Sunday, September 28, 2014

No Soil - No life

After a 3 week trip with CNFA's Farmers to Farmers program (USAID) in Mozambique, Africa.
Here is a article that I wrote.  This photo shows man-made fires in Africa

No Soil - No Life      (Healthy Land = Healthy Food = Healthy People)
By Wayne Burleson

Recently, I spent some time in Africa as a volunteer on two Farmer-to-Farmer (USAID ) assignments, each about 3 weeks in length.   One was in Malawi and the other took me across the central plains of Mozambique.   Riding along for the better part of a day in central Mozambique, somewhat bored watching the landscape go flying by.  I began to realize, no animals, in fact, as we approached the mountainous regions it became apparent there was no land use at all.  

This part of Africa is sparsely populated.  Miles and miles of just the African bush, made up of grass, shrubs and small trees.  A scattering of African farms, not anything like America farms, just a dispersion of small huts, a cooking area and grassed off outhouse (subsistence agriculture). It's as if you turned the calendar back several hundred years or even a thousand years.

Now I am supposed to be a judge of what healthy land looks like.  The bush country, for the most part was black, they burn it and they burn it often, apparently year after year, to the point that their soils are gone.  Now I am concerned.

We stopped in one area to relieve ourselves as African people do in Africa, then I got a real close look at the soil surface of the burned ground.  I became horrified - all the topsoil was gone.  I was standing on hard cement like erosion pavement.  The soil surface had become just a bunch of rocks.  What was left of a grass plant was the base stump, barely alive, sitting on a soil pedestal elevated above where the topsoil used to be. No soil, no life.

You see, it's some kind of tradition to burn all over Africa.  They burn everywhere, apparently for a variety of reasons, to clear the land so you can see into it or for hand planting of crops, (their small farm plots).  The point of writing this article is their future is in danger, plus a warning to all of us about burning.  

In many places in Africa, they have dry and wet seasons.  Mozambique's rainy season starts in November through February averaging somewhere around 10 inches a month, with 40 inches of water you can move a lot of uncovered soil.  Apparently, that is what is happening.

What can I do? What can they do?  What can we do?  No soil, no life.

Ah ha, no animals in the bush.  The hoof of a heavy animal is one of the missing ingredients leading to healthy soil.  Animals can and do make sheet compost when grazed in certain ways (such as mob stocking or a purpose-driven grazing system). 

Moreover, I am a compost evangelist.  A person going around the world, teaching people about the importance of how to grow healthy soil and eating healthy food that is growing in that healthy soil.  Even eating an animal that is grazing healthy plants growing in healthy soil gives you health.  After all, animals have an immune system too.

I have a hunch I'm on to something big.   Bigger than I can think.  Healthy soils = healthy food = healthy people.  If you burn, there goes all that soil enriching carbon into the air and not into the soil.
Our health begins with the stomach of a plant - the soil.  Soils dense with balanced diversity in it, gives us all what we need to stay healthy.

Hippocrates once said a couple of thousands of years ago, "Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food."  However, if you grow anything, even a blade of grass growing in poor soil, you are probably missing some needed elements.  Food that comes from unhealthy soil is not nutrient rich.  The bottom line is healthy foods fight diseases and helps prevent sickness.

What about all the soil missing in Africa?  Solution - Education.  Educating people why it is so important to stop burning and demonstrate to them how to make regenerative-use of what is already naturally growing there.  In other words show them how to grow soil not destroy soil.  In addition, teach them how to use animals to help rebuild all these missing soils.

Once I had the privileged to walk about on one of Africa's national parks, Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Africa.  It is full of all kinds of African wildlife; gazelles, zebra, giraffes, African buffalo, you get the picture.  These African plains were full of large grazing animals.  Under my feet it felt like I was standing on a sponge and I was. 

I dug down and found deep rich black soil teeming with life. We call this "Black Gold" compost under the dense mat of grazed grass.  Ahaa, this is the way soil should and could be made, nature's way of growing soil.  Apparently no man-made fires burn here.  Healthy soil =healthy life.

Vegetation can become a valuable resource, once stepped upon it makes compost.   Pile it up or spread it out, matted down this organic matter and it becomes compost.  This is the way we should grow soils on our farms and ranches.  By the way, beef and dairy cattle are similar to wildlife and can and do also make compost.

Meanwhile, back on the 'No Animal' empty bush lands of this part of Africa.  The question now becomes, how to get people to change their ways?  The biggest roadblock I see in all my travels is people's stagnant thinking.  "This is the way we have always done it."  Don't believe me?  Just try to change an elder or old-time farmer or rancher.  It's almost impossible.

As a good African friend of mine once told me while walking down a narrow crowded African street full of garbage, (no garbage pickup in this very densely populated neighborhood): "African people die from a lack of Knowledge".  This statement rings in my ears and has moved into my heart.

The conclusions to this story in not over.  As I fly home today, back to Montana, out my airline window the fires are still burning all over the place, with only a handful of livestock grazing on the land.  They need millions of ruminating animals back on these plains of African, managed in ways that regenerates life-giving soils.  Probably as it was when it was full of wildlife.  I'm still thinking about that profound statement - "People die from a lack of knowledge".  I hope you are too.

Wayne Burleson is retired, but very busy being a compost evangelist doing his best at planting seeds of change.  You may visit with Wayne at or read this article online at where he has posted photos of this African soil loss problem.  Please feel free to comment on the article.

Photo of lost soil caused by burning off the vegetation.  NO SOIL- NO LIFE

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