In dry and unreliable weather, Indian farmers restore arid land

By SIBI ARASU
Associated press

ANANTAPUR, India (AP) — Ramesh Hanumaiya digs a few inches in his field with his hand and examines the ground. There is movement in the thick, brown earth: Tiny earthworms are disturbed from their farm.

A handful of soil filled with worms may not seem like much, but it’s the result of seven years of hard work. “That floor was as hard as a brick,” said Ramesh, 37. “Now it’s like a sponge. The soil is rich with the nutrients and life necessary for my crops to grow on time and in a healthy way.

Like Ramesh, thousands of other farmers in Anantapur, a district in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, have adopted what are known as regenerative farming practices. Techniques such as using natural fertilizers and planting crops alongside trees and other plants have been successful in combating desertification, the process of turning once-fertile soil into dust. Climate change is exacerbating the loss of arable land as temperatures rise and rainfall becomes more erratic.

Described by the United Nations desertification agency as one of the greatest threats to human society, it is estimated that more than 40% of the world’s land is already degraded. About 1.9 billion hectares of land, more than twice the size of the United States, and about 1.5 billion people worldwide are affected in some way by desertification, according to UN estimates.

“It was always a dry area but we knew when it would rain and people were farming accordingly,” said Malla Reddy, 69, who runs a nonprofit that promotes natural farming practices in the area. “Now what is happening is that rainfall can come in any season, farmers are unable to predict it and often lose their crops.”

Warmer temperatures also mean water evaporates faster, leaving less room in the soil for thirsty crops.

The non-profit organization Reddy’s works with more than 60,000 farmers on 300,000 acres of land in the district, helping individual farmers restore unproductive land throughout the region.

Most Indian farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, with around 70 million hectares – about half of all cropland in India – dependent on torrential rains. These lands are also the most prone to poor farming methods, such as excessive use of chemical fertilizers, excessive tillage and monoculture, the practice of planting only one crop each year, experts say.

Reddy, director of the Accion Fraterna ecology center, and the farmers his organization supports use methods known as natural farming and agroforestry to avoid wasting the land. Natural farming replaces all chemical fertilizers and pesticides with organic materials such as cow dung, cow urine and jaggery, a type of solid black sugar made from sugar cane, to increase levels of soil nutrients. Agroforestry involves planting perennial woody plants, trees, shrubs and palms alongside agricultural crops.

And while most other farmers in the region grow groundnuts or paddy using chemical fertilizers, natural farmers grow a variety of crops. Multiple cropping ensures that soil nutrients are periodically restored, as opposed to separate sowing during harvest seasons, Reddy said.

For other farmers in the region, much of the land is becoming unusable for cultivation due to the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedkillers.

“Every week, many trucks with loudspeakers criss-cross our villages, asking farmers to buy this pesticide or that weedkiller. Their marketing is amazing and the farmers are getting screwed,” says EB Manohar, a 26-year-old natural farmer from Khairevu village, also in Anantapur district.

Manohar left his job as a mechanical engineer in Bengaluru, sometimes called “India’s Silicon Valley”, to pursue natural agriculture in his hometown. On his farm, he grows tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, among other crops and vegetables.

“I also started providing natural fertilizers and weedkillers to other farmers in my village,” Manohar said. “Since they saw that my investment is low and my returns are good, more and more people are interested in trying it.”

But for efforts like Manohar and Reddy’s to have a national impact, experts say these initiatives need to be scaled up.

“Desertification is one of the biggest challenges facing India,” said NH Ravindranath, who has helped write several UN climate reports and researched desertification in the country over the past few years. last two decades. He said that although the land restoration works in Anantapur are commendable, scaling up is the real challenge.

“We need serious funding for climate adaptation and government policies that encourage restoration. Those are the only things that will have that large-scale impact,” he added. Money to adapt to harsher weather has long been discussed at UN climate conferences like COP27, as the effects of climate change are making it harder for many to maintain their livelihoods. Some funding for vulnerable nations has been promised, but much has not been met.

About 70% of all land in the world is already converted by humans from its natural state for food production and other purposes and about one in five hectares converted is already degraded, said Barron Joseph Orr, scientist Principal to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

“We have lost productivity on this land, so we are reducing what we have converted. So we have a big problem here,” Orr said. “We need to encourage sustainable land management for small farmers and pastoralists. In our form of conventional agriculture, we are dependent on chemical fertilizers, which works, but it essentially short-circuits the soil’s natural processes, which prevents it from regenerating, rendering it unusable in the long term.

Orr added that land restoration can prevent planet-warming gases from escaping degraded soil and entering the atmosphere.

Back in Anantapur, 28-year-old natural farmer Ajantha Reddy tends to her lime crops. Sweet limes make farmers wait many years before they can see a return on their labor and investment. Reddy isn’t worried, though.

“The trees grew in 17 months as much as I expected them to grow in four years,” he said as he pruned his fruit crops. Reddy quit his job as a software engineer in Bengaluru during the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to his village of Anantapur to farm.

For Reddy, the satisfaction of seeing his crops and hometown thrive is enough incentive to continue natural farming practices for the foreseeable future.

“I have no intention of returning to Bangalore. When I came home during the pandemic, I was like, ‘why should I go to work for someone else? I have land to cultivate and I could support a few people,” he said. “That thought decided me.”

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Follow Sibi Arasu on Twitter at @sibi123

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