Thursday, January 24, 2013

Soil and Erosion in Lesotho




 "The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself"

Franklin D. Roosevelt



Soil erosion is probably the most catastrophic environmental issue in Lesotho. As Americans who experienced the “Dust Bowl” we are well acquainted with the negative impacts of soil erosion. Lesotho, being a country deeply entrenched in the effects of poverty with subsistence farming being the primary source of livelihood for the majority of households, loss of soil has wide reaching implications. Our dear and consistent readers have read in previous posts elusions to the details of soil erosion and I’m sure you’ve seen in photos how different the landscape looks, with deep gashes running through the landscape that are locally called “dongas.”
            I’ll try to discuss this without geeking out too much and putting in too much technical stuff, while still painting the clear picture of this very significant problem. I will mention the soil classification at this time and then I’ll try to ease off the technical stuff. In Lesotho we have the “lowlands” and the “highlands” the lowlands look a bit like the Dakota Badlands, while the highlands are the extremely mountainous segueway to the Drakensburg range. The primary soil orders found in the lowlands are Alfisols and Mollisols. The infrequent Mollisols with thick, dark, A horizons are mostly found where a river has previously influenced the soil formation and are areas that are the literal jackpot for farming in Lesotho. These areas are usually flatter, and closer to water and with the rich soil, they are some of the only truly productive farmland in the country. In the highlands, the soil is extremely variable. This is common in the mountains, and here in Lesotho, The Mountain Kingdom, people live among the mountains. They farm and graze their livestock among the mountains, regardless of the soil type. Driving through the highlands, you can see red-iron-rich soils, right next to light-brown, fragile, sandy soil that is only 3 inches from the bed-rock. Needless to say, classifying highland soils in general is not something I’m prepared to do here, but hopefully that gives you an idea of what we are dealing with.
            Basics: there are two primary vehicles of soil erosion, one is wind erosion and the other is water erosion. I previously used the comparison of the “Dust Bowl” which was the result of wind erosion. Most erosion happens when soil is exposed, with nothing to hold it in place (eg:roots, organic matter, developed structure).
            With wind erosion think – open, dry, freshly plowed fields. In Lesotho, it has come to be expected that August is “dust month.” It becomes very windy and dry, the fields that were deeply plowed in the fall are exposed, during the winter every possible patch of plant cover has been overgrazed, and the shepherds have burned the rangeland so that in October the grass will come in green. The topsoil comes off in huge swaths, that covers people and things with a layer of dust (which is horrible to get out of your hair in a bucket bath! And sweeping the floor becomes a 4 times a day necessity). Of course, during that month the smoke and dust makes for beautiful sunsets. Moving through the country you can see the result of this in the fields in a similar way you can see it in the Northern Great Plains with which I am most familiar. The B horizon of the hilltops is visible, with its light color and unstable structure. The effects are also visible in the decreased productivity of these spots. Unfortunately, this being Lesotho, hilltops are extremely frequent and often take up the majority of a farmer’s field.
            Secondly, is water erosion. Following “Dust Month” comes the rainy months, if it is a good year. When the rain comes, it often comes in torrential downpours, creating flash-flood-like conditions, which result in runoff rills everywhere that become deeper and deeper with every downpour. The heavy rains combined with steep slopes, fragile soils and the land-use practices that I’ve already mentioned such as frequent and deep plowing, overgrazing and burning, is the recipe for a watershed that doesn’t have the water uptake capacity for all that rain and results in the deep dongas and ever-muddy rivers.
            Mitigating soil erosion in Lesotho faces a lot of challenges. Of course, it has been identified by the “powers that be” that soil erosion is a big problem here. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors that combine to resist making positive changes. A lot of them are cultural, which is notoriously difficult to change.
            One of the factors is livestock. Overgrazing, lack of winter fodder, absent management strategies and the culture of the “herd boys” all contribute to one component of this complex problem. Livestock is fundamental to Basotho and even African culture, it shows the riches of the family, “bride price” is paid in terms of cattle, when someone passes away it is imperative for the family to slaughter a cow for the funeral feast. To tell villagers to reduce the numbers of their herds- would not get very far, especially in the highlands which are not very crop friendly. The “herd-boy” culture is something of its own. These are often young men and boys, often with limited education and who are on the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum, who spend all day, every day with their cattle and dogs, sometimes returning to the village, sometimes staying at a wildland cattlepost for months. As you can imagine, this is a cultural group that is notoriously unsocialized and often belligerent. The ability to reach this group in any way is a huge challenge in and of itself.
            Burning the rangeland is also something I’ve talked about before. I’m not sure how it started besides maybe the human tendency to appreciate the “cleaning” effect of burning, clearing away last year’s brown and dead grass, and encouraging the flush of new green grass. There have been quite a few “anti-burning” campaigns done by the different government ministries and even within the school curriculums, with adults shaking their fingers at the children (mostly boys) and saying to “stop doing that.” Even some chiefs will discipline youth who have started fires near their villages. This doesn’t stop the fact that infallibly, each spring, huge swathes of hillside are burned. I’ve visited several schools that have given up planting fruit trees for the children because they just get killed in the spring burning.
            Deep and frequent plowing, is deeply ingrained into cultural agricultural practices, it is what the men do at certain times of year. At the same time, without being able to afford, access or effectively use chemical control methods, mechanical methods of weed control are pretty much it. Allowing livestock to graze on cropland especially after the harvest is the norm. One of the ways that the NRCS dealt with erosion in the U.S. was to encourage leaving some of the crop residue on the fields – this is not possible here because it is crucial winter feed that keep the livestock from falling off the brink of starvation (yes, poetic license, but true).
            Yet another factor that effectively strips the landscape of its cover is the need for cooking fuel. Women in the villages forage far and wide to find anything burnable for cooking outdoors in the traditional pot and staying warm in winter. This will include anything from large trees to very small trees and anything that barely resembles a shrub, and even dried cow dung. The price and accessibility of electricity, paraffin and gas make burning “wood” a necessity for most rural and peri-urban households.
            The infamous principle that is the “tragedy of the commons” is unfortunately a contributor to soil erosion in Lesotho, where most of the rangeland and even some of the agricultural land is communal property for the village. So, as the principle says, no one person has incentive to steward the land and mitigate the erosion.
            Lastly, I believe that people have become desensitized to it as a problem. The dongas are a part of their landscape, the roads that wash out – is just something that always happens, etc… I realized this a few weeks ago when I was driving with my WFP colleagues to Maseru and was talking about our fields in Montana, especially their size (which is pretty much the same as in South Africa, but whatever…) I offhandedly mentioned “except the field wouldn’t have those two huge dongas it would just be flat” and both of my colleagues looked at me questioningly – you don’t have those where you are from?
            Some of the things that are being done, largely by the government and sometimes in collaboration with international NGOs such as World Vision and World Food Programme which offer things like “food for work” projects, are donga rehabilitation, tree planting and promotion of “Conservation Agriculture.” These projects are actually pretty amazing, the Ministry of Forestry often goes to mobilize entire villages who go out to the designated tree planting site with picks and shovels to dig pits for government-provided trees. In the evenings you can see women returning from these sites balancing pickaxes on their heads as they head toward home to start cooking. The “Conservation Agriculture” that is being promoted here in Lesotho by the Food and Agriculture Organization is called “temo ea likoti” in Sesotho which literally translates as: “Agriculture of the holes.” With this style, the farmer goes out and digs pits in his field at regular intervals, and then he plants his seeds there and generally concentrates inputs, weeding and other “farming attentions” to the pits rather than the whole field. This method is also being sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and I have seen some limited adoption of this method, though, to date, nothing really in the way of results.
Tree Planting - a few years old
Conservation Agriculture
Close up of the planting pits - this one has Maize and Beans together
Donga Rehabilitation
Community working on Donga Rehabilitation
            So, I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile. Soil erosion is a huge challenge in Lesotho, and a significant component of the poverty complex. I recognize with my limited expertise and exposure that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface, even with this lengthy post, but it really gives us something to think about and it really is a big part of the life here. There is actually a book called “Imperial Dongas,” written awhile ago, that is all about soil erosion in Lesotho, so, if you’ve made it through this post, pat yourself on the back, and if you are still interested, check out that book.
Also, I've got one more photo of some very severe erosion in the lowlands that I'm unable to upload right now - I'll get that up soon though. Also, you can find photos of more burning, plowing, and women collecting wood, elsewhere on the blog.
We both wish you all of the best from Lesotho and we're looking forward to the next post which should be Shane writing about healthcare in Lesotho.
Carol and Shane

1 comment:

  1. Super- Super interesting.
    It's funny, I just watched a documentary about the CCC under Roosevelt that dealt with some of the issues of soil erosion after the dust bowl. The program put a lot of men to work in camps all over the country.
    Nice post!