to reclaim a huge, shallow lake area adjacent to the plateau. The area, Kaliveli Tank, has served as a migratory stop for numerous bird species but has suffered from misuse and lack of adequate protection.
The Kaliveli Tank project is just one of several efforts presently underway that are bringing Auroville’s accumulated expertise into wider application in its home country. And increasingly the community is receiving visits from ecologists and agronomists from throughout the world. If the present trend continues (and there is no reason to presume it will not), the work of a few hundred people in an isolated pocket of the Indian subcontinent will have a far-ranging impact on land policy and activity in ecologically distressed areas throughout the world.
Through its different land practices, and most importantly through simple human care, Auroville has brought about change in what was a severely degraded environment. The more serious and endemic difficulties which still plague the area will take a lifetime or more to overcome. But results so far indicate that transformation and productive use of a virtually lifeless soil is possible. From an agricultural perspective, Auroville may be able to offer answers to the pressing question of how to produce high-quality food in abundance in a tropical, critically underdeveloped region based on low technology methods that are ecologically sound, economically sustainable and which encourage participation among a wide number of people.
But from the community’s point of view, if the work is relevant from an outward point of view it is so not because it follows a certain set of methods and practices, but because it is the result of an inner process. Consciousness, not mechanics, is the key.
A foundation of inner attitude, experience and an aspiration for a new consciousness underlies all work undertaken in Auroville. (And it should be mentioned that Auroville encompasses much more than land work: the community is engaged in everything from the development of cottage industries to windmill and solar energy research to education, construction projects, and artistic activities.)
Aurovillians would say that this inner attitude – more elusive, more difficult to express than strategy and procedure – is the true source of all exterior manifestation. And in truth, organic agriculture and wholistic land use are, themselves, best described not by methodology but be values – by what Wendell Berry calls a complexly reverent, knowing, and preserving approach to the land: by the effort to understand the processes and interrelationships by which the natural world sustains and renews itself, and by the attempt to evolve ways through which men and women can work in harmony with the world’s natural processes.