In dry, unreliable weather, Indian farmers restore arid land


12 November 2022 GMT

ANANTAPUR, India (AP) — Ramesh Hanumaiya digs a few inches into his field with his hand and examines the soil. There is movement in the thick, brown earth: tiny earthworms are stirring from their home.

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

Like Ramesh, thousands of other farmers in Anantapur, a region in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, have adopted what is known as regenerative farming. Techniques such as using natural fertilizers and planting crops alongside trees and other plants have been successful in combating desertification, the process by which once-fertile soil turns to 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 over 40% of the planet’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 has always been a dry region, but we knew when it would rain and people used to farm accordingly,” said 69-year-old Malla Reddy, who runs a non-profit organization that encourages organic farming practices in the region. “Now what happens is that rainfall can happen in any season, farmers cannot predict it and many times they lose their crops.”

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

Reddy’s nonprofit works with more than 60,000 farmers on 300,000 acres of land in the region, supporting individual farmers to restore unproductive land across the region.

Most Indian farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture, with about 70 million hectares – about half of India’s total cultivated land – dependent on rainfall. These soils are also those most subject to poor agricultural practices, such as excessive use of chemical fertilizers, over-tilling and monoculture, the practice of planting only one crop each year, experts say.

Reddy, the director of the Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre, and the farmers his organization supports use methods known as natural farming and agroforestry to prevent land degradation. Organic farming replaces all chemical fertilizers and pesticides with organic matter, such as cow manure, cow urine and cane, a type of solid dark sugar from sugar cane, to boost soil nutrient levels. Agroforestry involves the planting of woody perennials, trees, shrubs and palms alongside agricultural crops.

And while most other farmers in the area either grow peanuts or paddy fields using chemical fertilizers, organic farmers grow a variety of crops. Multi-cropping ensures that soil nutrients are replenished periodically, unlike sowing separately at harvest times, Reddy said.

For other farmers in the region, much of the land is rendered useless for cultivation due to the extensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

“Every week there are many loudspeaker trucks traveling through our villages, asking farmers to buy this pesticide or that herbicide. Their marketing is unbelievable and farmers are being duped,” says EB Manohar, a 26-year-old subsistence farmer in Khairevu village, also in Anantapur district.

Manohar quit his job as a mechanical engineer in Bengaluru, sometimes called ‘India’s Silicon Valley’, to take up organic farming in his hometown. On his farm, he grows tomatoes, chilies, and cabbage, among other crops and vegetables.

“I have also started supplying natural fertilizers and herbicides to other farmers in my village,” said Manohar. “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’s 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 has researched desertification in the country over the past two decades. He said though the land reclamation work in Anantapur is laudable, 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 impact at scale,” he added. Money to adapt to more severe weather conditions has long been discussed at UN climate conferences such as COP27, as the effects of climate change make it harder for many to sustain a livelihood. Some funding has been promised for vulnerable nations, but much of it has not been delivered.

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

“We’ve lost productivity in these countries, so we’re underestimating what we’ve converted. So we have a big problem here,” Orr said. “We need to incentivize sustainable land management for small farmers and ranchers. In our conventional form of farming, we depend on chemical fertilizers, which work, but basically short-circuit the natural processes in the soil,” which prevents it from regenerating itself, rendering it useless in the long run.

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

Back in Anantapur, Ajantha Reddy, a 28-year-old subsistence farmer tends the sweet lime crops. Sweet limes require farmers to wait many years before they can see a return on their labor and investment. However, Reddy is not worried.

“The trees grew in 17 months what I would have expected them to grow in four years,” he said as he cut down his crops. Reddy quit his job as a software engineer in Bangalore during the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to his village in Anandapur to farm.

For Reddy, the satisfaction of seeing his crops and his town thrive is motivation enough to continue organic farming practices for the foreseeable future.

“I have no intention of returning to Bangalore. When I came home during the pandemic, I thought, “why should I go to work for someone else?”. I have land to cultivate and could provide livelihood to a few people,” he said. “That thought took over my mind.”


Follow Sibi Arasu on Twitter at @sibi123


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