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Soil conservation - A plea for international action

by SALEH-UD-DIN AHMAD, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Punjab, Pakistan.

Man must attempt to control his physical environment. Above all he must control the accelerated erosion caused by his own misguided activities and stamp out abuse of humanity's basic source of wealth - the natural soil cover.

It may well seem strange that the idea of conserving natural resources, and particularly the soil, is not innate in man. Some claim indeed that it is in those who live in constant contact with the soil from which they derive their sustenance. They point to primitive communities living off shifting cultivation who are careful not to deplete the fertility, of the soil, and remind us that the terrace which in its various adaptations, is the basis of the modern system of soil conservation, was used by the earliest men to preserve the soil. But on the other hand most nomadic pastoral tribes have no intelligent comprehension that the insidious deterioration of soils is due to overgrazing by their herds.

It is easy to understand man's prodigal use of natural resources so long as he lived in widely dispersed communities and could not substantially affect the vegetation and, through it, climate, soil and water supply. It is more difficult to grasp why, with the evolution of civilization, he should have failed to appreciate the results of continuous treatment of this sort and permitted negligence towards natural resources whose disastrous effects have become increasingly numerous, complex and potent.

Ignorance and apathy remain universal reasons for the neglect of conservation. In heavily populated areas they are bolstered by the stress of deriving daily sustenance from the land, a struggle that thrusts any longer-term considerations into the background. In thinly populated areas, it is often plain greed that leads to the destruction of forests or to overgrazing. Such simplified reasoning, however, leaves out of account complicated secondary factors such as defective agrarian structure, lack of balance between farm and industrial populations, ill-defined privileges or rights of usage, and so forth.

The success of some societies that have apparently managed to use the soil for immediate purposes and yet keep it usable indefinitely, may in the main have been due to favorable natural conditions - temperate climate; adequate but not excessive annual rainfall, fairly evenly distributed; gentle relief and suitable soil texture - all of which have combined to produce a balance between the soil, the vegetation protecting it and other natural factors. Misuse has been corrected by an easy return to this state of balance, of which the climax vegetation is the fulfilment, or at least to a state ensuring reasonable soil conservation and maintenance of soil fertility. Other societies have not been so fortunate, because the balance once upset has not been easily recovered and accumulative misuse has inevitably ended in the degradation of the soil.

Our present civilization provides man with so much more powerful means than in the past of affecting mankind itself and the natural environment - so powerful, in fact, as to make it possible to remodel nature - that it can either hasten soil degradation beyond all previous measure or end it.

Growing populations augmenting land hunger in already over-peopled regions, the spread of forest industries, the very trend toward the industrialization of farming, the opening of roads and access to forests and natural grazing lands are all temptations to still more misuse of the natural soil-protective vegetation.

Yet, at the same time, our civilization provides the means and opportunities to devise more effective conservation methods, to spread knowledge about them more widely and even to make their use compulsory. It gives to users of the soil cheap means of applying such methods. It permits easy co-ordination of effort at the national level and makes international collaboration easier to establish - though it is not always simple to take advantage of this.

The question is whether all this is sufficient to offset the increasing causes of erosion. So far, it looks as if the answer may quite well be negative. In that case, we must ask ourselves what means can best be employed to safeguard the common heritage of mankind, the soil, and whether concerted international action is required.

Features of the soil conservation problem

There is still some confusion in the public mind over what is meant by "conservation", which may in part be due to the fact that many national and international bodies have been created - often comprising scientists, artists and ardent nature lovers - whose avowed object is conservation of natural resources in the strictest sense, irrespective of any economic value the resources may have. The power for good of such groups cannot be denied, and it must be admitted that, for many reasons - scientific, aesthetic or perhaps recreational - it is desirable that some natural environments be kept as little changed as possible, and others left quite undisturbed so as to give a chance of survival to plant or animal species in danger of becoming extinct. This concept of conservation, how-ever, is in the main quite different from that which concerns us here. We mean by "conservation of natural resources" sound management aimed at turning resources to the best possible account. It is merely another way of expressing what foresters call "sustained-yield management."

The problem

The soil conservation problem must be approached as a whole and not piecemeal. True, soil conservation in sum depends on the good management of each separate parcel of land, but the complete aim can only be fulfilled if sound land use is effectively applied to a whole area.

Examples are not lacking of how farmlands in low-lying valleys, towns on riverbanks, or estuary ports are dependent upon the way forests and pastures on the watersheds above are treated; the death of the ancient port of Ostia on the Tiber near FAO headquarters is a good case in point. More spectacular evidence of the effects of the lack of good land use practices is afforded by the large plains or plateaus particularly liable to wind erosion which have come to be called dust-bowls. Any one fraction of an area of this sort may be remarkably well cultivated and every precaution taken to ensure renewal of the soil fertility. Yet nothing will prevent its ultimate destruction if the rest of the area is overgrazed, if protection against wind is not provided by suitable windbreaks, if farming carelessly exposes an easily erodable soil, if shifting dunes have not been fixed by grasses or trees and if, lastly, the whole of the plain or plateau is not used according to well-conceived purposes, with proper techniques prescribed for each separate part so as to assure the stability of the whole.

The interdependence of the various forms of land use is not only a matter of physical relationships - there are also economic and social facets. One does not expect to find prosperous fertile farms in a valley bottom with degraded forest and grazing land above. Those who have lived off this forest and grazing land inevitably drift to the more low-lying lands and, accustomed to other ways of living and to other methods of using the soil, in turn bring about deterioration here of once rich arable soils and perhaps even cause social tensions such as arise between cultivators and herdsmen in many parts of the world where these two kinds of land users compete against each other.

The decline of ancient nations in the eastern and southern Mediterranean countries is often cited as an example of the consequences of improper land use, the destruction of forests and neglect of the principles of conservation. Certainly wars and invasions do not wholly explain the decline in this region. Toynbee 1 says that a society always dies from suicide or murder - and nearly always from the former. It would be surprising if peoples who had taught the world irrigation and intensive farming in Spain, had deliberately allowed terraces, canals and agricultural lands to go to ruin elsewhere. Perhaps they had not looked for an integrated approach to soil conservation. Soil conservation was good on agricultural lands, but was bad on forests and grazing lands. So the whole system collapsed.

1 Arnold J. Toynbee. A Study of History. Oxford University Press

Effect of industrialization

In modern times, the inter-relationship between man and his physical environment is still further complicated by industrialization. Undoubtedly some countries are more particularly suited to farming and agriculture, and others to industry. In any given country, however, there is a certain optimum balance between the numbers of people engaged in agricultural pursuits and in industry. The balance is not, of course, immutable and the difficulties inherent in attaining an equilibrium are still being experienced even by many so-called advanced countries, while in the underdeveloped countries the balance is very far from having been reached.

Industrialization must be accompanied by a sound practical approach to land use. For example, industrial expansion needs a constant supply of water not only as a raw material or a source of energy but also for consumption by the communities it necessarily creates. 2 This water comes from the soil and a constant supply needs soil management and sound methods of conservation. Again, industrial expansion necessarily depends on raw materials of mineral, plant or animal origin. If the minerals are lacking, primary industry can only be based on the proceeds of fishing or agriculture, tree crops or forests, and the last three will require sound soil use.

2 A recent news note in Unasylva says that the city of New York along must provide an average of 800 million gallons (3,000 million liters) of fresh water a day for domestic consumption.

Land under agriculture and forests

A feature to be stressed is one which is too often ignored, namely, the difference in treatment accorded to the two broad land use categories - agriculture and forestry.

Agricultural uses 3 of the soil may be defined broadly as the harvesting, annually or at regular intervals, of a crop introduced by man, following tillage of the soil and sustained and regular cultivation and care; while what we will call forest and/or range uses involve the harvesting of natural vegetation, the manner of harvesting (whether it be the cutting of wood or grazing by cattle or wild animals) being, as a general rule, man's only means of modifying, for better or worse, the quantity and quality of future harvests.

3 Agricultural uses obviously include using natural crops grown on the soil for intensive stock-raising or intensive production of dairy products. This emphasis on intensive use tempts one to describe agriculture as intensive land use as contrasted with extensive use for forests or range, but this cannot be generally acceptable since there is already in common parlance an extensive agriculture where low yields per unit area are expected and an intensive silviculture which aims at a high timber output per unit of area.

However we define them, these two land use classes are sufficiently distinct for practical purposes, even though some agricultural uses are combined, in time and space, with a forestry utilization. Perhaps natural fallow, so common in the cycle of farming operations, can be considered as a forest and/or range utilization, though it cannot always be exactly stated into which classification the vast stretches of land used for shifting cultivation should fall.

On this basis, it may be said that, compared with agricultural land, forest and/or range land extends over an extremely large part of the globe. It is difficult to give any exact figure because of inadequate statistics or because of overlapping of the two classes, but it would seem that roughly 60 percent of the world land area serves for forest and/or range use.

Can it be said that this area is on an equal footing with agricultural land in regard to the soil protection afforded? Is there an even chance that a piece of land under forest and/or range use will be given as careful attention as a piece of farm land? The answer is obviously a negative one and the reasons are many.

It may be claimed that forest and/or range lands are generally difficult of access so that, as long as man interferes only very occasionally, nature can take care of soil conservation. Yet it should be noted that the balance due to this relative inaccessibility is precarious and can be upset by apparently trivial causes - witness the results of introducing the rabbit into Australia or deer into New Zealand.

It is obviously much easier to arouse interest in soil conservation in the farmer, who obtains his living direct from a limited area of soil, than a herder whose range of operations is seldom strictly limited and whose direct interest lies in the cattle he raises and not in the vegetation which provides the forage; or than a logger who is sometimes only concerned with using a forest to keep supplies going to a sawmill long enough to amortize the investment.

Again, considerable expanses of forest and/or range lands are often public property, frequently subject to rights of use that are only vaguely defined, and the user has no strong incentive to concern himself with soil conservation.

Forest and/or range lands are therefore most susceptible to misuse, and this may not consist solely in careless utilization and intolerance of controls. It may also mean the conversion of land which is most suited for forest and grazing into cultivated land.

This latter process is only natural. There are only two ways of increasing food production from the world's lands to meet growing needs. One is to increase the yield from existing cultivated land; the other is to extend the area of cultivated land by encroaching on forest and/or range land. Neither has a priori advantage over the other. True, extending the cultivated area is sometimes impossible because of the poor quality of the soil or the obvious dangers to which it would be exposed if the protective plant cover were removed. But there are methods by which land that has served so far solely for forest and range can be brought satisfactorily under permanent cultivation, with due regard to proper soil conservation. One cannot be dogmatic and say that a steep slope can never be successfully cultivated, since it is always physically possible to lay out terraces by which the slope can in fact be put to crops and yet soil conservation be ensured.

It is true, however, that terracing or any improvement works that would make it possible to cultivate land previously used for forest and range, frequently require investments or recurring expenditures quite disproportionate to the agricultural gains that can be expected. In other words, under present conditions, conversion into cultivated land is uneconomical. However, examples of such attempts are not wanting and their abandonment after failure is not the least important of the many causes of soil degradation on forest and/or range lands.

There are other physical and economic factors to be taken into account in planning land utilization. But it is not our intention - nor a forester's responsibility - to investigate here the complex rules which should govern such planning.

Enough seems to have been said to show that soil conservation on forest and/or range land, although just as important (because of the interdependence of soils) as on agricultural lands, is usually much more neglected and much more difficult to achieve. This is all the more to be deplored when it is considered that possibly a large part of the former constitutes a potential reserve for the extension of agriculture. If ever an expansion of cultivation becomes economically feasible, it will be sad to find the reserve badly depleted and only unnecessarily degraded land left for farming.

The problem and international action

Soil conservation is a factor in the prosperity of each country. Any problem affecting that prosperity and any proved solution that helps to raise the standard of living of the population, is of concern also to that country's neighbors and even to distant countries.

Soil conservation is also the problem at the root of many other problems, agricultural, industrial and social, whose solution is universally desired.

There is another point it is an intergovernmental problem because it is essentially a governmental problem. It is not a case of modernizing a sector of a national economy that private initiative - if the sector were under private control - could achieve equally well, but rather one of an over-all policy for the conservation - that is, good management - of a country's soils and obviously the government must be ultimately responsible for such a policy.

Doubtless, if action were called for only in regard to cultivated lands, which are usually privately owned, it might be hoped that the owner's self-interest would suffice to ensure soil conservation. A governmental soil conservation policy might not in fact be necessary at all but only local measures to help the farmers, technically or financially, to rectify certain features of, for instance, the agrarian structure. There would be no need for long-term objectives, concerted plans or the research which forms the core of governmental policy.

But action is essentially called for in regard to lands under extensive utilization. As has already been said, large areas of such lands are the direct responsibility of governments, but, even where they are in private ownership, the owner usually has not the same incentive to concern himself with soil conservation as in the case of cultivated lands, and frequently he also does not have the means to do so. His personal interests may even run counter to soil conservation.

Finally, there are also the large domains split between agricultural and forest and/or range use, which also need a government policy because the problems they raise are integral to the general economic development of each country.

Thus, no government is in a position to evade the obligation to work out a soil conservation policy, of which propaganda work and education are an essential part. Subsidies, loans and the like may be required for the implementation of policy, but they cannot actually replace policy.

The need has been recognized in some countries which recently, have created soil conservation services whose work has proved efficient and already been crowned with success. Even here, however, the question may perhaps be asked whether the services are working to implement a basic policy relating to soil conservation, or whether rather they are operating in furtherance of other policies to which land use is only incidental; whether they have not been established more to remedy local situations (assuredly a worthwhile undertaking) than to apply a truly national soil conservation policy.

At all events, there is a clear need for such national policies and their international importance; and, because of this, there seems to be all the more necessity to coordinate such policies on the international plane.

Lands under extensive utilization frequently extend, in one distinct geographical unit, v-elf beyond the political frontiers of States. The watersheds of many of the large rivers of the world are international. Obviously, on the kind of treatment and care given to the soils on these watersheds and in the upper valleys of the rivers will depend their flow, spates, the silt or soil material they carry in suspension, and the possibilities for navigation and use for irrigation or power production, all of which are of vital importance for countries astride downstream portions of the rivers. A typical case is western Pakistan, which is regularly threatened by flooding of rivers that have their catchment basins in India and Kashmir. Likewise, many large plains or plateaus straddle political frontiers which are fortunately or unfortunately ignored by the winds that sweep over them.

Nomadic herds, too, know no frontiers. The destruction of soils through misuse by wandering herders in one country is almost infallibly paralleled across the border. Pakistan again offers an example; its frontier with Afghanistan is crossed every winter by migrating herds of camels and flocks of hungry sheep and goats in search of better forage.

Fire also does not stop at frontiers and can raise serious problems, as on the Argentine-Chilean border or between Canada and the United States. Lastly, insect plagues or diseases are often partially affected by the way the soil and its vegetation are treated. Soil divested of vegetation and cleared spots in forests, for example, provide the migratory locust with favorable ovipositing conditions.

It should also be recognized that the development of vast forest areas, such as the Amazon basin, that are still practically intact, is an international matter not merely because such lands extend over the frontiers of several countries nor because their development may require the investment of international capital, but because they may well represent the world's largest land reserves still available for expansion of food production. Settlement of these practically virgin lands should not be attempted without some internationally approved plan to ensure conservation of the soil and sustained production. The task - though gigantic - is not essentially difficult, since it is theoretically possible to create from the beginning the economic and social conditions which are compatible with the soundest management of the land, taking into account all the characteristics of the environment and climate.

If the soil conservation problem is international it stands to reason that FAO should, as an Organization, apply itself to finding solutions, and the efforts expended should be commensurate with the fact that this is the problem at the core of most of the Organization's other problems.

Contribution of FAO

The importance of the soil conservation problem has certainly not been ignored by FAO. But it must be remembered that FAO's activities are guided by the wishes of the member nations and their attention is perhaps more easily held by narrower, immediate problems, whose solution may give spectacular results.

FAO has made wide use already of the three basic methods at its disposal: dissemination of information, direct technical assistance, and the co-ordination of national activities on the international plane. It may be said that, in a way, soil conservation is implicit in practically all FAO projects anti that, indirectly or in effect, any improvement in agricultural or silvicultural techniques promotes such conservation

Let us review briefly the main action taken by FAO. There have been publications such as Soil Conservation which was one of the first studies brought out by the Organization, or Land Classification for Agricultural Development only recently released. Under the Technical Assistance Program many experts have been working in different countries on land use classification, improving soil productive capacity, or on rehabilitation of deteriorated soils. Technical assistance has brought out clearly the central position of the soil utilization problem, and in many cases, especially where it is a matter of advising or applying forest or range use policies adapted to local conditions, has revealed that no results can be expected until this central problem has been solved Lastly, in regard to international co-operation, there are a European Working Party on Land and Water Utilization and Conservation; regional Forestry Commissions and the subsidiary bodies which have concerned themselves with the question, though obviously from a particular point of view; and a meeting on land utilization problems in Southeast Asia which was as held in Ceylon in 1951.

What has still to be clone is perhaps not so much to intensify technical action already under way as to bring action up to a political level. An objective might be to have all governments make formal acceptance of a rational land use policy as a basis for their economic development, founded on the conservation techniques that modern research and long experience have developed and are constantly improving. The goal would he the co-ordination of governmental policies, present or future through FAO.

Despite the apparent diversity perhaps all national soil conservation policies might be based on inroad common principles. If so, a formal declaration of such principles might be a first step toward more effective international action.

A pattern for such a declaration is provided by the "Principles of Forest Policy" adopted by the FAO Conference in 1951.4 It may be objected that this forestry statement is couched very general terms, so much so that some Who read it - perhaps a little too cursorily - feel that these principles state only the obvious and that a similar sort of declaration on soil conservation would be ineffective. Such criticism is not justified in the view of those who heard the animated discussions on the wording of each phrase - and almost on every word - of the statement, and who can vouch that each of the underlying ideas has far-reaching implications. A similar statement on soil conservation, finely phrased, would have the merit of showing the World that a generally accepted policy of soil conservation was at the basis of all FAO's activities.

4 Resolution No. 26 of the Sixth Session of the FAO Conference November-December, 1951.

If any such principles can be stated, they can clearly only be determined and drafted by persons with vice experience of the many differing regions of the world and accustomed to consider land use problems not only in their physical but also in their economic and social aspects. Only FAO could suitably call such persons together.

Principles of a soil conservation policy

Possibly a first principle should recognize that there are limits to the diversion of any piece of land from what we may call its natural destination to other uses, which must not be exceeded if it is desired to avoid impairing soil fertility. The limits depend on the characteristics of each fragment of land and their relation to the prevailing topography and climate, but they also depend on technical advances in conservation methods and on economic conditions which, at any given moment, make it possible or impossible to apply such methods.

Such a principle, if accepted, would assume that a soil conservation policy required constant adjustment to allow for technical and economic progress in each particular country. Also, it would entail a system of land classification that would have to allow for development, in those same technical and economic factors.

A second principle might emphasize the over-all nature of the soil conservation problem, which demands the establishment and maintainance of a certain balance between the various forms of land use that the first principle has made appear possible. Such a balance should be obtained first for the two broad land-use classes - agricultural land, and forest and/or range land - which we have already distinguished. This classification would not be enough and certainly many more varied subdivisions would have to be differentiated in each class. The balance to be established must have a physical purpose - soil conservation and, a very important corollary, regulation or improvement of the water supply; and an economic purpose - optimum production in relation to local, national, regional or world levels. This second principle makes the soil conservation policy dynamic and not static.

To ensure conservation of the soil on any piece of land obviously it is not enough to determine the use to -which it should be put. Over-use or, indeed, any use under certain conditions may cause the soil to deteriorate. A third principle, therefore, should be to adopt norms for ensuring soil conservation and maintenance of fertility for each specific use. Such norms would be, for example, the limit on crops which deplete cultivated soils, the optimum rate of stocking of rangeland, a minimum rotation for coppice - managed forest. Clearly, no such declaration of principles could go into all details, hut it could at least recognize the need for such norms.

The application of a soil conservation policy may entail restrictions upon traditional methods of using the land and changes in acquired habits, perhaps even in some cases the dislocation or resettlement of the population. Success can only be ensured if the policy is understood and approved by the whole population. This implies - as could he stated as still another principle - that the idea of conservation must be instilled in the mind of the people throughout the country. Perhaps it is not so much a question of propaganda as of a fundamental education for all, and more particularly, for children from their earliest years. Much is being done in this respect in some countries and it is to be hoped that all could follow suit. Citizens, townsmen as well as countrymen, need to learn about conservation just as much as to learn elementary arithmetic, and to accept it as a natural habit of mind.

Outlook for the future

The soil conservation problem is far from being a recent discovery. Not long ago, an American magazine cited a passage from Plato which deplored the ruin of Attic forests and pastures. Farmers, ever since farming became a way of life, and specialists, from the time farming became a science, have endeavored to conserve the fertility of their soils and to find the most economical methods for attaining it.

All soil conservation treatises close with one or more chapters on the need for integrated land use, and the essential role of the forest and of rangeland in soil conservation and the regulation of the water supply is clearly stated, if not always fully explained.

How is it then that erosion continues and spreads in this alarming degree?

It may be because, so far, the human aspect of the problem has been neglected. Being a human problem, it cannot be solved by techniques alone; it is necessary to have a policy based on these techniques. We think that this policy is a governmental and intergovernmental responsibility. The existence of international organizations, such as FAO, capable of action not only at the technical but also at the political level, provides governments with the most effective machinery for framing such a policy and promoting its implementation: it is to be hoped that they will make the maximum possible use of this machinery.

Soil conservation: Some publications selected for reference

FAO - Report of the Conference on Land Utilization in Tropical Areas of Asia and the Far East. Nuwara Eliya, Ceylon, 17-29 September 1951.

FAO - Report of the Working Group on Torrent and Avalanche Control. First Session. European Forestry Commission, 28 June 8 July 1952.

FRANÇOIS, T. Grazing and Forest Economy, FAO Forestry and Forest Products Studies, No. 4, 1953.

HARPER, VERNE L. "Watershed Management in the United States", Unasylva, Vol. VII, No. 3, 1953.

HURSH, C. R. "Research in Forest Streamflow Relations," Unasylva, Vol. V. No. 1, 1951.

SEMPLE, A. T. Improving the World's Grasslands, FAO Agricultural Studies, No. 16, 1951.

UNSCCUR. - United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, Vol. I: Plenary Meetings, 1950; Vol. IV: Water Resources; Vol. V: Forest Resources; Vol. VI. Land Resources.

WATTS, LYLE F. "A Program for Rangelands." Unasylva, Vol. V. No. 2, 1951.

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