Tech helps cashmere herders, hazelnut farmers fight soil erosion in Asia


  • Technology
  • Wednesday, 05 Aug 2020

A hazelnut farmer talks with an employee of Mountain Hazelnuts, a social enterprise in Bhutan that is cultivating the trees on fallow land to help prevent soil erosion. — Mountain Hazelnuts/Thomson Reuters Foundation

BANGKOK: When her husband suddenly died, Nakimo set up a small shop in Bhutan’s southern Chukha district to provide for her family of seven, then began growing hazelnut trees, which not only boosted her income, but also helped preserve the soil on her land.

Nakimo benefited from a programme by social enterprise Mountain Hazelnuts that aims to find sustainable uses for fallow land and prevent soil erosion – an increasing challenge for small-scale farmers in the Himalayan nation.

“The hazelnut trees do not require too much work, so my family and I can manage them easily,” said Nakimo, 65, who goes by one name.

“With the additional income from hazelnuts, I've even been able to start saving for my grandchildren, which makes me happy, as I'm helping to secure their futures,” said Nakimo, who grows about 200 trees on part of her plot of 1.3 acres (0.5 hectares).

Overgrasing, deforestation, mining, infrastructure building and higher temperatures are the main causes of soil erosion and land degradation in the mountainous country, but the problem is global.

Worldwide, more than half of agricultural land is degraded, with the equivalent of one soccer field lost due to erosion every five seconds, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Erosion could reduce crop yields by up to half by 2050, and also increases the risk of landslides and floods, according to the FAO. More than 90% of the Earth's agricultural soils are at risk of degradation within the next 30 years.

In Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts works primarily with women and poor farmers in the country’s underdeveloped East, providing free saplings and technical assistance, including a traceability system that assesses land quality and monitors soil health.

“We only plant on land that is fallow and degraded, and therefore not suitable for other crops,” said Teresa Law, co-founder of the company, which aims to cultivate hazelnuts in up to 10% of Bhutan's fallow and degraded land.

“Hazelnut trees can be planted on mountain slopes where other crops are unable to thrive – this stabilises the slopes and improves watersheds,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Catalyst for change

Billions of people live on land that is deteriorating and producing less food, and that could force hundreds of millions of people to migrate over the next three decades, according to a 2018 study backed by the United Nations.

Land can be restored by planting trees, growing salt-tolerant crops, and by re-flooding drained wetlands. Reviving damaged lands is possible by 2030, a UN review has concluded.

The Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, promoted by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and ethical investment firm Mirova, supports sustainable land use and land-restoration projects that deliver social and economic benefits.

It backs smallholder coffee farmers in Peru, community forestry in Indonesia, as well as Mountain Hazelnuts, and has identified more than 150 potential projects in Africa, Asia and South America.

These are particularly critical in Asia, as it has the largest degraded land area in the world, and the biggest population relying on the land for food and livelihoods, said Yuji Niino, a land management officer at the FAO.

“Faster economic development and a growing population are putting greater pressure on land, with unsustainable land use increasing the risk,” he said, adding that the Asia-Pacific region is also the most vulnerable to climate-related risks.

“To address the issue, a community-based approach is necessary, with the engagement of the private and non-profit sectors, and with the use of appropriate technology and adequate policy support,” he said.

This is the goal in Mongolia, where nearly 70% of grasslands have been damaged due to warmer temperatures and overgrazing by cashmere goats whose highly prized wool is a top export.

A project by the Wildlife Conservation Society for sustainable cashmere uses satellite maps to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough for grazing.

In a pilot, the UN development agency UNDP is working with the Mongolian government, the Sustainable Fibre Alliance and herders, using blockchain technology to track the cashmere herds and limit production from overgrazed areas.

Herders use a mobile phone app created by Toronto-based Convergence.Tech to register their cashmere with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag that is regularly scanned from the goats to the processing facilities.

The pilot last year in three northeastern provinces tagged and registered about five tonnes of cashmere.

“Technology doesn't create sustainability by itself, but it can be a great catalyst for change,” said Chami Akmeemana, Convergence.Tech’s chief executive.

Food security

In the south Indian state of Kerala, it is community effort – aided by social media – that is putting fallow land to use.

As the coronavirus pandemic closed state borders, supplies of fresh produce were hit, and state authorities urged residents to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Thanal, a social enterprise, introduced a programme to get urban residents to fund the cultivation of fallow land by smallholder farmers by investing 5,000 rupees (RM281) per acre to help buy seeds, manure and hire machinery.

The farmers will pay back their investment in kind with the food they produce, said Jayakumar Chelaton, a trustee at Thanal.

“We proposed the plan on social media and mobile chat groups, and it was so well received, we are covering 150 acres of fallow land, which is three times the original target, and urban residents want to do this on a continuous basis,” he said.

“Use of fallow land boosts food output, and also minimises soil erosion and flooding, which has become more common.”

In Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts aims to cultivate 10 million trees, engaging 15,000 farmers.

With a planned sustainability certification, and growing demand from overseas markets including Malaysia and Australia, the outlook is promising.

“By providing employment and a sustainable cash crop, we have reinvigorated a set of communities that were in decline, and seen a decrease in rural-to-urban migration,” Law said.

“In the long run, the rural communities become more resilient as the quality of life improves, especially for women,” she added. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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