Dear Climate Friends and Colleagues,
Greetings from Zimbabwe. As I write, it is a pleasant morning in the mid 70s. The heat and humidity will rise through day, until it is in the high 80s and borderline miserable. By late afternoon, a thunderstorm will likely come rolling in, just in time to cool things off for dinner, after which a lovely evening will ensue, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll hear the hyenas and lions again, as we have the last two nights.
The lions communicate with a type of yawn-grunt that is audible for several hundreds of yards. These are quite close. Yesterday morning we saw fresh mother and cub prints just outside of the compound, perfectly set in the mud from the previous night’s rain.
I’m here now for the third time in as many years. This will be a six week stay, of which I have four more left. The last two visits in 2011 and 2013, were for six and four weeks respectively – both during the dry seasons, so it is a pleasure for me to be here now during the rains.
I am residing and volunteering at the Africa Center for Holistic Management (ACHM) in the northwest region of the country near Victoria Falls. ACHM is a demonstration site and learning center that trains local villages in the use of sustainable land and livestock management. The practice enables villages to improve their crop and grazing lands, while reversing the desertification that is so prevalent in this region, and in much of the world, including the United States. Their principal funding, from USAID, has been for disaster prevention, to help communities enhance food and water security. It is listed with UN FAO as a Sustainable Pathways Best Practice.
There are many innovative elements of this program, including utilization of livestock as a restorative force. This is done by grouping individual village family livestock holdings into a larger collection which is then managed as a proxy for wild ruminant herds, replicating impacts that are essential for grassland ecosystems. Managing livestock in this way is a departure from convention, in which small family holdings, of approximately five to ten animals each, wonder haphazardly over a confined area, overgrazing a select few plants. Under the new approach, in a typical village where this is practiced, twenty or more families will contribute to a “village herd.” This collective herd will then be managed by the participating families, with emphasis on well timed and frequent moves. The group-derived grazing plan will benefit the animals and the pastures they enter, taking care never to reenter an area until plants are recovered, and particularly, taking account of different wet and dry season recovery periods. The innovation is disruptive, because it challenges age-old village patterns and customs. Livestock are a prized family asset, and to manage collectively in this way is at first a radical and difficult idea to accept. Typically, however, after only a single growing season, the benefits become apparent, and the idea spreads. In less than a year since my last visit, one village’s collective herd nearly doubled.
The relevance of this program to climate change, and hence my involvement, stems from the fact that grasslands are the largest ecosystem on the planet and one of our greatest potential sinks for atmospheric carbon. Restoration of soils worldwide is our best hope for rapid, stable, safe, and long lasting drawdown of CO2. Unless vast areas of prairie and savanna are returned to former vitality with deep-rooted perennial plants that assist fungal networks in creating long lasting organic carbon compounds in the soil, we are never going to get anywhere close to reversing the warming calamity that is quickly barreling down upon us, if such avoidance is even still possible. The beauty of the methodology practiced here, is that it turns 1 billion livestock liabilities into assets. It does this without added technology or investment – simply a change of management, and simultaneously addresses numerous other ecological and human livelihood issues. As grasslands recover, water tables are replenished, biodiversity is enhanced, tolerance to drought is strengthened, and carbon is captured. Additionally, through increased vegetative cover, evaporative cooling increases and localized warming is diminished. Not to mention, of course, sustainable, and healthy food production capacities are enhanced. Finally, for those concerned with methane, the building of deep aerated soil creates habitat for methane loving bacteria, called methanotrophs, that, in a healthy prairie or savanna ecosystem, metabolize methane in a balance with its availability, where methane is a natural product of cellulose digestion.
Livestock, managed in this manner, as restorative agents, living entirely through the products of solar energy (i.e. grass), and fully divorced from any deleterious tentacles of the conventional Western approach, are actually carbon and methane negative. By restoring the grassland ecosystem, and thus building soil, they will start a process of biological climate recovery that though numerous positive feedback loops, will drawdown carbon and methane far in excess of amounts created by the animals themselves. This drawdown will continue for as long as soil is being built and land is being recovered.
The exact drawdown capacity for carbon in soil is of course uncertain, but no one familiar with the science thinks is it either small or non-essential for addressing global warming. Estimates of carbon lost from soils range from 150 gigatons in the industrial era, to 550 gigatons since the dawn of agriculture. The estimated storage of carbon in world soils today is approximately 2400 gigatons. As a comparison, the carbon in all vegetative matter (plants and trees) is only approximately 550 gigatons, and in the atmosphere, approximately 800 gigatons. Thus, the carbon in soils is nearly twice that of all the carbon in plants, trees, and the atmosphere combined. The amount of carbon that is in excess in the atmosphere, and causing global warming, is about 200 gigatons, less than one tenth of the carbon currently in soils, and less than one half of the carbon estimated to have been lost by soil since the dawn of agriculture. So, there is no scenario in which soil restoration is not a major opportunity for large scale and long lasting carbon drawdown, nor, do many believe, is there is a scenario in which we avoid disaster without focusing on this component of the climate fight.
Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal writes beautifully about this in a piece from 2011. Note, the word “pedosphere”, refers to soil.
“Recarbonizing the pedosphere with a C sink capacity of > 2 billion tons C/yr for 25–50 years can have a strong impact on the global carbon cycle. Increasing the C pool of the pedosphere by 10% over the 21st century (+250 billion tons) can create a drawdown of 110 ppm of atmospheric CO2 abundance. This cost-effective and natural process of mitigating climate change has also numerous co-benefits including improvements in quantity and quality of water resources, increase in biodiversity, restoration of degraded soils and ecosystems, and advancement of global food security.” (emphasis added)
“As agronomic productivity splutters, as food production lags behind the demands, as hunger and malnutrition adversely affect human health and wellbeing, as soils degrade and desertify, as natural waters pollute and contaminate, as climate warms and species disappear, as the environment deteriorates and jeopardizes the ecosystems services, there will be a growing realization among scientists and policy makers that taking soils for granted has been the root cause of the downward spiral.” (emphasis added)
I am delighted to be volunteering here in Zimbabwe, helping to address the root causes of desertification and a major factor in global warming, as Lal explains, by reversing the loss of soil carbon and helping in it’s rebuilding. Seeing land restored and water tables replenished, and visiting with communities whose livelihoods are now substantially improved is a deeply moving experience that all should know.
In 2011, I hosted a 350 Day of Mobilization that Bill McKibben highlighted in an essay for Huffington Post. I hope to do many more such actions and look forward to working with you all on this important element of the climate solution. To help mobilize this effort, a new group called Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (BLC) has been formed, and an Google group called Soil-Age furthers the discussion. You are all encouraged to check these out. In November of the past year, BLC, in collaboration with Somerville Climate Action, hosted an event called Hope for a Livable Climate. This event included Precious Phiri, who is a Zimbabwean from a community engaged with the ACHM program. She speaks to how the program works and the impact on land and families. I follow with a discussion on climate. The event is kicked off by Vermont environmental writer, Judith Schwartz. The presentations are on YouTube.
I will be posting more notices about this topic and these actions and welcome all collaboration and discussion with you. Immediately on the horizon is a potluck event, the info for which is posted below. I will also resend that as an announcement.
For those who are interested, I informally blog about my experiences and observations in Zimbabwe at Hut With A View.
Best regards from Zimbabwe,
TOPIC: “Challenges in Restoring the Earth: The Story of a Chilean Village.”
WHEN: Sunday, March 16, 2014, 5 p.m.
WHERE: Helen Snively’s house in Cambridge, 1 Fayette Park, near Central Square, 617-547-1326. On-street parking available.
Hi All –
Please join us on Sunday, March 16th at 5 p.m. at Helen Snively’s house in Cambridge. Aviva Argote and Rob Riman will lead us in an in-depth discussion of their recent trip to Chile with a group of Harvard students working on an ongoing community environmental restoration project. From the perspective of Holistic Management there is much that can be done, but there are also obstacles – cultural, economic, and political. The issues are representative of those we face worldwide in trying to restore biodiversity and address global warming. Please join us in a fascinating and creative conversation!