United for soil health

soil health

Combating land degradation and building soil health needs a holistic approach that brings scientific findings together with the knowledge held by farmers.

For instance, to judge soil health, scientists typically analyse it for organic matter content, levels of nutrients available to plants, acidity or alkalinity, texture, and so forth. To determine the same thing, farmers often use the look and feel of the soil, how easy it is to plough, and the types of native plants and small organisms living in it.

“Taken together, these ‘technical’ and ‘local’ indicators give us a more comprehensive picture of soil health, which can allow us to predict how well the soil can be expected to sustain agricultural production, as well as the delivery of the numerous other ecosystem services the soil provides to society, into the future,” says Edmundo Barrios, land and soil management scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

This integration of knowledge is the focus of a recently released methodological guide titled InPaC-S: Participatory Knowledge Integration on Indicators of Soil Quality. The six-chapter volume is designed to guide workshops and fieldwork that unites farmers and technical professionals in designing—together—farming solutions that support soil health andtake into account farmers’ realities and challenges.

The guide was originally published in Portuguese and has been successfully applied in Mozambique through South–South collaboration with Brazil. The English version was released earlier this year and has already been applied in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

“By marrying local and technical knowledge, farmers and technical professionals can together arrive at locally appropriate agroecology principles and soil management options for particular farming conditions. These options fit the local knowledge held by farmers into a conceptual framework based on findings from scientific research,” says Barrios, the book’s lead author. “The methodology has the advantage of being systematic yet flexible. This means it can be replicated in many different locations around the world,” he adds.

The publication emphasizes that soil degradation in agricultural land is often caused by a complex set of conditions, including poor selection of crops and cropping systems, policies related to land tenure, as well as various types of incentives or hindrances to sustainable farming practices.

“Can a farmer afford or gain access to chemical fertilizers and organic nutrient inputs? What types of usage rights do they have on their land? All these things influence their adoption of practices that enhance soil health,” says  Barrios.

Beyond helping with diagnosing soil constraints, the InPaC-S guidebook discusses soil management principles and provides a number of short-, medium- and long-term options for addressing some of the most commonly encountered soil problems like erosion, compaction and acidity.

Another aim of the InPaC-S methodological framework is to strengthen local institutions that support rural communities in making decisions related to soil management. The hope is that such institutions can continue to independently apply the participatory techniques into the future. According to Barrios, such capacity building aspect is key, since soil health monitoring is a continuous process, and not a one-time activity.

There is everything to be gained from healthy soils: Besides being vital for the production of food and natural commodities, the soil provides ecosystem services by recycling nutrients, storing carbon, regulating the availability and quality of water,  helping to decompose contaminants, regulating pests and diseases…

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