Can Large-Scale Environmental Devastation Really Be Reversed?
Throughout centuries of farming, animal grazing and deforestation, the earth’s natural resources have been exhausted. Deserts are encroaching into previous lush areas and water is becoming alarmingly scarce.
Our soil is depleting 13% faster than it can be replaced, and we’ve lost 75% of the world’s crop varieties in just the last hundred years. Over a billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water, while 80% of the world’s fresh water supply is used for agriculture.
Even from space, the visual scale of the destruction is both disheartening and sobering. Add to this travesty the fact that the world’s population is expanding by a billion people every 12 years.
On a photographic assignment of the 640,000-square-kilometer Loess Plateau in North-Central China in 1995, cameraman John Liu witnessed the ravaging effects of man’s ignorance and greed. But he was amazed to discover that the mindful, purposeful efforts of local Chinese residents had rehabilitated a stark desert area the size of the Netherlands into a lush, green oasis.
He wondered if similarly devastated landscapes had once been vistas of lush, thriving vegetation that include waterfalls, rainforests and fertile valleys – before several thousand years of exploitation had stripped the land of every natural resource.
The epiphany Liu experienced spawned his provocative film, Hope in a Changing Climate, which he posted on the Internet. You could say the results have gone viral …
‘What Happens When Humans Don’t Understand How Ecosystems Function?’
As Liu witnessed the negative trend being reversed around the Loess Plateau, he discovered that not only can damaged ecosystems be rehabilitated, and that similar remediation can restore other parts of the world, but that the pathway for accomplishing it is fairly simple.
But the first order of business is to understand how it happened in the first place. It often begins with several thousand years of relentless grazing of domestic animals on mountainous slopes until there’s nothing left but barren ground.
Rains that may have restored the land erode, carrying fertile topsoil down the hillsides, effectively removing any chance for new growth to emerge. On the Loess Plateau, millions of tons of powder-fine silt were swept down into the Yellow River, not only obstructing its flow, but causing massive flooding and the river’s new name: China’s Sorrow.
On his travels, Liu noticed the same scenario of cumulatively encroaching desert land where it had once been fertile.
“The lands are exhausted. They allow hundred of thousands of sheep and goats to walk across here, and any green thing that sticks up its head is food, and they’re just walking around here getting everything. Well, you can’t let them do that any more. They’ll have to stop… that’s what’s destroyed this area. If that doesn’t stop, you won’t be able to fix this.”
Greening the Desert – Can This Be Replicated in Other Parts of the World?
This same trend in Jordan prompted the government to take action. Working with civil engineers and scientists, Liu sectioned off areas to allow the land to rest for three years. In an amazingly short time, grass began to appear. A plant species last recorded in the 1800s and thought to be extinct emerged on its own.
“Grasses develop perennial root systems that spread, encouraging microbial communities living and growing in this microclimate that’s created,” Liu explained. “Then you won’t have direct sunlight hitting, and UV radiation sterilizing this microbiological habitat. Then, everything will change – you’ll have a cumulative situation where there’s always vegetation, organic matter and biodiversity.
“You can see the relationship between hydrology and vegetation and biological life. That’s the basis of the air and the natural water system. It’s how the atmosphere and the hydrological cycle were created and how they were constantly renewed. …If we emulate those and don’t disturb them, we can live in the Garden of Eden.”
Eden Restored: Strategy-Inspired Green Resurgence
Centuries of vitality-sapping farming in Ethiopia have destroyed nearly every inch of vegetation, leaving wide swaths of bone-dry desert. Heavy flooding has etched deep gullies into the land, sweeping topsoil downward and away with nothing to halt its progress. With not even a drop left for farmers to water their crops, their animals or themselves, the ensuing drought and famine has been catastrophic.
But in just 6 years, villagers have planted indigenous trees and vegetation, transforming the severely eroded terrain. Rainfall now absorbs into the ground, feeding a clear stream that flows year-round, aided by the cover of dense vegetation. This has saved the region from desert-induced annihilation and instilled hope for a future of continued sustainability.
A thousand miles north in Abraha Asfaha, another miraculous resurgence has taken place. Where five years previous, heat and wind had induced drought, a government program instigated relocation for local villagers, who were given permission to set aside and remediate the land as the Chinese had. Now, villagers find water at the bottom of their wells, in spite of poor rainfall.
“In the ravines they built small dams which are now fed by underground springs… Rain that fell weeks ago slowly seeps through the subsoil, replenishing the supply of water. ‘The land has become fertile again,’ the village chief reports. ‘There have been enormous improvements. Our fruit trees were shriveled up, but now they’re growing again. There’s even a larger number of species. Those are really positive results. We now have food security. Our children can go to school. We have a better life. We no longer need to ask the government for support, thanks to the changes that were implemented.'”
‘People aren’t thinking about this ecological function. They’re ignoring science…’
Studies focusing on the relationship between the soil, moisture and organic matter helped scientists, ecologists and engineers form strategies to produce other success stories, such as one in Rwanda, where over-farmed hillsides caused serious erosion. In a desperate gamble to grow more food, poor farmers drained the protected Regazi Wetlands. But not only did this damage the wetland’s fragile ecosystem and wildlife, as it began drying out, it impacted power stations downriver, including the hydroelectric power system in Rwanda’s capital city Kagali three hours south. The Rwandan government was forced to rent diesel power generators to remedy the situation.
In bringing back the wetlands, as well as restoring fertility to the villagers’ lands, those responsible for its demise were solicited to help. Today, carbon-free electricity is replacing the diesel generators, stabilizing electricity prices throughout the region. Rwandan President Paul Kagame:
“We had to take a careful look at what had been happening to damage it, this system, and how to reverse that with human action. And it’s important to understand how human actions can destroy, or reverse what has been destroyed (to) even protect our environment.”
Identifying the Goal: Is It Temporary Production or Ongoing Sustenance?
Liu contends that our source of wealth is a functional ecosystem, not the products derived from them.
“It’s impossible for the derivative to be more valuable than the source. … And yet, in our economy now, as it stands, the products and services have monetary values, but the source – the functional ecosystems – (have) zero. This cannot be true. It’s false! We’ve created a global economic institution based on a theory of flawed logic. Carry that flaw in logic from generation to generation, we compound the mistake. “We’ve only just begun to understand the real value of natural capital. Surely investing in the restoration of damaged environments is a cost-effective way of solving many of the problems we face today.”
But farmers the world over sometimes need convincing. The problem, Liu says, is that they usually believe “production” is the goal, when the crucial, pressing need is sustainability so that the entire planet can be functional. In 1995, Jordanian farmers scoffed at the suggestion that trees be planted in order to build a more sustainable agricultural platform. It was confusing at first, but the premise held that investing in the program would come to fruition, literally, in their own foreseeable future, with the promise of ongoing agricultural enrichment for upcoming generations.
It meant the area’s farming-and-grazing status quo had to stop temporarily, but homesteaders were financially compensated. As villagers headed up the mountains with shovels, their new objective was to create a “hat” of trees at the top, terraces to form a “belt” and “shoes” – the foundation of a constructed dam at the bottom. Hills and gullies were designated as protected “ecological zones.” And it worked.
Permaculture: The Art of Working With – Not Against – Nature
Geoff Lawton introduced the permaculture concept in Australia, where rebuilding functional ecosystems from the ground up restores them to their fullest potential. It can create an agricultural heartland even in the desert in as little as three-and-a-half years, and being fully self-sufficient year-round, cycling its own nutrients without the need for irrigation or artificial fertilizer.
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems (to) have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”1
Lawton says there’s potential for abundance even in arid climates like Jordan’s Petra, now a stark shell of what was once thriving, known as “the land of milk and honey.” With its “ecological range of diversity and abundance, there’s potential for water flow, regional climate and microclimate moderation, completely different hydrology and the potential for well-designed productivity, (can lead) to permanence in human culture.”
Without restoration, the cycle of poverty continues to be passed down from generation to generation. When the trend is reversed, quality of life is improved, followed by improved diet, healthcare and educational opportunities.
Nature: NOT an ‘Enemy’ To Be Conquered or Manipulated…
In just the last ten years, 100 million tons of herbicides have been dumped onto our crops, polluting waterways and the soil where our food grows. A genetically engineered crop called “golden rice” has tainted the entire food industry throughout Asia, thanks to a sizable investment of cash from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which socked $20 billion into the enterprise.
Slash and burn agriculture, such as what’s done in Bolivia to make room for farming, involves burning ‘biomass’ – forests full of trees and fauna – for short-term monetary gain. But the most valuable commodity is being destroyed in the process destroying the most valuable thing in their system – the ability to help create biomass in other areas. It could create multiple industries in both areas and be mutually beneficial for everyone. Massive soy-growing plantations in Brazil are so dependent on the promise of economic wealth that local farmers are murdered and their lands confiscated, all to increase multi-nationally-owned soybean operations that decimated nearly 3 million acres of rainforest in just one year.2
Small- and Large-Scale Sustainability Practices – for Your Family, Community and the Globe
The life-giving effects of sustainability practices can be seen on several large scales now, but the principles are only as deep and complex as the soil. Compost feeds not just the plants, but the soil – or more specifically the soil organisms – is where 50 million genuses of bacteria and 50 million genuses of fungi thrive under the right conditions. According to Liu:
“Farmers in the Loess Plateau have continued to prosper, and the soil has been accumulating organic material from plants and animals. This holds the moisture and contains carbon… Living soils like this retain on average three times more carbon than the foliage above the ground. If we were to restore the vast area of the planet where we humans have degraded the soils, just think what an impact it would have in taking carbon out of the atmosphere.”
The entire Chinese continent has benefited from the lessons learned on the Loess Plateau. You can see it in the marketplaces, Liu says. Incomes have risen three-fold. We can make it happen here, as well.
The Ecosystem Isn’t Just Broken Over There… Look In Your Own Back Yard!
The tendency most of us have in so-called “developed” countries is to think those images of widespread ecological damage is far, far away and doesn’t involve us. But it does! Worse than simple farmers destroying the landscape through ignorance and tradition, the stripping and poisoning of our own natural resources is being done not unwittingy, but intentionally; not for the good of whole continents in the foreseeable future but for the financial profit of a few, now.
Perhaps you can’t do anything about that, and remedying those situations must be left to others. But you can make a difference now for yourself, for your family and community that might have residual effects.
- Growing your own vegetables is a growing concept for thousands of Americans. It can help you save money, involve everyone in the family and help create a store that can last through the winter.
- Organic gardening isn’t something extra you do – in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s what you don’t do that makes the difference: no chemicals, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides on your plate! When you take control of what you eat, you’ll naturally enjoy better health, ensure and protecting future generations.
- Composting is another way to make what you already have work for you in the future. Save those scraps, from egg shells to coffee filters, and use them to feed your vegetable garden.
- When shopping for food, be informed regarding where that food was produced. A guide to help you can be found by clicking here!
If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that’s becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they’re consuming, you’ll realize many benefits. First, you’ll know where the foods you and your family eat comes from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations.
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