Monthly Archives: September 2015
Technological advances have helped the world in many ways from longer life expectancy to space exploration. However in some areas, new technology may increase efficiency and mass production but it also harms the environment. One big area of debate is farming, sustainable vs. industrial. An important question in this debate is what methods did ancient farmers use for thousands of years in harmony with the environment and could they still hold merit in today’s world, particularly with the climate issues. A recent article from www.worldwatch.org discusses this very topic.
From “Indigenous Farming Methods: Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change While Boosting Food Production” written by Mel Landers.
Spanish conquistadors had great respect for the crops developed by the indigenous farmers of the Americas. A full 60 percent of the food eaten today worldwide originated in the region. But the conquistadors failed to appreciate the importance of the production methods used by those innovative local farmers.
There are over 600,000 hectares of terraces in Peru alone. Many of these are still in use today. They were constructed with rock fill at the bottom, between the rock face and the slope, to allow for good drainage. Most were built with stairs for ease of access.
Indigenous American crops were introduced in colonies around the world. But the farmers’ innovative production methods were shunned and, for the most part, lost to the world for 500 years. Serious efforts to rediscover these methods have only begun during the last few decades.
Sophisticated hydraulic engineering projects can be found, on a massive scale, in the Andes Mountains and along the Pacific Coast of South America, developed by people who had no metal tools. Using only simple devices and their own manual labor, these farmers built thousands of hectares of terraces in the mountains and thousands of giant water-trapping depressions (Qochas) in the high plateaus.
In Bolivia’s Altiplano, hundreds of square kilometers are covered by raised farming platforms (Waru Waru), causeways, canals, and manmade islands in an area that resembles a lake for half the year and is completely dry for the rest of the year. All this, as well, was built by hand.
Much of ancient Mexico City was built over a lake, on which the Aztecs built thousands of floating platforms (Chinampas) on which to grow their crops. Other farmers directed rainfall into spiraling holes that led to underground storage chambers. And many indigenous cultures constructed irrigation canals.
The practice shared by all these farming societies was their use of raised beds, covered with thick layers of organic matter, or mulch. It appears that indigenous populations built such systems throughout the Americas. It was arguably their most important method of coping with the climate variability caused by the El Niño/La Niña cycle. The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia has proven the value of this type of system by creating a lush raised-bed garden in the Jordanian desert.
Raised beds, when tied together with ridges every few meters, can retain 100 percent of the rain that falls on the field, compared with less than 10 percent infiltration in a flat, ploughed field. During a drought, it is important to maintain the highest soil moisture content possible.
During periods of excess rain, the beds hold part of the root system up in well-oxygenated soil, above the level of the standing water. This prevents anaerobic decomposition of roots and helps guarantee at least some production. Unlike today, there was no “food aid” available to ancient indigenous peoples.
The raised structures were of variable lengths, but most were about a meter wide. If not formed on elevated platforms or terraces, they were commonly built on the contour to hold water and prevent erosion. When built in depressions, however, they radiated to the center. Crops were planted on the beds as the retained water receded.
The organic mulch shaded the soil, keeping it cool and moist. It also prevented raindrops from eroding the soil surface. As the organic matter decomposed, it provided food for earthworms and myriad other beneficial micro-organisms. Earthworms help aerate and fertilize the soil. A permanent mulch also created the proper environment for mycorrhizal fungi, which help ensure that plants receive nutrients and pest protection.
Heavy rains in the Amazon River Basin severely leach nutrients from the soil, leaving the native soils useless for agricultural production soon after forest is removed. Yet the first conquistadors to enter the Amazon Basin described their encounters with great agricultural societies, living in large cities that endured until European diseases devastated their populations.
These cities were made possible by soil improvement techniques that have only partially survived in a few remote communities of indigenous farmers. For 2,000 years, famers in the rivers of the Amazon Basin were producing fertile soil on which to grow their crops, where no such soil had existed before.
These soils, known as “black earth,” are still fertile 500 years after they were last made. They contain high concentrations of humus, powdered charcoal, and pieces of broken pottery. Although they are located high above the river levels, they contain aquatic plant remains and sand. The sand indicates that the people scooped up the river muck in the dry season and spread it over their beds.
The pottery chards provide soil structure where no natural rock exists. The charcoal (potentially stable for thousands of years) provides a long-term depository for nutrients, buffers the pH of the soil, and mitigates the toxic effects of aluminum in the soil. The humus (potentially stable for hundreds of years) is like a sponge for nutrients and moisture.
These soils cannot be reproduced simply by adding charred material. The humus is vitally important to the functioning of these soils. Fortunately, there are ways to produce large amounts of humus to recreate these super-fertile soils. Developing these soils today would contribute greatly to efforts to feed a world full of hungry people.
Putting These Methods into Perspective
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 assessment, suggests the use of ancient indigenous technologies from the Americas as a means of mitigating the effects of climate change. Evidence indicates that global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of both droughts and inundations.
These ancient agricultural technologies hold promise for increasing food production worldwide. With nearly a billion people suffering from chronic hunger, the time is overdue for another agricultural revolution. The introduction of indigenous American crops 500 years ago started one. The introduction of their innovative production methods could start another.
A growing demand is occurring as baby boomers begin to retire for sustainable, green retirement communities. This is expected considering the baby boomers were the first generation to be exposed to the relationship between human activity and its effect on the environment. Named the first green generation, baby boomers are beginning to expect that their retirement communities follow the rules that the green pioneers have fought so hard to implement.
The New York Times article “Demand and Expectations Grow for Green Retirement Communities” discusses this demand.
Pictured Above: Wake Robin uses 20% of its electricity from solar panels, meat and produce are from local farms and 50,000 ladybugs act as natural pesticides.
A DIEHARD community gardener and composter, David Conrad, 77, wanted to age in a retirement community that complemented his love of all things green. So seven years ago, he and his wife, Sally, moved to earthfriendly Wake Robin in Shelburne, Vt. Now Mr. Conrad spends his days managing the Wake Robin recycling campaign, along with working in the community garden and walking the community’s four miles of wooded trails. Other residents make maple syrup or tend beehives that produce honey, which is bottled and sold. “I wanted to live in a place that’s healthy,” says Mr. Conrad, who is a retired college professor. “So sustainability is very important. We like to think that we’re leading the way.” Green dogooders like Mr. Conrad are indeed forging a new path for retirees. Though eco-conscious retirement communities are still rare in the United States (exact figures are scant), they are expected to grow in number as baby boomers age and seek healthier, greener alternatives.
“Moving forward, in the next 20 years, these green communities will become the standard,” said Andrew Carle, director of the senior housing administration program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Lots of green communities are in the development stage, said Jamie Hopkins, associate professor of taxation at the American College of Financial Services. But for now, there’s more need than supply, especially as baby boomers age. Some places even have five year waiting lists, he said. These lush facilities offer lots of unseen benefits. Carbon footprints are reduced with energy and water saving initiatives, including geothermal heating and low flow toilets. And older people can enjoy environmentally friendly buildings that typically offer airy spaces with more natural light and indoor furnishings that use far less toxic materials. These communities can also reap subsidies and incentives that might provide more motivation to make the upgrades, experts say.
The biggest challenge, though, is wading through the gray policy areas of green standards. So Mr. Hopkins recommends making sure there’s enough evidence to back up actual claims. “Eco-friendly doesn’t mean a lot,” he said. “And some places just use buzz words.” For example, some so called ecofriendly communities may have golf courses, which use lots of water. Two types of official green standards can serve as guideposts, though. The first, said Mr. Hopkins, is Energy Star ratings on appliances, which is a government label that designates energy efficiency. Second is a community’s LEED certification, Mr. Hopkins said. It’s a widely recognized program put together by the U.S. Green Building Council to create healthier, more energy efficient buildings.
#greencommunity #retiregreen #sustainable