The Degradation of the Soil
THE third phase of the modern era, that of the degradation of the soil, has already been indicated in the description of the second agricultural path in Chapter 6. In Rome that path was dominated by the metropolis and other great cities, by the latifundia or large estates of the wealthy capitalists, and by the heavy demands put upon the provinces for food and raw material. Modern civilization has pursued the same path on, however, a more colossal scale and with a far greater speed.
The modern dominant idea of this path was stated by Professor Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. This book gave the industrial era an intellectual justification for its untrammelled and unparalleled energy. "If books," repeating in part from Green's Short History of the English People, "are to be measured by the effect which they have produced on the fortunes of mankind, the Wealth of Nations must rank amongst the greatest of books. Its author was Adam Smith, an Oxford scholar and a professor at Glasgow. Labour, he contended, was the one source of wealth, and it was by the freedom of labour, by suffering the worker to pursue his own interest in his own way, that the public wealth would best be promoted. Any attempt to force labour into artificial channels, to shape by laws the course of commerce, to promote special branches of industry in particular countries, or to fix the character of intercourse between one country and another, is not only wrong to the worker or the merchant, but actually hurtful to the wealth of a state." To this dictum one may add the principle of Mr. John S. Mill, voiced in 1848, that "wealth was the universal object of man's desire."
Adam Smith thus swept aside the relics of the mediaeval teaching upon the transactions of commerce; that the function of money was that it should be a permanent standard of value, embodied in the Just Price; that, in determining the price of an article, you should do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, and its price should therefore be just to both seller and purchaser, and not to the greater advantage of either; that the attempt to make a profit out of the misfortune of a fellow-creature was wicked; that usury, the charging of interest on loaned money as a means of living, was to obtain a livelihood without working, and since it has been expressly said that he who would not work should not eat, all interest was literally "filthy lucre." (F. Milner, Economic Evolution of England.)
The way was now opened widely and almost without restriction to the individual, and it was the capable, ambitious, and wealth-seeking individuals, who succeeded to the detriment of their weaker brethren. The creators of goods and wealth, due to their own capacity and labour and to the labour of less gifted human beings and that of machines, rose to wealth and power, until they, on their part, were surpassed by the bankers or manufacturers of credit lent for interest, who eventually dominated. Society became divided into the very rich, the middlemen who served them, and the innumerable poor. It became the replica of the society of the western Roman Empire, though without actual slavery of white peoples.
The effect of this upon agriculture was also like the Roman, but again, owing to the rapid growth of scientific knowledge, it was on a more prodigious scale. The farming of the large estates was immensely improved in its immediate, not final, use of the soil to produce food and raw materials, and the backward parts of the earth were called upon successfully to contribute a previously ungrown quantity of food and raw materials or of unmined minerals for the rapidly increasing populations and machines of the west. "New crops were cultivated," wrote Lord Ernle of agricultural England at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, "swedes, mangel wurzel, kohl rabi, prickly comfrey were rapidly adopted by a new race of agriculturists. Breeders spent capital in improving livestock. New implements were introduced. The economy and handiness of ploughs like the Norfolk or Rotterham as improved by James Small of Blackadder Mount were recognized, and the cumbrous mediaeval instruments with their extravagant teams were superseded. Meikle's threshing machine (1784) began to drive out the flail by its economy of human labour. Numerous patents were taken out between 1788 and 1816 for drills, reaping, mowing, haymaking, and winnowing machines, as well as for horserakes, scarifiers, chaff-cutters, turnip-slicers, and other mechanical aids to agriculture."
In his chapter on "High Farming, 1837-1874," Lord Ernle continued the picture of the phenomenal progress of scientific agriculture. "Science helped practical farming in ways as varied as they were innumerable. Chemists, geologists, physiologists, entomologists, botanists, zoologists, veterinaries, bacteriologists, architects, mechanics, surveyors, statisticians, lessened the risks and multiplied the resources of the farmer. Steam and machinery diminished his toil and his expenses." Machinery became indispensable. "Without the aid of mechanical invention farming to-day would be at a standstill. No farmer would find, or if he found could pay the staff of scarce and expensive labour."
Capital was, of course, essential for the new expenses of successful farming. In the overflowing list of scientific essentials to modern farming, the small landowning peasants, except in the Isle of Axholme and some other scattered localities, found no place at all.
When prices fell and capital failed, disaster overtook agriculture. "The new race of agriculturists were largely brought to ruin between 1813 and 1837," and, following upon the glowing chapter on "High Farming, 1837-1874," comes the chapter entitled "Adversity, 1874-1912." The boom and slump, which haunted capitalistic industry and crushed out the small men and sometimes the large, haunted capitalistic farming no less. Debt was as dangerous as drought, a dearth of capital an added dearth to that of rain. Money in the hands of individualistic financiers fell entirely from the mediaeval ideal of being a permanent standard of value.
What of the soil, what was its response to this enormous increase of demands upon it of the modern era as a whole?
Without the intrusion of man, nature protects and preserves the soil by a cover of forest, shrub, grass, or other growth. This growth repeats itself again and again, because the forest, shrub and grass, with the animal life they support, when dead, rot and are once again restored to the soil as soil-food, once again thereby to enter the cycle of life. Again and again the process is repeated. The material of life passes from one form of life to another, but whatever temporary form it may assume, it is fated again to return to the re-creative power of the soil.
Soil is not lost or injured in the natural process. The balance of life and death is eternally preserved. The vegetative cover of hill, slope, valley, and plain, which re-creates itself, protects the soil against the heat of the sun, the beating and rush of heavy rain, and the scouring of the winds.
By returning to the soil as its food that which has once taken its life from the soil, the balance between life and death is kept. This is the principle of the continuity of life upon the earth. In lack of reverence for this principle owing to its absorption in "progress," the modern era has failed and death is overtaking life. In the words of Professor N. S. Shaler of Harvard University, in the National Geographic Magazine, 1896: "If mankind cannot devise and enforce ways of dealing with the earth which will preserve the source of life, we must look forward to a time -- remote it may be, yet clearly discernible -- when our kind, having wasted its great inheritance, will fade from the earth because of the ruin it has accomplished."
The countries of western civilization no longer get from their own soils all that which their civilization requires. They require grains, fruits, sugar, flesh, wool, hides, cotton, fibres, oils, rubber, timber, and so on, for their food, bags, ropes, paper, clothes, buildings, oilcakes, gun-powders, tyres, and countless other articles for "the increase in the numbers and the keenness of their rational wants."
These substances are the transformed foods of many soils, destined under nature to be returned to the soil, or, in an agriculture based on the natural process such as that of the Chinese, returned by men to the soil.
What do the western peoples of to-day return to the lands from which they take their needs? Do they return to the soil, after its use, all that which once took life from the soil? Do they allow the wheel of life and death its equable revolution from soil to plant, from plant to animal, and from plant, animal and man again to the soil, by restoring in full measure such vehicles of life as they have borrowed for their service? The reply is that they do not.
They may maintain that they sell to backward lands their great scientific methods, their wonderful irrigation works, their mechanical harrows, ploughs, scarifiers, grubbers, cultivators, clod-crushers, rollers, land-pressers, manure drills, mowing machines, haymakers, elevators, threshing and winnowing machines, drills, drainpipes, mills, and the wonderful system of transit. All these, marvellous though they are, are no answer to the simple rule of the soil's need. Nor are the artificial and synthetic manures, carefully designed to replace the soil's lost food, a sound answer, even were they distributed with such liberality that every peasant of the exporting countries got his full supply. These artificial manures stimulate and help, but they are partial; they do not fill the place of natural manures; they lack many slight but necessary chemical ingredients in the right association; they lack the quality of locality of which little is known by the scientists but much is realized by the indigenous peasantries; they lack the lowly organisms which play such an important part in the formation of humus and which, as living elements, have their part in the digestion of its foods by the living soil. They stimulate, but they do not maintain the continuity of the soil's fertility from which it produces its protective cover of healthy vegetation. Artificial manures are no answer to the question. The only answer is that western civilization fails to observe the rule of return, and, in its failure, interrupts and distorts the equable revolution of the wheel of life and death. It overweighs it on the side of death. The wheels of its machines revolve with exquisite precision. Not so is it with the agriculture it has enforced.
This neglect has given cause to the following powerful anathema by Professor F. H. King, one-time Chief of Soil Management, United States Department of Agriculture, in his classic, Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan. "Man is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction has swept into the sea soil-fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate -- fertility which is the substratum of all that is living. It must be recognized that the phosphate deposits which we are beginning to return to our fields are but the measures of fertility lost from older soils, and indices of processes still in progress. The rivers of North America are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal, through which the waste of 500 million people might be more than 194,300 tons of phosphorus annually, a waste which could not be replaced by 1,295,000 tons of rock phosphate 75 per cent pure. The Mongolian races, with a population now approaching the figure named, occupying an area little more than half of the United States, tilling less than 800,000 square miles of land, and much of this during twenty, thirty or perhaps forty centuries, unable to avail themselves of mineral fertilizers, could not tolerate such waste and survive."
Let us here give a single example, which in its simplicity illustrates the breaking of the rule of return after use to the soil. It is to be found in Sir John Orr's Minerals in Pasture, 1929. "Munro reports that in the Falkland Islands sheep have been raised and exported for forty years without any return to the soil of the minerals removed. During the last twenty years it has been increasingly difficult to rear lambs. The other animals are also deteriorating."
The Falkland Islands are two islands about one hundred miles long lying parallel to each other. They are scarcely two hundred miles to the north of the most southern point of South America. They are bleak, wind-swept, almost treeless islands, suitable chiefly as pastures for flocks and herds. The sheep and cattle are therefore important transformations of their soil's foods. The animals are exported to Europe and with each cargo of them goes so much of the islands' soil-foods. It is not returned. It would not be difficult to return it, if modern Europe were agricultural in thought and mind. So much weight of bones, so much used up leather goods, so much used up clothes, so much animal and human dung properly composted, would represent the soil food which had been exported. As it is, under urbanism, the very thought of such a return is inconceivable. Some of the soil foods, in their final stage, such as the bones, are bought by English farmers for manure, which they badly need owing to the lack of observance of the rule in their own farming. The rest is regarded as waste.
Now there is no waste in nature, only return. The rule of return has been extruded by the dominant idea of the new era, which permitted and established the individual in the pursuit of his own interest without reciprocal duties or return. This freedom allowed to the individual to pursue his own interest in his own way compelled all to enter into competition with each other or groups with other groups. Those that succeeded best were pronounced the fittest.
The biologists and scientific publicists of this era came to see a similar picture in nature. They saw nature as producing a million seeds, of which only a few became individuals. They saw these individuals competing together and they termed the surviving individuals the fittest. The whole of nature was regarded as a scheme to secure the end-result of these fittest individuals. This it was that constituted nature's aim and meaning. The rest was ignored as failure.
But in nature there are no life-failures; the seeds which fall upon the ground and do not become individuals do not fail in the recurring wheel of life. They still fulfil their part. The tree that is surrounded by fallen seeds in spring, in course of time gathers some of these elements of life back into itself. Other elements either enter into the verdure or more immediately into the bodies of birds, insects or animals. The elements of life, whether as fallen seeds, leaves, or the tree itself migrate into other individual forms of life. They transmigrate either in animal or vegetable form. They pass from form to form as, in the Hindu doctrine, the soul passes from form to form by metempsychosis. They are in a constant state of transition, the constant transition which forms a fundamental axiom of Hindu doctrine. Once again, then, between eternal transition and the survival of the fittest, one sees a conflict of dominant ideas; the former focuses attention on the eternal cycle of life, the latter on the individual. It is man, not nature, who wastes in this cycle of life. It is he who causes soil-exhaustion by taking and not returning.
Let us hear Sir John Orr's further words: "The process of depletion and the resulting deterioration which shows itself in decreased rate of growth and production, and in extreme cases by the appearance of disease, is proceeding on all pastures from which milk, carcases and other animal products are taken off without a corresponding replacement being made. Every cargo of beef or milk products, every shipload of bones, leaves the exporting country the poorer. In many of the grazing grounds of the world this depletion has become a serious economic problem. In Scotland, for example, generation after generation of sheep have been taken off the hills with little compensatory returns. Accompanying the resulting deterioration of the pastures stock tend to be reduced in the rough hill grazings ... This process of depletion of the Scotch hills has been going on with increasing rapidity since the time when the produce of the animals, instead of being consumed on the land and therefore returned to the soil, began to be driven off to be consumed in the industrial areas. There are now districts of the Highlands which could not support populations which once lived there, even though the people were willing to accept the standard of living of their ancestors.
"Richardson has recently called attention to the effects of depletion in Victoria. He has estimated that the soil of Victoria has been depleted to the extent of 360,000 tons of phosphoric acid during the last sixty years, through the removal of phosphates in the exported meat, meal and other animal products, and that nearly 2,000,000 tons of super-phosphate would need to be added to the pasture-lands to restore them to the condition they were in about 1860. He attributes malnutrition in stock to the resulting deficiency in the pastures.
"In our country depletion has been going on for many years, especially in hill pastures, and it is probable that the recognized decrease in the value of hill pastures in certain areas, owing to the increase in the diseases and mortality of sheep, is associated with the gradual process of the impoverishment of the pasture and its soil.
"There is evidence that the same depletion has taken place in India. During the years 1920-1925 over 520,000 tons of bones have been exported without any compensating return to the soil. The evidence presented before the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India shows that there has been in recent years a marked deterioration in cattle."
Sir John Orr represents the animal-matter aspect of the robbery of the soil. In addition to this is the vegetable, the taking of fibres, oils, timber, food, etc., without return. There is the waste by which unused and decayed vegetable matter is burnt or otherwise got rid of by municipal and other authorities. This colossal waste must be added to that outlined by Sir John Orr, and to that of the modern sanitation of western civilization, which Professor King summed up in these words: "On the basis of the data of Wolff, Kellner, and Carpenter, or of Hall, the people of the United States and of Europe are pouring into the sea, lakes or rivers, or into underground waters, from 5,794,300 to 12,000,000 pounds of nitrogen, 1,881,900 to 4,151,000 pounds of potassium, and 777,200 to 3,057,600 pounds of phosphorus per million of population annually, and this waste we esteem one of the achievements of our civilization."
The countries of Western Europe, such as England, Germany, France and Italy, though by wise use of their land through centuries of occupation they have avoided any grave loss of the vegetative cover which protects the soil, have thus exposed their lands to soil-exhaustion. The present state of English farming is well-known. It is in a deplorable condition; as an industry, it is becoming moribund. Great tracts of land have gone out of cultivation and have even lost their grazing value so that they lie unused. The farmers are shackled with debt; while the banks flourish, the fields of life decay.
Such is a brief review of the exhaustion of the soil that is occurring in all countries of western civilization. It is particularly grave in Britain itself and may be considered the primal cause of the disastrous state of British agriculture.
We now come to the second great injury inflicted on the soil by man, that of erosion due to destruction of its vegetative cover. The lands of North America, Africa, Australia, and Asia have been the chief sufferers from erosion.
The United States of America present an amazing spectacle of the waste of soil by erosion in what, in the world's history, is but a handful of years. Messrs. H. H. Bennett and W. R. Chapline in Soil Erosion: A National Menace, Circular No. 33 of the United States Department of Agriculture, 1928, give a short summary of a colossal loss, due to erosion of the soil as compared with the loss of soil-food due to removal of crops. "The amount of plant food in this minimum estimate of soil wastage by erosion (1,500,000,000 tons of solid matter annually) amounts to 126,000,000,000 pounds, on the basis of the average composition of the soils of the country as computed from the chemical analyses of 389 samples of surface soil collected by the Bureau of Soils. This is more than twenty-one times the annual net loss to crops removed (5,900,000,000 pounds, according to the National Industrial Board)."
How has this immense erosion come about? It has come about through the operation of the dominant ideas quoted at the beginning of this chapter in a country where, more than elsewhere, they were able to have an almost unfettered freedom. Man, in pursuit of his own individual interests, has been allowed by them, even encouraged and justified, to flay the virgin soil of its protective covering in order that he might turn the rich soil foods beneath it into saleable goods, the acquirement of wealth being considered as the universal object of man's desires. Man has, therefore, cut down or burnt the forests covering the ridges and slopes of the watersheds, which break the force of the heaviest rains so that they do not pound upon the unprotected earth. Like great sponges, the forests absorb the water and let it seep slowly downwards to clear, continuously running streams and rivers.
This destruction the American has wrought that he might sell the timber and clear the land to grow crops or feed cattle. He has, in short, done what generations of cultivators had done before, and what generations of those, who practice "shifting cultivation," still do in many parts of the world, namely clear a piece of land, use it, and when its fertility is exhausted abandon it to clear and use a fresh piece of land. The African and Asiatic farmers have done this for the support of themselves and their families; the American farmers largely as manufacturers, for the profits which their goods brought them.
With their modern machines, tools, and technical skill, the Americans, compared to their African and Asiatic brethren, have done it on a huge scale and at a terrific speed. Their bold enterprise has been inspired by the spirit and equipment of progress, a progress that seeks ever more and more products from the land. So they have flayed the natural covering of the virgin soil and placed a thin covering of crop or pasture in its place. And the rains have come down from the denuded hills in their unbroken power and beaten out the soil from its ill-protected security. They have swept down the hill-sides in rushing sheets of water bearing with them the topsoil. They have slashed gullies deep into the faces of the slopes. They have undermined the banks of the gullies, toppled them into their flood, pushed and carried them downwards into the rivers, which lose their crystalline purity and become yellow and brown waters with their burden of silt. This silt is deposited in the shallower parts of the rivers; blocks the waterways for the passage of boats; silts up the natural harbours at their mouths; lifts up their beds; leads to floods; increases areas of swamp; and causes the loss of homes and lives of those that dwell upon the plains. Finally, still thickened with silt the waters pass into the ocean and let fall irrecoverably the countless particles of soil, which once on hills, slopes and plains had been the recurrent recreators of life.
In the arid districts of the prairies, the men of North America with steel ploughs, have ripped off the matted grass which protected the soil from the fierce rays of the sun and the powerful blasts of the winds. At first so generous was the response of the soil, owing to the age-long storage of food in it, that the crops brought wealth to the bold pioneers. But gradually the stored food of the soil decreased, taken away in its transformation into crops and never returned to the soil. Poorer coverings of poorer soil resulted; the protection failed; the fierce sun dried and powdered the topsoil; the strong winds came, lifted and blew the wealth of whole farms to great distances, leaving the more or less useless subsoil and sometimes the barren rock beneath as witnesses of man's destruction.
We need not go into further details of this erosion; those who are interested can get Circular 33 of the Department of Agriculture from the United States Government Printing Office, Washington, for 35 cents. We will content ourselves with the summary from Mr. Bennett's section of the pamphlet. He preceded it with The Warning of a Geologist, Mr. T. C. Chamberlin, before the Conference of the Governors of the United States, held at the White House in 1908: "Without any pretensions to a close estimate, I should be unwilling to name a mean rate of soil-formation greater than one foot in 10,000 years on the basis of observation since the glacial period. I suspect that if we could positively determine the time taken in the formation of four feet of soil next to the rock over our average domain, where such depth obtains, it would be above rather than below 40,000 years. Under such an estimate, to preserve a good working depth, surface wastage should not exceed some such rate as one inch in a thousand years." Yet in the State of Missouri alone, the rate of erosion has been such as would result in the removal of seven inches in twenty four years.
Here is Mr. Bennett's summary: "It must be stated that this circular does not undertake to tell the full story of the appalling wastage being caused by soil erosion. It merely refers briefly to some of the working processes of this greatest enemy to the most valuable asset of mankind (the agricultural lands), to some minimum estimates relating to the damage wrought, and to the meagreness of fundamental data concerning the problem. To visualize the full enormity of land impairment and devastation wrought by this ruthless agent is beyond the possibility of the mind. An era of land wreckage destined to weigh heavily upon the welfare of the next generation is at hand. Indeed, what has happened already and what is going on at an ever-increasing rate of progress is pressing upon many farmers now struggling to win subsistence from erosion-enfeebled soil. That the evil is gaining momentum is due to the wearing away of the topsoil, which was more productive and more resistant to rainwash than the subsoil that is taking its place. That 15,000,000 acres or more of formerly tilled land has been utterly destroyed in this country is an insignificant part of the story, for it is the less violent forms of erosional wastage, sheet erosion, that is doing the bulk of the damage to the land. Land depreciation by this slow process of planing off the surface is of almost incalculable extent and seriousness, and since the denudation does not cease when the subsoil is reached, there must be in the near future, unless methods of land usage are very radically changed, an enormous increase in the abandonment of farm lands."
Mr. E. S. Clayton, of the Department of Agriculture, New South Wales, in Investigation Overseas, 1937, nine years after Circular 33, gave the results in figures of erosion, shown by a recent survey of the United States. They show about 50,000,000 acres of cultivated land destroyed, 50,000,000 acres seriously eroded and about to be abandoned, 100,000,000 acres with loss of much of their topsoil, out of 987,000,000 acres, the total of agricultural land in the United States.
Australia is losing its soil even more rapidly than the United States. It threatens to become under the British Empire what Libya became under the Roman.
We have already read that Mr. Richardson has stated that the soil of Victoria has been depleted of thousands of tons of phosphates owing to the export of meat without return. The loss from erosion is much more severe, especially in the areas with little rainfall, where erosion, due to sun and wind, is a chief agent of destruction. "There is no doubt that we Australians," writes Mr. E. S. Clayton, "are in a process of transforming the semi-arid inland areas into desert at a more rapid rate than in the U.S.A." The destruction is due to overstocking and to rabbits; more animals to feed than food for them. At times of drought the animals eat to the very roots. Fire also has been ruthlessly used by men to prepare the land for pasture. "Approximately two thirds of the area originally covered by the Alpine woody shrub type has been completely cleared by the action of fire," writes Mr. R. V. Byles of the mountainous part of the catchment area of Australia's greatest river, the Murray, in Bulletin 13 of the Commonwealth Bureau of Forestry. "The organic layer, with no cover to protect it and no live roots to hold it, dries up and is blown away; the loose sandy soil is in its turn blown away, leaving the final product, bare granite rocks and stones, with no trace of vegetative covering." When the rains come they add to this destruction the force of sheet and gully erosion, washing away the unprotected soil with sheets of water and cutting deep gullies into the slopes of the hills. The annual flow of the great river, though still constant in its average quantity, has now become inconstant in its character; intermittent muddy waters taking the place of the previous stream that passed quietly to the sea in crystal clarity. In thirty years the land about it has become drier and threatens to become desert, according to the testimony of men who have mustered cattle there all their lives.
Central Australia, western and south-western Queensland, western New South Wales, and the dry parts of West Australia are suffering from the gradual deterioration of thousands of square miles of lightly stocked pastoral country. Before white men came there was no erosion, but a country in equilibrium. But the white men ignored the equilibrium of nature. They acted, not as a part of it, but as foolish masters demanding its service without adequate protection and return of service. Now they are mostly struggling gallantly and even despairingly to continue subsistence. It is not the central desert that has unrestrainedly advanced; it is man who has invited the invader in. Even the coastal districts are not exempt: "Damage caused by soil erosion is rapidly increasing ... Not only is the fertility of most of these undulating lands being depleted, but they are in some cases being destroyed at an alarming rate. Sheet erosion and gullying are carrying away the finer and most fertile portions of the soil," write Messrs. E. S. Clayton and J. R. Green in The Agricultural Gazette of July, 1934.
Finally, for those who wish to read an incomparably vivid picture of erosion, there is Pamphlet 64 of the Commonwealth of Australia from the pen of Mr. F. N. Ratcliffe, published by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Melbourne, and distributed free of charge. Man, concludes the author, has led to "a tremendous speeding-up and magnification" of the processes of erosion in dry countries, which, generally speaking, are in nature counterbalanced by the growth of protective cover. This tremendous speeding-up is the very soul of "progress." Its visitation in countries in equilibrium is fraught with immeasurable dangers to the source of life itself.
Turning to Africa, one can get a graphic picture of the recent history of the whole continent under the New Rome of modern civilization by looking at maps. A map of 1876 shows 1/10th of the Continent occupied by Europeans; French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch. One of 1885 shows that the 1/10th has grown to 1/4; Germany, Belgium, and Italy being added to its owners. One of 1912 shows that the 1/4 has grown to 19/20th; Abyssinia and Liberia alone being free. A result of this seizure has been an ominous increase of soil erosion.
To illustrate this briefly, we will borrow from the admirable summary upon erosion by Messrs. G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte, published as Technical Communication 36 of the Imperial Bureau of Soil Science, Harpenden, England, in 1938.
"Soil erosion has already transformed parts of South Africa's richest pastoral into semi-desert ... By far the most important problem confronting pastoralists, and perhaps the whole nation, is how to prevent sheet erosion by maintaining an adequate vegetative cover ... The most potent factor in Veld destruction is overstocking, both on European and native land."
In Tanganyika considerable tracts of fertile land are still available, but they are infested with tsetse fly, the bite of which conveys the fatal disease of sleeping sickness. "The presence of the tsetse in many parts may be a blessing in disguise, as it can be regarded as acting as the trustee on the land for future generations."
"Generally speaking erosion in Kenya has become serious only in the last ten years, but there has been a marked acceleration in the last five years ... In most cases, however, it is fairly evident that erosion has only become marked since the coming of the European ... Dust devils are of astonishing size and transport quantities of soil."
Uganda suffers from erosion because the land has been too rapidly cleared by the European plough for cotton, coffee, and food crops. Cotton acreage alone has increased from 132,000 acres in 1916 to 1,500,000 acres in 1936. "The deep and rich elephant-grass soils near Rewenzori and Elgon, now used largely for cotton, coffee, and food crops, resists erosion for a few years after being cultivated, but later suffers badly."
Let us add to this, evidence of erosion occurring before the coming of the Europeans. Mr. F. S. Deck, quoted by Mr. E. T. Dickson in the Australian National Review of September, 1937, states: "There is reason to believe that the region of the Kenya Highlands between Lake Rudolf and the Indian Ocean, was, until comparatively recent times, more fertile than it is to-day. The wells of Wajheir, the large reservoirs in Jubuland, now almost silted up, and the ruins of ancient cities near the coast in areas where no water can be found, all indicate that this region, not many centuries ago, supported a large and comparatively civilized population."
Professor E. Stebbing, in the Royal Geographical Journal, Volume 85, describes the dangers of the native shifting-cultivation and shows how it invites the advance of the Sahara Desert. He states that there is historical evidence proving that much which is now desert from Gao to Agades and on to the Sudan was fertile. Mr. F. W. H. Migeod writes in the same journal, Volume 60: "It is the Sahara Desert moving south ... The desiccation has been going on from Roman times, and undoubtedly from yet earlier times. Whether there have been periods of acceleration or retardation cannot now be ascertained in regard to past centuries. What is fairly sure is that the acceleration has recently been very great."
Nigeria is now suffering. In the north the Government is actively combating the desert's advance by inducing small farmers to use terraced farming, mixed farming, cover crops, and other measures. In the south, with a rainfall of 70 to 150 inches, soil erosion of cultivated land has become a serious menace.
We will now turn to the vast European-Asiatic territory of the United Soviet Republics. In it there has, of course, been extensive erosion. For example, Major Law, commercial attache in St. Petersburg, reporting in 1892 on the southeastern provinces of Russia, said that the soil was once protected by belts of forests. "It is certain that these forests do not now exist, and that the black-soil country is often scourged by devastating blasts from the steppes, and not infrequently baked by prolonged droughts." Floods and windstorms in consequence work their havoc and "smite the soil with perpetual barrenness."
No detailed survey of the eroded land in the Soviet Union has been made, write Messrs. Jacks and Whyte, but available data show that erosion is increasing. "At the present day there are huge areas in the U.S.S.R. where, owing to excessive breaking-up of the topography, whole territories formerly under profitable agriculture are now occupied by immense ravines and infertile wastes," they quote from Professor Y. U. Kerney, and add themselves: "The tractor plough is the enemy of grassland in dry areas, but is indispensable to the propagandist in the modernization of Russian agriculture. Though forewarned by the experience of other countries, it is difficult to ascertain if the authorities are aware of the danger of mechanization."
Asia offers abundant evidence of past and present erosion. Mr. B. T. Dickson, whom we have already quoted, gives a brief survey of past erosion in Asia: "Every reader will be familiar with the fact that in the old world of Asia there are the remains of cities and irrigation works, which must have been situated in areas capable of providing great supplies of food to maintain the population. To-day those areas are relatively or actually barren wastes. The ruins of the palace of Darius stand in a wilderness, and the one-time Hanging Gardens of Babylon are but ruins. The great civilizations of Mesopotamia have disappeared; excavations in the Sahara indicate the same thing; and in the desolate Lob Nor region of Central Asia are ruins of habitations and irrigation works which are indicative of a quite extensive agriculture."
We finally come to the countries of the two great agricultural civilizations of Asia, namely that of China, with Japan as an offshoot, and India.
The two huge rivers of China, the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze Kiang, do not arise, as does the American Mississippi, from a watershed, which is within the territory and authority of the country they chiefly serve. They arise in the Kuenlung mountains of Eastern Tibet, mountains that are only a little less in height than the Himalaya. They receive vast volumes of water from the melting snows. In the rainy season, the waters that fall upon the mountains and hills of the northwestern provinces of China, such as Kansu, pour into the Hwang Ho, and those of the central western provinces, such as Szechuan, into the Yangtze. They then reach the cultivated lands of historical China.
Eastern Tibet was only occasionally and loosely under the authority of the Chinese. Had it been strictly under their authority, at no time have they been sufficient masters of the major engineering which would be required to check and control the prodigious rush of waters when the snows of the Kuenlung mountains melt. Similarly, as peoples of the plains, their control over the indigenous peoples of the mountains and plateaux of western border provinces was no greater in a large part of their history than has been the control in the past of other peoples of the plains over peoples of the hills. The vegetative cover of the hills and plateaux, which broke the force of the summer rains, was not a part of their organization.
These facts largely account for the extensive and destructive erosion to which the Chinese have submitted, and much the same might be said of Mesopotamia and India. Distant pastoral peoples upon plateaux and hills are notoriously careless of the cover of the soil. By axe, fire, and overgrazing they destroy it in the way, but with far lower speed, that the modern pastoral peoples of America and Australia destroy it. "The nakedness of Arabia and the vast tracts of Asia in the north and west, the sterility which extends like an oil spot over Persia, cannot be traced to any other cause than the pastoral life of the inhabitants. The people adopting it are locusts; they destroy all woodland and vegetation," wrote Monsieur M. P. Rorit in an article on the barrenness and waste of the once forested Asia Minor, translated for the Royal Geographical Journal of 1870.
In this way the nearer Chinese watersheds were slowly denuded of forests, and their flood waters added to the summer fullness of the big rivers. As early as the Han dynasty (203 B.C. to A.D. 230) the Huang Ho was termed "the scourge of the sons of Han." Europeans named it the Yellow River, owing to the colour given to it by its load of silt, which even colours the sea for many scores of miles from its mouth. The amount of silt that it alone carries is stated to be more than that of the combined rivers of the United States. Its floods, when it breaks the banks by which the Chinese for the time keep it confined, are the most destructive of life and property of any floods of a great river.
The Chinese, said Mr. J. Thorpe of the National Geological Survey of China, 1936, have been conscious of erosion for "thousands of years ... and have probably done more erosion control work than any other people in the entire world." Professor F. H. King also testifies that: "the hill and mountain lands, wherever accessible to the densely peopled plains, have long been cut over and as regularly has afforestation been encouraged and deliberately secured even through the transplanting of nursery stock grown expressly for that purpose."
By canals, terraced cultivation, controlled irrigation, artificially flattened fields, cover crops, and other means the Chinese have preserved the fertility of their soil for forty centuries, in spite of erosion. In short they have, by their unexcelled peasant agriculture, fought the ravages of erosion brought about by the hillsmen and Northern Mongolians with an even greater success than they have driven back the ravages of these same northerners, when they, and not the droughts and floods they caused, entered China in force.
Japan offers the picture of what China could have been, had she had full control of the vast catchment areas of her rivers. Japan has recognized and combated erosion for centuries. She has developed an exemplary technique in its control; she has made its execution a national policy; she has spent far more upon these measures than the market value of the eroding land itself, and thereby shown herself the most enlightened country in the preservation of the soil.
Coming to India, Messrs. Jacks and Whyte are able to give a present example of the effect of uncontrolled hill people upon a people of the plains under a government less anxious about erosion than that of the Japanese. They quote Mr. Jacob as reporting that: "Recent large migrations from Nepal and Bhutan have resulted in deforestation" (by fire such as to cause a thick canopy of smoke over the whole country) "of the outer Himalayas with a monsoon rainfall of 250 inches, and a very serious increase of floods in Bengal." The Government of India, Mr. Jacob adds, is always very adverse to interfering with the freedom of the hill tribes in the catchment areas. Under British rule the hill populations have increased. Consequently, the land, which they clear by axe and fire and abandon after a few years to permit nature and natural vegetation to bring back its fertility, now has to be re-cultivated after a shorter rest period than in the past. Erosion occurs and floods increase. The freedom of the hills leads to the impoverishment of agrarian Bengal.
In the Siwalik area of the Punjab, where British rule has brought greater security to the hillsmen, it has also brought serious erosion for similar reasons. Thus, though modern agricultural scientists are far more capable in dealing with the major causes of erosion than ever were the historical Chinese, the fact that agricultural values are not dominant in India has led to some of her catchment areas being destroyed at a more rapid rate than before.
On the history of erosion in India, there is little available evidence. Professor Radharam Gangapadhyay in Agriculture and Agriculturists of Ancient India, 1932, states that the cutting down and burning of forests began "in India definitely at the time of Babar and has continued ever since," and adds: "At present grazing grounds in most parts of India are a mockery, and often hot-beds of disease." It may, however, be hazarded that a failure of pasture occurred much before Babar, for in Vedic times there was no prohibition to the eating of meat; the later prohibition suggests possibly a failure of pasture. At the present time meat eating on a large scale would be impossible.
Areas of India were undoubtedly very fertile in the past. François Bernier, in his Travels in the Mogul Empire (1656-1668), wrote: "Egypt has been represented in every age as the finest and most fruitful country ... but the knowledge I have acquired of Bengal, during the two visits paid to that country, inclines me to believe that the preeminence ascribed to Egypt is rather due to Bengal." This was quoted by Sir William Willcox in support of the contention of his famous lecture delivered in Calcutta in March, 1928, that irrigation in Bengal, in addition to its rainfall, had once been upon a scale comparable to that of Egypt or that of Mesopotamia. Babar, on the other hand, coming from a country of irrigation, noted the absence of artificial canals in the parts of India, which he visited.
Did the Indian cultivators ever follow the rule of return as did their Chinese contemporaries? To this question no certain answer has as yet been given by their historians. Professor Rao Bahadur K. V. Rangaswami Aiyanger, in his claims for the excellent quality of ancient Indian agriculture which we shall quote in the last chapter, includes "the use of fertilizers," and it is possible that this means the full return to the soil after its use of that which had once taken life from the soil. But he does not specifically state this; he limits himself to the phrase "the use of fertilizers."
The Royal Commissioners on Agriculture in India put to themselves the question of the length in time and the effect of soil exhaustion in India. They asked "whether long-cultivated agricultural land is to-day suffering a growing diminution in its capacity to yield crops, as a consequence of the removal year by year in the form of produce, of more substances essential to the growth and development of crops than is replaced by nature and by practice of the cultivator," in brief, whether the failure in the rule of return, reaching as it does its acme in the burning of cowdung for fuel, is to-day causing a progressive decline in fertility.
In answering this question they quote from Mr. W. H. Moreland's India at the Death of Akbar, that "it is highly probable that the land which was already under regular cultivation at that period has, under similar conditions, given an approximately constant return, and clear, positive evidence would be needed to establish the fact that a decline has occurred over the bulk of old-established cultivation." They agree that Indian soils, generally, are seriously deficient in plant food materials, and that the lack of nitrogen in particular is due to the scanty use of animal manures, and is only replaced at a low level by "large annual increments of nitrogen which accrue from the natural recuperative processes." Their final conclusion is the strong presumption that, as the Agricultural Adviser to the Government of India expressed it, "most of the area under cultivation in India has been under cultivation for hundreds of years, and had reached its state of maximum impoverishment many years ago."
The Royal Commissioners devoted one page out of 675 pages to erosion in India, without reference to its devastations in other parts of the world. "This problem," they wrote, "is of special importance in the submontane districts of northern India generally, and particularly in the United Provinces and in western Bengal, where extensive areas on the banks of large rivers, such as the Jumna and Chambal, have lost all agricultural value by the formation of a network of ravines. Fluvial action is not the only cause of soil erosion. The action of the monsoon rains on the sloping hillsides in upland tracts in peninsular India, more especially in the southern districts of the Bombay Presidency and in Chota Nagpur, produces the same result though not in such a striking degree." The rest of the page is given to remedies, such as afforestation, the terracing of land, the use of embankments; the need of experts acting under government to direct these methods and not leave them to the individual cultivator; the question of finance.
One feels that the reference to erosion of the Royal Commissioners is unwittingly meagre in face of the alarm which erosion causes experts in other large countries. Messrs. Jacks and Whyte, summarising the knowledge on the subject, are emphatic on its danger in India. They report, in their pamphlet of 1938, that, in many parts of Madras, the Bombay Deccan, the United Provinces, the Central Provinces, Chota Nagpur, and the land suffering from the rapid denudation of the forests of northern Bengal and Assam, erosion is a problem of growing gravity. The chief immediate causes of its increase were the uncontrolled destruction of forests, overgrazing, and cultivation upon unterraced slopes. In view of the increase of population forcing the cultivators to farm inferior soils, any increase of deterioration or loss of the present soils is of the gravest significance.
The facts that have to be faced, then, are that for many centuries the soil of India has been degraded and that with this there has been its inevitable consequence, the degradation of its partners, the peasants. Though the peasants practice methods which cause Sir Albert Howard of Pusa and Indore to name them "my best teachers," they have not been able to maintain, possibly for centuries, the standards of the peasants of China and Japan. They are now mostly in a lower state of degradation than they were at the beginning of the modern era. They are spiritless; confined or enforced to their traditional ways of cultivating their weakened soil; their manuring is wasteful and defective; their cattle feeble, overnumerous, and a danger to their inferior pasturage; they have fears of any change, sometimes correctly such as the fear of the modern plough, but mainly without other reason than helplessness in face of the difficulties that both possess and confront them.
Nevertheless, as we have seen and shall see further in the classical case of China, the chief means of preserving the soil from degradation has been the preservation of an efficient peasantry. The restoration of the Indian peasantry, essential in itself, is rendered all the more important by the dangers which threaten an agriculture upon the second agriculture path. We need, therefore, in the next chapter to attempt to estimate what elements of self-dependence remain in the Indian villagers, which may be cultivated for the re-establishment of the primal human element of the first agricultural path.
Table of Contents
1. British and Native Systems of Government in India
2. Conflicting Dominant Ideas
3. The First Agricultural Path
4. The Second Agricultural Path
5. The Degradation of the Peasants
6. The Ascendancy of the Town
7. The Degradation of the Soil
8. The Village System
9. The Restoration of the Peasants
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