We, humans, are known to be the greatest ecological offenders of all times after natural catastrophes. Our angst and poverty can be traced, at least in part, to our relation to our environment, especially to the soil.
Soil sustains natural vegetation and animal life. We construct our buildings with soil, and on soil. Soil supplies us with water, minerals and energy. Our roads pass over soil, yet we have weakened ourselves with ecological malpractices that have caused devastating landslides, droughts, floods, poor crop yields and famine.
When forests area are cleared and burned and land wrested from it for cultivation, all nutrients essential for plant growth – organic matter, nitrates and soluble salts – are lost due to erosion, leaching and oxidation.
Soil scientists have also observed, and concluded, that soils bared of natural vegetation cover bear less organic matter due to high temperatures than those under vegetation cover, and so are less fertile. Soil, once stripped of its fertility, finds it difficult to recover its original high content of organic matter. Soils take more than 50 years to regain even just minimal fertility.
Poor management of the soil – cutting down forest cover, overgrazing, poor drainage, application of toxic chemical fertilizers, slashing and burning – accelerate the collapse of the soil system. By cutting down entire forests to provide wood for fuel and construction materials, we often ignore the need for continued productivity of the soil and vegetations. Desperate, we then turn to caustic modern technologies and produce rapid results chemicals to increase speedily the productivity of the soil, which subsequently kill the soil.
The slash-and-burn method of agriculture is so wasteful of soil fertility that as the population of humans expand way beyond the carrying capacity of land, we face only doom.
For many years, Cameroon rural communities farmed their fields using methods hostile to the soil and these helped to destroy soil organisms and nutrients essential for plant growth. Then crops began to appear less and less healthy and produce fewer and fewer yields. Farmers became disenchanted and began turning to chemical substances manufactured in factories to fertilize their crops. For a while, the crops responded to these seemingly friendly chemicals and produced abundantly. The farmers became obsessed by this new magic. As a result, a virtual “fertilizermania” broke out among farmers, big and small. Anything crop grown with artificial fertilizer would bring fabulous prices on the market. No one then was scrupulous on inquiring about the impact of artificial fertilizer on the health of the soil and on humans, and consequently the performance of the crops in the long run. Cancer and other chain of diseases are caused by chemical fertilisers.
This sort of modern farming practice encouraged the Cameroon rural killers’ of the soil use of artificial fertilizers, who needed little encouragement, anyway. Much of the exquisite soils were melted down for quick yields. Even virgin soils were stripped of their natural vegetation thereby losing much of their values to fires, cutlasses, axes, chainsaws, toxic chemicals and erosion. So the flood of quick high yields increased the admiration of chemical fertilizer and slash-and-burn, but did little to maintain the fertility of the soil.
Since chemical fertilizers seemed to turn up high yields without any pedigree, a thriving market for them developed. The chemical fertilizers became the prized possession of farmers until serious doubt was cast on their sustainability. Today they are looking up to more cautious land use and organic farming.
By overlooking the hazards of misusing land and its resources, we doom later generations to disastrous environmental conditions such as infertile soils, erosion, landslides, floods and droughts to name just this few. Guilty as we are of poor land management, we continue to cut down agricultural production at our own peril by chopping down entire forests to provide wood for fuel and for construction, we ignore the need for continued productivity of the forests and the soils. We can learn lessons from past ecological disasters caused by man’s careless use of the soil.
Technology may permit us to reap more from our environment in a short time but does not guarantee sustainable long-term benefits.