Previous PageTable of ContentsNext Page

Conference key note addresses

Strategic management for poverty alleviation of people inhabiting
problem soil areas

Rojanasoonthon, S.1


The relationship between poverty and the inability of communities to acquire basic needs to improve their standards of living is quite distinct. In most cases, the lack of water and the incapability of individuals to deal with problem soils are the major factors leading to reduced well being of the people. His Majesty the King shows His utmost innovation in using the “natural way” to address this problem. The six development study centers located strategically throughout the country signify the problem soil areas and their rectified methods to be learnt by the farmers. A strategic approach is the key factor here and stems from first hand information of the area and the need of the local people. The so called “natural way” concentrates on retaining rain water longer in the soil or inducing more water in the area as well as in the soil. Building top soil, growing more crops and trees, bring back moisture or retaining water through vetiver grasses to the soil and in the area are necessary correction measures so that agriculture is possible. The approach is also multidisciplinary in nature with various participatory actors. The “New Theory” is another attempt by His Majesty to signify a sustainable unit that people can comfortably live with enough to eat. Full concepts of sufficiency economy are needed to apply in this context. The Royal Project in the north signifies good long activities that took 36 years to develop and has a truly sustainable approach. We are successfully running parallel value chain creation, having good management in teaching the hill tribes to grow valuable crops for the market as well as maintaining sustainable natural resources and a stable environment. Once these people have the sense of belonging to the highland area the parallel value chain as practices in the Royal Project Foundation is possible. Time is a necessary constraint in this type of endeavour. Intelligence, utmost thoroughness and carefulness are needed in bringing the various fields of knowledge to be used in every step of planning and executing the work to be done. Therefore, above all, good management is indispensable in this attempt. The final outcome is nevertheless, the ability to be self reliant by the hilltribes as well as maintaining the ecological sound principles of the natural resources and environment.


Problem soils are substancial in occurrence in Thailand. Being sandy or infertile is only one of the very common conditions that influence peoples livelihood making it difficult to make a living. There are also many other soil related conditions such as saline soil, shallow soil, gravelly soil, hard pan soil, lateritic or plinthitic soil, acid sulphate soil, and many others. Many of these problem soils are the result of substantial use of the land without any rehabilitation processes being put in place. Soils become, depleted, degraded, eroded or washed away. This problem is spreading as time goes by, particularly with increasing population pressure or more mouths to feed. The situation is getting more serious, particularly when other conditions such as water crisis and related problems are escalating. Taking the problems of sandy and infertile land, production from such areas is limited, the people then, do not have enough to eat. They, finally, fall in the categories of poor or very poor. Mr. Anan Panyarachoon, a noble Thai statesman once, pointed out that there are 4 categories of conditions that relate to the poor. They are poor in money, opportunity, knowledge and life path. These are all related, being poor in one of the aforementioned condition will affect all the others. Likewise increasing one of these factors e.g. money, alone will not alleviate the poverty.

ADB reported that in the Asia and the Pacific region, there are at least 780 million people, consider poor, 57% earn less than $2 per day, and the “ultra” poor (Surarerk, 2005) with less than $1 per day amounts to 600 million people. Of all these, poor people, 300 million in India and 100 million in China. In Thailand the TDRI sets the number for the poor at 10 millions. Others think that the figure may be as high as 12 millions.

Alleviation of poverty is a very common strategy observed by most countries and international organization. How much, how far that they can achieve is one of the conditions that needs to the judged overtime using some specific indicators. In Thailand, every other government has tried their hand in poverty alleviation, usually with mixed success (Surarerk, 2005).

Thus, tropical sandy soil conditions are one of the very early causes of the problem which needs careful management. The inability to alleviate poverty in the past is due to the lack of a multidisciplinary approach, is needed for this kind of operation and management. The elaboration that follow covers the necessity of rehabilitation processes for strategic approaches.

His Majesty the King’s initiative’s has many cases studies that address soil problems and all these related activities are strongly delineated. They are all multidisciplinary in nature. The last coverage depicts the sustainable development approach as signified in the activities of the Royal Project Foundation following 36 years of experiences in development activities that have focused on the highlands, in Northern Thailand.

Rehabilitation Processes

Development for rehabilitation must take account of the local environment in terms of the physico-chemical environment, the socio-economical environment and the cultural environment. The first step in the process in to visit the location and find out what the people really want and then fully explain how they can best achieve their aims in practices. To be exact, it must answer the basic needs and improve the standard of living. The rehabilitation processes should cover the following main items.

Improvement of the soil and related factors

Constraints that affect the soil can be described are physically, chemically and biologically. If it is a sandy soil, fine material needs to be added directly or indirectly such as in case of His Majesty’s deliberation. He suggests the slow method by trying to retain rain water longer in the soil so that plant could grow on them and improve further the moisture to the soil . If it is fruit tree, finer material can be placed in the planting hole at the establishment of the tree. A U shaped row of vetiver grasses could be planted immediately on the lower slope of each tree to retain moisture longer in the soil. If in the field crop area or vegetables, leguminous crops can be ploughed in several times to improve the texture and biological factors of the sandy soil. Chemical fertilizers could be added according to the results of analyses. This “natural” way of His Majesty usually takes time but it is reasonable and sustainable. If water can be obtained more readily through reservoirs or streams, the process may be faster. Rows of vetiver grasses are quite effective in helping water retention in the soil, and thus more available to plant growth. In the sloping area where vetiver grasses rows were most effectively produce the so called “living natural wall” to check erosion. Strategy has been used to describe this.

Management of Tropical
Sandy Soils for Sustainable

Another important factor that is often neglected, is the role of social factors in influencing development. In any rehabilitation procedure, among the villagers we should find their natural leaders or encourage the formation of groups to solve their own problems and lay the foundations for being self-sufficient. It closely follows the structure of traditional Asian society which usually follows a family - like pattern in its leadership. A “father figure” who will do what ever is necessary to keep them in good health and prosperity.

His Majesty’s Approach on Multidisciplinary
Improvement of Problem Soils

This Royal Development study Center is located on sandy infertiled soils. Although the annual rainfall is as high as 1,200 mm/yr the soil can retain only half the amount of incoming precipitation. Severe erosions on open surfaces deplete all those would be nutrients of the soil. His Majesty the King pointed out that the aims should be to maintain the balance of nature and develop the soil to slowly sustain a variety of crops. Most of all to retain water longer in the soil so that the plant can grow. Vetiver grass was established, particularly along the contour lines of the hill slope. Top soil was missing due to erosion in the early stages of their development program. Leguminous green manures were ploughed in repeatedly to improve the top soil condition. His Majesty, after almost 15 years, indicated with pleasure that now the place is nice with trees, a lot of people helped to achieve this goal and now it can be a role model for the farmers. He also mentioned that earlier even cassava could not grow as these soils, now it was completely changed, and everybody was happy.

The Huai Sai the site is an excellent rehabilitating example of truly bad land. The soil is sandy infertile with salt as well as a hard pan in the subsoil. Forests had been completely destroyed and erosion were very severe. When His Majesty saw the area he said if we did nothing to it, it will turn into a desert. With limited rainfall, there was a need to store water, consequently at least four reservoirs were constructed. According to His Majesty suggestion, there were many ingenious simple procedures that would assist in preserving the top soil during cultivation. He strongly suggested the use of vetiver grass as a natural dyke deep into the soil, since vetiver produces a thick deep root system. This natural dyke would help to retain the moisture longer in the soil, thus helping trees to grow as well as other crops including vegetables.

Two important phrases were said by His Majesty to signify the important role of people participation i.e. “Forester should plant trees into the people heart first, then those people will plant trees in the ground and look after them by themselves”. Also “If you leave the forest to regenerate by itself, given enough time it will turn to be full forest in due course.”

Two other types of land with problems associated with soil for comparison can be elaborated as well:

This is an example of degraded soil in sloping areas together with sandy texture soil with gravelly laterite or phinthite pebbles. No top soil remain to

begin with, His Majesty again, pointing out that the area needs moisture in order to facilitate plant growth. Manures and green manures through leguminous plants had been repeatedly ploughed in. In addition, vetiver grass was introduced and functions very well in retention of water when planted along the contour lines. Each fruit tree was reinforced with vetiver strip along diamond shaped polders to retain more water around the trees. It should be noted here that, this type of land, shallow soil with thick gravelly laterite pebbles in Thailand cover at least 68,765 km2. Again, His Majesty and a group of soil experts finally, built up the area into a productive site once again it took more than 10 years.

Here the situation is quite different since this is the area in dominately by acid sulphate soil that a typical of low lying area in the south. The soil is very acid when dry and oxidized. His Majesty started off by visit the area and observed the yellow jarosite crytals that develop when these soil dry and oxidize, giving a very strong acid condition. He put up a very strong suggestion in tricking the soil or Klaeng Din that we should somehow, try to make an acid sulphate soil by ourselves (Vijarnsorn 2002). Nobody ever thought that this was possible. It took us almost 4 years with continuous wet and dry condition to inundate with acid water. His intention is very clear, if we can do that, then we should be able to make a reverse engineering and concurrently correct the situation of strong acid as found. The experiment was a success, it is the only one in the world. Among other things, it was from a non soil scientist, let alone being a King himself. The following recommendations were developed and offered to farmers to deal with the strongly acidic situations that common to the south. (Vijarnsorn, 2002)

  1. It is imperative to control the water level above the pyrite mud layer.
  2. Improve the soil conditions by flushing with rain water to regularly the acid from the profile. This can be significantly enhanced by the application of lime dust. It is always important to maintain the water level above the pyrite acid-prone mud layer as indicated earlier.
  3. Modifying the topography of the area either by creating a slight slope that will allow surface drainage to occur. The building of raised bunds for cultivation will assist but core must be taken not to disturb the acid mud.
  4. If possible, the whole area should be able to control water level at all time both at a desired depth and sloping surface for easier drain or wash out if desire.

The manual also give further detailed instruction for the specific cultivation of rice, vegetables, field crops and fruit trees, (Vijarnsorn, 1993)

This area, in the northeast region covers at least 33% of the whole area of Thailand and is dominated by infertile soils. These soils are deprived of nutrients being sandy and have a low ability to retain water. In many places of the northeast there are numerous geological salt layers resulting in saline soils in many of the low land areas. To be exact the overall ecological system has been destroyed. His Majesty has stressed the rebuild “developing model” for the northeast, and the utmost need for water. The study at Phu Pan, was instrumental for His Majesty’s creation of sustainable development in the form of the “New Theory”.

The main theme is watershed management, creation of water reservoirs and conservation practices. Many suggestions were made such as check dams, wet forest and wet fire line and a suggestion by His Majesty for hill tribes to grow 3 types of wood for 4 benefits etc.

To round up the whole process, Khung Kraben Bay project represents a situation were saline soils are close to the sea in Chanthaburi Province. This project is representative of environment conservation and the coastal zone ecology management. Here, mangrove restoration is promoted since it is the breeding ground of all living animals of the sea.

Overall there projects summarizes the way His Majesty sees and suggests priorities of activities dealing with integrated approaches leading to the so called “natural way”. We can summarized them as follows:

  1. Conserve top soils by not ploughing and exposing the top soil since it’s prone to erosion
  2. Finding areas where rain water can be stored and use all possible ways to retain water. Small reservoirs, check dams, diversion dams can be built, with the help of vetiver roots, moisture can be retained in the soil longer.
  3. Test plots for a bad soil situation (check plot) is needed to compare after the treatment.
  4. Retain the “after plot” for comparison. It is advisable to plant trees and vetiver strips to retain moisture as well as other possible other crops.
  5. If there is hardpan, it is advisable to use vetiver roots to open up the pan by punching holes in the pan and grow vetiver in the hole below the pan layer to assist in destroying the pan.
  6. Retain all original trees as well as introduce varieties of fast growing species.
  7. Determine the moisture holding capacity in the soil usually before planting appropriate type of trees. Control the overall level of water in canals and rivers (Bang Nara), His Majesty through their initiative has been able to contain the activity of the acid sulphate soil conditions in the south.

Strategic Approaches – Multidisciplinary in Action

Some of the very important principles that His Majesty seems to follow in his action are as follows:

“In any venture, we are willing to put in money and effort which may seem useless, but in the end we may be able to reap the fruits directly or indirectly. The government, thus, will have to invest in many of this kind of development projects if we look closer, we will see that if the people enjoy a better standard of living, have a good income the government will be able to levy more taxes and gain more credit for the country as a whole.”

His Majesty has also said “Our economy has traditionally been based upon agriculture. The national income which has contributed to creating prosperity to the country has been derived mainly from agricultural productivity. More importantly, he also stressed on the salient point that “To be successful in farming we must acquired knowledge of agriculture, marketing and elementary economics”.

Four of the major concerns that His Majesty always keep in mind are:

  1. His Majesty insists that instant prosperity can not be expected. The first step in any form of local development is for the community to be self supporting in food. Everything else is, naturally, of secondary importance.
  2. The second most important point is that His Majesty clearly understands the need to integrate all the activities connected with production. One simply cannot say that an area needs to grow e.g. vegetable, without research into the type of soil needed at the site, the amount of water available, the amount of rainfall, the demand of the market, the distant to the market etc.
  3. The third point concerns the transfer of technology. His Majesty creates the idea of setting up centres of development study so that the centres will function as living museums for the farmers. The centres integrate the results of the study into models of development which people can take as examples and apply it to their daily lives. All of the six development study sites situated mostly in area with their own typical problem soils. Thus, the farmers can learn directly on the problem solving criteria in any particular area.
  4. Most of the problems stem from the inability to realize that you can not singly approach the problem. Only multidisciplinary or holistic approach is possible to remedy them in totally. In integrated, sustainable development, people participation is important. A good leader of a group of people in the lead with good followers should be identified. The ability to function properly in integration, take the precedent of activities and fitting jigsaw puzzle together at appropriate time is significant. It is a must and of course, it is part of the strategic management that should apply and operate in each situation accordingly.

One of the studies relating to economic self reliance of the rural people (TISTR, 1995) cover quite well the integration of major factors including social factors which make the integration more complete.

It is important to realize that impoverished people lack many things. A study on economic self-reliance of rural people (TISTR, 1995) came to the conclusion that there are 5 main factors that affect rural people. These conditions we call TERMS for short and it covers the following: Technology, Economics, Resources, Mind and Social condition. All these factors are commonly related and integrated therefore a lack one of these factors will normally lower the other four factors. The dominant condition of resources, in this case, sandy infertile soils, usually results in two important effects i.e. low water holding capacity for cropping and they are usually infertile due to a lack of nutrients. If you have your mind set on making thing better i.e. to improve the soil by enriching them with nutrients together with a process of adding organic matters and finer materials (clay). We should try to grow crops on them, particularly leguminous i.e. if we have enough water. It is thus, an indirect way to moisten up the soil but it is one of the necessities to building up soil quality for sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable Development-Definition

World commission on Environment and Development (1983) gives definition of sustainable development as follows:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs”

In Thailand, the definition used by the committee attending international meeting on sustainable development at Johannesberg (2002) set the definition as follows:

“Sustainable development in the Thai context is the development that relies on holistic nature with all aspects being equally. It is based on factors of natural resources, Thai local wisdom and culture together with participation from all sectors concerned and shows respect to each other. In particular, it should have the ability to become self-reliance and be just as good in quality of life as others.

One concise version of sustainable development is from our imminent monk Payutto (1998) “A development that has ability to maintain explicit balance between human activities and the law of nature”. He gave also good explanation of 3 key words in sustainable development as follow. Sustainable development has a characteristic of integration i.e. make it holistic which mean all related components must integrate in total. Another characteristic is, it should have balance or make explicitly balance between human activities and the law of nature.

The National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) has spent considerable effort in promoting the concept of sustainable development (seminar in sustainable development in Thai context, 2002) that finally resulted in the definition as follow:

“Development that creates balance in all measures of socio-economic, natural resources and environment as well as enhancing long lasting good quality of life for all people.”

Rojanasoonthon (2003) introduce a condition called “Dynamic Equilibrium” to signify the ability to change each time environment at factors change. This is paramount to sustainability. This aspect occurs continually with various lengths of time before it reaches a new equilibrium. Finally, Rojanasoonthon (2003) indicated that sustainable development is “Any strategy for development that contains ample ability to balance all change factors in natural resources, socio-economic and culture. That ability is called dynamic equilibrium. Any development that has there attributes is called sustainable development”.

To sum up, sustainable development needs to cover 3 main factors i.e. environment, economics and social.

Once the philosophy of thinking is basis on the culture of giving or teaching. The order of precedence is incorrect along such hierarchy. Since in real life however, the paradigm may be more correctly focused on the culture of seek or research before giving and teaching. His Majesty the King took such precedence seriously and was always prepared to find out or seek for himself by talking to local people and making first hand visits to the affected areas. His Majesty’s decision therefore is based on sound factors affecting existing problems. Appropriate solutions are then applied, taking full account of all influencing factors. One of His Majesty approach towards sustainable development falls under the concept of the “New Theory”, a philosophy that centres on. His Majesty tries to have sustainable agriculture for the farmers. The components should be simple and practical, with the connotation of the principle of a sufficiency economy. That is moderate and reasonable. The major issue is thus, the necessity of having an adequate internal immune system against any impacts caused by both external and internal changes.

The New Theory starts with the average holding of 15 rai (1 ha = 6.25 rai), the lowest possible area required to be sustainable (5 rai for rice field, 5 rai for horticultural crops, 3 rai for pond or reservoir and 2 rai for house) His Majesty said also that “the New Theory must be implemented in places where it is suitable for example Khao Wong District, Kalasin Province”. Certain adaptations are possible for example in many places, water is not available or unreliable and the conditions, therefore are not sustainable for this design.

The importance of time is crucial for sustainability since adjustment as the result of various factors need different time intervals in adjusting to reach another equilibrium. For the new situation certain change may occur. For Khao Hin Son it took 15-20 years before the King was satisfied with what he saw. For another 3 places, Huai Sai, Khao Cha-Ngum and Phikun Thong, it took about similar time span. For Royal Project Foundation, of which we think it had all the conditions of true sustainable development, until now it is 36 years. Giuseppe di Gennaro, UNFDAC executive director in the early 1980, wrote himself (Renard, 2001), on a meeting he had with King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 30 June 1982. The King said that according to his point of view at least 30 years would be required to complete the task (work on the highland). Gennaro wrote that he argued with the King and stated that a long time frame such as that would not encourage financial support from external donors. The King listened in silence and Gennaro was so assured that he had change His Majesty’s mind. He finally admitted that he was completely wrong. It was proven, by the fact that His Majesty knew even then that to make the hill tribes better off, grow no opium, cut no trees and even look after the forest. It took time as well to get all collective efforts for help from many people, many organizations in order to reach that goal. His estimation was 30 years at least.

Royal Project originated from His Majesty the King’s private study in 1969 following his visits to the hill tribes in the North of Thailand. For almost four decades the Royal Project under the directorship of H.S.H. Prince Bhisatej Rajani has successfully fulfilled His Majesty’s wish by placing emphasis mainly on R&D through marketing which lead to the proper cultivation of crops for opium substitution in the highland. Better standards of living of the tribes has been conceived which resulted in their willingness to look after the forest and watersheds. In 1992, the Royal Project Foundation was setup through a Royal Command purposely to render services effectively with permanent budget allocation. The project is now helping the hill tribes to help themselves in growing useful crops to sell in the market under “Doi Kham” brand and enable them to continue striving for better standards of living.

The Foundation has 3 major roles in doing research with 4 research stations, development and technology transfer through 37 development centres throughout the north covering 5 provinces (Chiang Mai, Lampoon, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Payao). In all we look after about 100,000 people in 306 villages covering about 2,000 km2. In the market, our produce is marketed under the trade name of “Doi Kham” are safe with good quality. We have about 41 types of fruits (mostly temperate) about 67 kind of flowers and almost 137 varieties of vegetables and herbs. At present, our top vegetable products are sent to Thai International kitchen. We also airfreight vegetables and herbs to Singapore on a regular basis.

One of the attempts by the Royal Project Foundation is to deal with integrated factors in the highland is to use the computer based tool for modeling and simulation to process copious data in the highland. The project was setup in 1997 with the Australian National University which was sponsored by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). The Thai side by the Royal Project Foundation through Royal Thai government supports with full cooperation from various government agencies and universities i.e. Kasetsart, Chiang Mai and Mae Jo Universities and Forestry, Agriculture, National Park, Land Development Departments. The project is called IWRAM-DSS (Integrated Water Resources Assessment and Management Decision Support System). This flexible decision supports system software development methodology deal mainly with hydrology model, erosion model, crop model and socio-economic model. This IWRAM project can be applied to other river catchment, resource environment and promote its use by key stakeholder agencies (Jakeman, A. et al. 2005)

Management of Tropical
Sandy Soils for Sustainable

With 36 years of service up on the highland of the north, we now have enough time on our side for sustainable practice. The Royal Project has performed and continued to perform our original objectives in elevating the hill tribes standard of living as well as help them to help themselves. Most importantly, we are keeping a watchful eye on the natural resources and environment. Strict conservation practices on sloping land are observed. In fact, agriculture is preferred on the lower slope and flatland. Correct land use planning is applied. On sloping land, practices such as terracing, hill side ditch, orchard terrace, check dams, wet fire line, wet forest and many others conservation practices are commonly used. His Majesty has strongly recommended the use of vetiver grasses which have deep and profusely roots to reduce erosion and retain moisture longer in the soil. Roads or transporting routes were constructed and now connected to most of our development centres.

We are now, running parallel value chain creation. On one hand we are competing to produce best produce for the market and on the other hand we are looking after the sustainable environment and natural resources on the highland. Considering that we operate on the roof of Thailand, so our position there is significant and necessary. His Majesty even made a speech on such issue, by introducing a successful project dealing with opium replacement crops and stop the hill tribes from slash and burn practices. Then, we can retain them in one place, have a reasonable life also they help us to look after the forest and soil. The benefit occurring therefore will be significant and long lasting or in fact, sustainable.


Records show that whenever there is a case where people can not make a living out of the land are two main factors that we should take into account. i.e. soil and water. Water is normally quite apparent, but with soil the problem may not be so evidence. Attacking the soil problem solely, normally will not yield long lasting result. The approach has to be more of multidisciplinary in nature, problems are mostly related and integrated. This kind of dispute needs a somewhat “natural” approach such as outline by His Majesty’s direct involvement in many of the examples delineated. One thing is certain, it normally will take time and we have to see into it that this factor has been taken as a necessity. Other factors that are always missing is the involvement of local people in the area together with the socio-economic factors which need to be taken into account from the start. A sense of belonging is quite important for the participation of the local stakeholders. Integration of various activities also involves many people and many authorities. Sustainability do need adjustment and dynamic equilibrium (ability to readjust as situation change).

Management of Tropical
Sandy Soils for Sustainable

His Majesty’s concept on sufficiency economy specify moderation or reasonableness, including the necessity of having an adequate internal immune system against any impact caused by both external and internal changes is the main force behind sustainability.

Intelligence, utmost thoroughness and carefulness are needed in bringing the various fields of knowledge to be used in every step of planning and executing the work to be done. Therefore, above all good management is indispensable in this endeavor.

The very final question of all activities relating to people on development is: “Are they self reliant?” and may be we should add also “Are our natural resources still intact?” Again, it will be undoubtedly double our assurance if we have positive answers to both questions. Then, we can say that, we have real sustainable development.


Hengchaovanich D. 1998. Vetiver grass for slop stabilization and erosion control. Pacific, Rim Vetiver Network Tech. Bull. 1998/2 pp. 4-16.

Jakeman, A., R. Letcher, S. Rojanasoonthon and S. Cuddy ed. 2005. Integrated Knowledge for River Basin Management. ACIAR Monograph No. 118, 220 p.

Land Development Dept. 2004 . “Chom Part Hank Karn Patana Tee Din” (The Great Sage of Land Development) Land Development Department. Mn. of Agriculture and Cooperative 62 p.

National Identity Office, 1996. Prapat Thon Bon Doi (Royal visits on hill) Setup of the Royal Project. Office of the Prime Mnister, Thailand, Amarin Printing, 300 p.

National Identity Office, 2000. King Bhumibol, Strength of the Land. Office of the Prime Minister, Thailand, Amarin Printing, 430 p.

National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) 2003. Sustainable Development in Thai Context. Yearly meeting. Muangthongtani Nonthaburi, 85 p.

Renard, R.D. 2001. Opium Reduction in Thailand 1970-2001: a 30 year journey. UN International Drug Control Programme. Bangkok. Silkworm. 119 p.

Rojanasoonthon, S. 2001. The Royal Project Foundation, Regional Seminar on Alternative Development for Illicit Crop Eradication, Taunggyi, Myanmar. United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) p. 83-86.

Rojanasoonthon, S. and I. Kheoraunrom 2003. Tropical Soil Science: realities and challenges. Keynote lectures Soil Science: confronting new realities in the 21st century. In World Congress of Soil Science Sirikit Convention Centre. 14-21 August 2002 pp. 87-101.

Royal Development Project Board. 1977. Concepts and Theory of His Majesty the King on Development. RDPB-DTEC-UNDP. Bangkok. Thailand. 21st Century Co.300 p.

Soil and Water Conservation Society of Thailand 2003. Special issue on vetiver a miracle plant. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 18(3) p. 1-80

Surarerk V. et al. 2005. Government Strategies and Participatory Poverty Alleviation in Northern Thailand. National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) Monograph 454 p.

Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research.(TISTR) 1995. Economic self-reliance of the rural Thai people. National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) Monograph (in Thai)

Vijarnsorn, P. et al. 1993. Handbook. Improvement of acid soil for agriculture uses. Pikunthong. Royal Development Study Centre, Narathiwat, Thailand. (in Thai).

Vijarnsorn, Phisoot S., S. Rojanasoonthon and P. Srijantr. 2002 His Majesty the King’s initiation on improvement of acid sulphate soil in Thailand: the Klaeng Din Project. 17th. World Congress of Soil Science 14-21 August 2002 Bangkok, Thailand. (Abstracts Volume V Symposia 53-65) Symposium no 63, Paper no 2333.

1 Royal Project Foundation, Kasetsart University, Bangkhen, Bangkok 10900, Thailand

Poor soils make poor people and poor people make the soil worse

Alfred E. Hartemink1

Keywords: soil science, population growth, food production


Throughout the world there is a strong evidence to support the link between poverty and soil conditions. In subsistence agriculture the wealth of people on low fertility sandy soils is much lower than those living on rich volcanic soils. But there are great differences between regions in the world and this talk focuses on historical developments in soil research in tropical and temperate regions. One-third of the soils of the world are situated in the tropics and as such support more than three-quarters of the world population, yet more is known about the soil resources of the temperate regions than these important soils of the topics. Since the Second World War, soil research has immensely contributed to crop production increases in the temperate regions and the discipline has greatly benefited from new instrumentation and developments in other sciences. Soil research in tropical regions started later and its scope has not changed much: the feeding of the growing population, land degradation and nutrient management remain important research themes. The amount of research in environmental protection, soil contamination and ecosystem health is relatively limited. Mineral surpluses are a major concern in many temperate soils under agriculture whereas the increase of soil fertility is an important research topic in many tropical regions. The impact of soil research on poverty alleviation, crop production or rural livelihoods will be discussed.


Soil science is a relatively young science that emerged some 150 years ago. It developed in Europe, North America and the Russian Empire (Kellogg, 1974). Soil surveys started in sparsely populated areas where there was ample land for farm extension and thus a clear need for soil inventories (e.g. Russian Empire and the USA). In more densely populated Western Europe where land was relatively scarce research efforts were devoted to maintain and improve soil conditions, and in most European countries soil survey organizations were only established after the Second World War. Soil science has always had a strong focus on increasing agricultural production needed for an increasing human population (van Baren et al., 2000). One could argue that the focus of attention of soil research was related to the availability of land driven by human population pressures.

The increase in human population has been phenomenal with dramatic increases over the 100 years and has resulted in a continuous debate on man’s role and impact on the earth. Much of the debate is related to food production, poverty and the environmental effects of increased land use pressure due to a growing population. Different views on the effects of a growing human population have been published and in this paper some of the arguments are discussed including an overview of facts and figures. The aim of this paper is to provide a brief historical overview of studies on the relation between soil science, population growth and food production. Much has been written about these subjects and this paper is not aiming to review all available literature, but to summarize some of the major outcomes from such studies in order to sketch the main trends and developments. It starts at the end of the 18th century -which is some decades before soil science emerged.

Human population growth

Global population hardly changed up to 1000 BC and slightly decreased in medieval times (Figure 1). The real increase started from 1650 onwards when global population passed through the “J-bend” of the exponential growth curve. Population growth remained below 0.5% up to 1800 and was about 0.6% in the 19th century. In the first half of the 20 century growth was 1%, but the largest rate occurred in the second half of the 20th century when the world population grew over 2% in a few years.

Management of Tropical
Sandy Soils for Sustainable

Figure 1. World population estimates for the years – 10,000 BC to 2000 and the years 0 to 2000. Based on reconciliation of published data

The main reason for the exponential increase in human population since the 1600s is science and technology – in particular medical, industrial and agricultural sciences. The conquest of infectious diseases in infancy and childhood and other medical inventions are the main contributors to the exponential growth of the human population. Another factor is the decline in traditional breastfeeding practices by urbanisation and by the premature introduction of animal milk or infant milk (Short, 1998). Also the increase in food production in Europe in the 17th and 18th century due to advanced cultural techniques (ploughing, liming) and more stable societies resulted in an increase in human population. Important inventions like the acidulation of bones by J.B. Lawes and technological marvels like the Haber-Bosch process that allowed the industrial production of urea indirectly caused a large increase in the European population.

Since 1950, the world population has grown almost linearly. Official statistics have shown that the annual increase in human population was 85 million in the late 1980s and had decreased to 80 million per year in 1995 (Smil, 1999). Currently the world population is growing by 1.3% per year, which is significantly less than the 2.0% growth rate of the late 1960s. Population growth has been different in different regions. More than 80% of the population lives in developing regions, and Asia accounts for 61% of the world total. Two out of five people in the world live either in China or India. According to the population division of the United Nations, Africa’s population is now larger than that of Europe but in 1960 Africa had less than half Europe’s population.

There are great differences in the age distribution of different countries. This is illustrated in Figure 2 where the age distribution of the population of New Zealand (top) and Uganda (bottom) is shown. Such uneven distributions may be further aggrevated by Aids and other infectious diseases that dramatically affect national population pyramids.

Management of Tropical
Sandy Soils for Sustainable

Figure 2. Population age distribution of Uganda (top) and New Zealand (bottom)

It has been estimated that the world population would be 9.4 billion by 2050. Fischer and Heilig (1997) estimated that the average population increase between now and 2015 is 80 million per year which will decrease to around 50 million per year in 2050. Doubling of the human population by 2050 is therefore unlikely and the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs has also lowered its forecast to 8.9 billion in 2050 as global population growth is slowing down (Lutz et al., 1997; Smil, 1999). About one-third of this drop is due to the unexpectedly dire ravages of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Population growth is also slowing down due to a change of attitude in the developing world, which accounts for over 95% of the population growth. In 1969, people in the developing world had an average of six children compared to three today. The population keeps on growing, however, because more babies survive and old people live longer and in Africa each women has on average five children. By 2050, there will be three times as many people in Africa than in Europe.

A new focus of attention is developing in demographic studies and in Western Europe and the USA the focus of the public, political and scientific debate has shifted from global population growth to population ageing (Lutz et al., 1997). Two hundred years after Malthus’ essay that is quite a shift of focus – at least for those parts of the world where food is ample. The fear exists that the issue of ageing will detract the much-needed attention from those areas in the world where populations keep on increasing, hunger is widespread and a higher food production is needed to nourish current and future generations. That combination is mostly found in developing countries in tropical regions.

Food production and soil science

More food needs to be produced when the population grows if starvation is to be avoided. In the absence of massive food relocation, the extra food needs to come from either the available land through intensification, better crop husbandry practises and new high yielding varieties (yield increases) or through taking more land into production (area increases). Both production increase and area increase depend on a thorough knowledge of the soil and technological applications of this knowledge. Soil science, being essentially an interdisciplinary and applied science, has a long tradition of considering increased food production for the growth of the human population.

Soil erosion emerged in the first half of the 20th century as an obvious factor affecting food production in relation to the expanding human population. In the USA the question whether sufficient food could be produced for a growing population followed the “dustbowls” in the 1930s caused by severe erosion by wind. One of the first global overviews of soil erosion was prepared by Jacks and Whyte (1939) titled “The rape of the earth - A world survey of soil erosion”. They concluded: the world food production was seriously affected if erosion would remain unchecked.

After the Second World War when international organisations such as the FAO were established and many countries were aiming at independence, the feeding of the growing population became an important area of research. Increasing food production was a concern in Western Europe because of the devastation after the war and the baby boom. Fortunately, science came out of the war with high status and was overall respected (Tinker, 1985). There was great optimism and positivism in the 1950s and agricultural research rapidly expanded. Most, if not all, agricultural research was directed towards agricultural production, which increased dramatically thanks to technological developments and major investments in agricultural infrastructure. Even though the term “green revolution” is mostly being reserved for agricultural production in developing countries, it could apply as well to post-war agriculture in Western Europe (Bouma and Hartemink, 2002). There is no doubt that soil science played an important role in the increase of agricultural productivity, and Malthus would have been correct predicting that population growth would outstrip food supplies but for the discoveries of soil scientists (Greenland, 1991).

Various books and journal articles have reviewed the history and developments in soil science (Greenwood, 1993; Hartemink, 2002; Russell and Williams, 1977; van Baren et al., 2000; Yaalon and Berkowicz, 1997). In addition, detailed reviews on developments in soil chemistry (Sparks, 2001), soil physics (Raats, 2001), soil microbiology (Insam, 2001), soil variation (Heuvelink and Webster, 2001) were recently published. These reviews all show the enormous progress that has been made in our understanding of the fundamentals of soil properties and processes. At the same time the reviews show in which areas (e.g. agriculture or the environment) soil science has made major contributions.

Lal (Lal, 2001) summarized the cause of increased food demand in the 19th and 20th century and a number of causes were related to the soil and its management: ploughing, terracing, soil erosion control, irrigation and soil fertility management through manure and inorganic fertilizers. Mermut and Eswaran, 2001 reviewed the developments in soil survey and mapping, soil technology, soil microscopy, pedology and classification of soils, and the mineral and organic components of soils. Several technologies have emerged from these developments including agroforestry, conservation tillage and precision agriculture. Major progress has been made in environmental soil science, and soil science has also been instrumental in studies on land degradation and sustainable use of natural resources and in studies on carbon cycling and sequestration (Mermut and Eswaran, 2001).

Future outlook for food production

The world produces more than enough food at present to feed everyone, but nevertheless many people still starve or are undernourished (Latham, 2000). In absolute terms the world already produces enough food to feed ten billion people but the problem is that most of it is fed to animals. It is poverty and not a physical shortage of food that is the primary cause of hunger in the world (Buringh, 1982; Latham, 2000; Pinstrup-Andersen, 1998). Additional problems are inequitable distribution of food supplies, spoilage and other losses between production and consumption, politics (Ross, 1999) and war and trading policies. Many international aid programmes aim to alleviate poverty for it is the main cause for hunger and environmental degradation (McCalla, 1999). So total global food production is not a good indicator, or as Dudal stated: It is not enough for the world as a whole to have the capability of feeding itself, it is necessary to produce more food where it is needed (Dudal, 1982).

Between 1960 and 2000 the world population doubled. But the green revolution during that period brought about substantial increase in food production and quality, these increases resulted from better varieties, improved irrigation and drainage, increased fertiliser use, improved pest and weed control, advances in food storage and transport, increased area under agriculture (Ross, 1999). The impact of land degradation on food productivity is largely unknown. In addition there is the loss of land to non-agricultural use which is high (Buringh, 1982). There is also limited extra land to bring into production (Eswaran et al., 1999; Young, 1999) which is contrary to predictions made in earlier studies (e.g. Buringh et al., 1975; Meadows et al., 1972).

Prospects for increasing food production depend on improved technologies, a biotechnological revolution, widening of food sources (e.g. sea weed), more land in production (Ross, 1999). Doubling yields in complex and intensive farming systems without damaging the environment is a significant challenge (McCalla, 1999). Progress towards a ‘greener agriculture’ will come from continued improvements in modern high-yield crop production methods combined with sophisticated use of both inorganic and organic nutrient sources, water, crop germplasm, pest management and beneficial organisms (Sinclair and Cassman, 1999).

An important consideration when discussing food production and population growth is under­nourishment, which is referred to by FAO as the status of persons whose food intake does not provide enough calories to meet their basic energy requirements (FAO, 2000). In 1999, FAO estimated the incidence of under­nourishment in the developing countries at some 800 million persons or 18% of the population. It was 960 million in the late 1960s, or 37% of the population (FAO, 2000). Projections indicate that it will decrease to 576 million by 2015, and to 401 million by 2030. So both absolutely and relatively the number of undernourished people is on the decline and projections for the future show improvement although hundreds of millions people remain undernourished in the future. Much depends on political resolutions and will-power but if all resources are harnessed, and adequate measures taken to minimise soil degradation, sufficient food to feed the population in 2020 can be produced, and probably sufficient for a few billion more (Greenland et al., 1997).


Bouma, J. and Hartemink, A.E., 2002. Soil science and society in the Dutch context. Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science, 50(2): 133-140.

Buringh, P. , 1982. Potentials of world soils for agricultural production, 12th International Congress of Soil Science. ISSS, New Delhi, pp. 33-41.

Buringh, P., van Heemst, H.D.J. and Staring, G.J., 1975. Computation of the absolute maximum food production of the world. Agricultural University, Department of Tropical Soil Science, Wageningen.

Dudal, R., 1982. Land degradation in a world perspective. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 37: 245-249.

Eswaran, H., Beinroth, F.H. and Reich, P., 1999. Global land resources and population-supporting capacity. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 14: 129-136.

FAO, 2000. Agriculture: Towards 2015/30. Technical Interim Report, April 2000, Rome.

Fischer, G. and Heilig, G.K., 1997. Population momentum and the demand on land and water resources. In: D.J. Greenland, P.J. Gregory and P.H. Nye (Editors), Land resources: on the edge of the Malthusian precipice? The Royal Society, London, pp. 869-889.

Greenland, D.J., 1991. The contributions of soil science to society – past, present, and future. Soil Science, 151: 19-23.

Greenland, D.J., Gregory, P.J. and Nye, P.H., 1997. Introduction and conclusions. In: D.J. Greenland, P.J.

Gregory and P.H. Nye (Editors), Land resources: on the edge of the Malthusian precipice? The Royal Society, London, pp. 861-867.

Greenwood, D.J., 1993. The changing scene of British soil science. Journal of Soil Science, 44(2): 191-207.

Hartemink, A.E., 2002. Soil science in tropical and temperate regions – Some differences and similarities. Advances in Agronomy, 77: 269-292.

Heuvelink, G.B.M. and Webster, R., 2001. Modelling soil variation: past, present, and future. Geoderma, 100 (3-4): 269-301.

Insam, H., 2001. Developments in soil microbiology since the mid-1960s. Geoderma, 100(3-4): 389-402.

Jacks, G.V. and Whyte, R.O., 1939. The rape of the earth – A world survey of soil erosion. Faber and Faber Ltd., London.

Kellogg, C.E., 1974. Soil genesis, classification, and cartography: 1924-1974. Geoderma, 12: 347-362.

Lal, R., 2001. Managing world soils for food security and environmental quality. Advances in Agronomy, 74: 155-192.

Latham, J.R., 2000. There’s enough food for everyone, but the poor can’t afford to buy it. Nature, 404(6775): 222.

Lutz, W., Sanderson, W. and Scherbov, S., 1997. Doubling of world population unlikely. Nature, 387(6635): 803-805.

McCalla, A.F., 1999. The challenge of food security in the 21st century. TAA Newsletter, 19: 12-19.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. and Behrens, W.W., 1972. Limits to growth. A report for the club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. Universe Books, New York.

Mermut, A.R. and Eswaran, H., 2001. Some major developments in soil science since the mid-1960s. Geoderma, 100(3-4): 403-426.

Pinstrup-Andersen, P., 1998. Food security and sustainable use of natural resources. Ecological Economics, 26: 1-10.

Raats, P.A.C., 2001. Developments in soil-water physics since the mid-1960s. Geoderma, 100(3-4): 355-387.

Ross, C., 1999. Can we feed the world in 2020? New Zealand Soil News, 47: 137-141.

Russell, D.A. and Williams, G.G., 1977. History of chemical fertilizer development. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 41: 260-265.

Short, R., 1998. An essay on the principle of population, by T.R. Malthus. Nature, 395(6701): 456-456.

Sinclair, T.R. and Cassman, K.G., 1999. Green revolution still too green. Nature, 398(6728): 556.

Smil, V., 1999. How many billions to go? Nature, 401(6752): 429.

Sparks, D.L., 2001. Elucidating the fundamental chemistry of soils: past and recent achievements and future frontiers. Geoderma, 100(3-4): 303-319.

Tinker, P.B., 1985. Soil science in a changing world. Journal of Soil Science, 36: 1-8.

van Baren, J.H.V., Hartemink, A.E. and Tinker, P.B., 2000. 75 Years The International Society of Soil Science. Geoderma, 96: 1-18.

Yaalon, D.H. and Berkowicz, S. (Editors), 1997. History of soil science – International perspectives. Catena Verlag, Reiskirchen, 438 pp.

Young, A., 1999. Is there really spare land? A critique of estimates of available cultivable land in developing countries. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1: 3-18.

1 ISRIC – World Soil Information, P.O. Box 353, 6700 AJ Wageningen, The Netherlands, E-mail: alfred.hartemink@

Previous PageTop of PageNext Page