International Approaches to Erosion

March 1, 2004
As Donna Blankinship notes in her article on the International Arid Lands Consortium, research in land use and erosion control is under way in many parts of the world, sometimes with unlikely partners crossing political boundaries to solve mutual dilemmas. And although US government agencies, universities, and private companies sometimes are partners in this research, much of the work taking place outside the US has a very different character from that going on within: different materials, different techniques, and vastly different degrees of government oversight.The US has a well-established regulatory framework stretching back decades in an attempt to achieve some sort of balance between development and environmental stewardship. The complex series of laws and the threat of punishments for not complying, in fact, provide more incentive for some than does any real concern about the effects of erosion and sedimentation and other types of degradation. By contrast, in some countries where environmental problems seem most urgent, people daily are weighing good stewardship against their very livelihoods. Long-term investment in sustainable practices seems like an unaffordable luxury.The devastating and often fatal floods and landslides we read about around the globe have different causes, but it’s usually easy (if not always entirely reflective of the whole picture) to point to a main culprit or two. Landslides in Venezuela that destroyed entire towns in December 1999? The result of poor land-management practices that allowed massive logging operations and deforestation. Deadly flooding in Mozambique in the spring of 2000? The product of overgrazing and loss of wetlands. Mudslides in southern California in the last days of 2003? The aftermath of wildfires months earlier that (at least some argue) would have been less severe if more logging of large trees had been allowed.But, government and corporate policy aside, it’s the small actions of individuals that can add up to create just as large an effect. In Haiti, for example, where less than 2% of forested lands remain, yearly rains cause greater erosion and damage with each passing year. Such groups as the Haitian Environmental Foundation are teaching farmers about soil conservation practices they can afford and implement, including use of contour ridges, hedgerows, and intercropping. But the foundation also sees that poor soil conservation practices don’t even begin to account for the country’s real erosion problems. With widespread unemployment, thousands of people are cutting trees-“wood poaching, ” the government calls it, stationing guards as if to protect a wildlife refuge-simply to make a little money by selling the wood charcoal. The compelling need for food, shelter, and fuel takes precedence over any lofty ideas of sustaining the environment, and after all, what’s the harm in felling just one more tree, when it can provide enough money to survive on for several more weeks?Managing the land requires understanding not only soil characteristics and hydrology but also land-use practices, the political climate, and day-to-day practices of the people living on it. The Haitian Environmental Foundation is looking to the society at large and taking steps that at first glance have little to do with soil conservation. Realizing that wood and wood charcoal account for more than 70% of the country’s fuel, the foundation is helping develop alternatives, such as briquettes made from compressed recycled paper. Some of Haiti’s largest burners of wood are bakeries, as it turns out-and the foundation is paying to help many of them convert to ovens that use propane or other fuels instead. It’s also promoting tree-planting-more than half a million a year. Public education, as everywhere, is a key component of change, but knowing that what you’re doing is harming the environment and selling out the country’s future isn’t much use unless you can see another option.As IECA members from all over the world gather in Philadelphia for the 2004 annual conference, we’ll be sharing projects and awarding scholarships to students in resource conservation fields. It’s a perfect opportunity to step back and look beyond the erosion control practices and dynamics in our own countries to find out what others are accomplishing through traditional, or unexpected, practices.