Soil Degradation Crisis
Effective Farming through Permaculture
Photos and Text by Ester Eriksson
Here in Sagalla, the soil is red and dry. It is a beautiful sight, but what is hidden underneath is not always as delightful. For the people who live in this area, farming is the primary source of income as well as of food. When the crops fail, so do household finances and food security. The soils under Sagalla Hill are not as fertile as they should be to support a community of the size that lives here. This of course brings a multitude of problems. Reliance on the soil to provide essentially everything for these families, combined with a low soil fertility and a – literally – big problem with crop-raiding pachyderms… does not add up to a stress-free livelihood. How can this be helped?
Traditional farming. Many farmers who currently live and farm in Sagalla originally come from living up the hill. Anecdotal stories of how they heard of the fertile land on the bottom of the hill brought many to move their crops down here. The combination of climate change and devastating droughts (such as the one in 2019, and the current experience of way below average rainfall into the crop season), as well as grazing by livestock, has affected the soil and reduced its fertility. These events are not the only culprits, either.
There are many types of farming practices. In Sagalla the main type of crop is maize, and traditional methods for clearing and preparing the soil for sowing include burning the fields and paying little attention to the need of the soil to rest and recharge. Some of these practices have resulted in inhospitable soil composition for the output the farmers are after. Other things that really harm the longtime health of the soil is over-using industrial fertilisers and pesticides, which acidifies the soil, increases pests over time, and creates crust which results in loss of carbon and a healthy microbiotic network.
We have tested the soils around Sagalla to evaluate what exactly is wrong, so that we can face the issue head on and provide solutions. The soil analyses have shown that the soils are not only dry but heavily nutrient- and mineral deficient, as can be expected from the history and the practices of this region. Hydrogen %, total Organic Carbon, as well as total Nitrogen are all very low, much below optimal. Phosphorus, Calcium, and Ca:Mg ratios are also too low. This is not the news anyone would like, especially in areas where farming is already facing a multitude of challenges.
“But how is this related to the beehive fences?” The deterrence methods implemented by Elephants & Bees can be an astonishing ~80% successful when maintained properly. This is fantastic, but it is not 100%. One potential contributor to the gap in successful deterrence is to do with the size of the farms. These farms are simply too big to be protected by the fences they can afford. A smaller farm could hypothetically survive better in the shared habitat of elephants because it would cost less to protect it. So, a combination of non-optimal size and inefficient practices (and unfavorable climate changes) result in worse conditions and likelihood of successful harvest.
As part of E&Bs Permaculture Project, our Community Livelihoods, Education and Conflict Reduction Officer, Victor Ndombi, is spearheading an experimental plot of land, where he is applying organic permaculture farming practices to see if they provide a more successful outcome and if so, this can be offered as a training for the farmers. Permaculture farming is organic and does not use synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, and it stands on the pillars of prioritising the health of the soil – because this is ultimately what yields the best harvest in the long run.
So how do we do it on our demo farm?
- Plots are raised high, about a foot or so, because the depth available for roots is very important for plant growth. This also prevents runoff of water in case it only rains once, and any precipitation is much better retained without losing both topsoil and water in the runoff process.
- The plots are soft all the way through. Compared to the solid ground in most of Sagalla, with a minute layer of loose sand, this makes for a much better environment for plants to root and thrive.
- Our experimental plots grow maize, green grams/cow peas, sunflower and chili. Maize is the most desirable crop for farmers (but also for elephants). As part of E&Bs preventative measures, it is encouraged for farmers to sow non-palatable crops that won’t attract the elephants, such as sunflower and chili. Leguminous crops are also beneficial for maximum Nitrogen fixation. This is because they can develop symbiotic relationships with rhizobia (nitrogen-fixing bacteria), that convert atmospheric Nitrogen to ammonia to be used by the plants.
- When soil is nutrient and mineral deficient, it requires some form of fertilising agent. Since we go organic, this is manure – providing both organic carbon to tackle the severe deficiency, to add soil moisture as well as minerals.
- Adding manure (or lime, or ash) is a traditional way of increasing pH where it is too high, as in Sagalla (the soil has undergone acidification and has to be alkalised).
- Permaculture plots do not depend on drip-irrigation systems or similar, it is purely rain fed. This makes it more sustainable and also cheaper.
- Mulch layer. This is a layer on top of the soil consisting of discarded maize stalks, twigs, leaves, etc, which prevents transpiration of the soil, keeping it moist rather than losing water to the atmosphere.
- Crop rotation. Changing the types of crops is another great way to avoid depleting the soil. Monocultures are among the most soil-degrading practices in farming.
- A main characteristic of organic permaculture farming is to let the soil rest for at least one crop cycle. This is easier said than done when speaking to someone who depends on the harvest for livelihood. But if a farm is divided into smaller plots, one plot can be used at a time, while the other rests for a season (allowing for soil regeneration).
- With the implementation of organic practices, this method will be just as, if not more, effective and productive than the traditionally kept larger plot.
- The smaller area used for these practices (without sacrificing yield) also means better protective fence success!
These practices are still in their infancy for this experimental season, but as one of the many projects under E&B, we are hopeful that by bringing more efficient farming techniques to this community, farmers will not just be better equipped to deter elephants, but they will have a much more sustainable farming practice that is less vulnerable to climate fluctuations and (most importantly) is not further degrading the land they rely on.
Involving kids! In collaboration with the local school, this project stretches to the students in the form of a Farm Club. In the club we teach the children how to farm sustainably and which practices are most effective and why. They help maintain the food that is used in their school kitchen, making it a beautifully closed organic production cycle. We hope that this can influence their families, too.
Keep updated with how we progress! And let us all hope that the rains come soon.
The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants