International Ministries

A closer look at the earth beneath our feet

June 5, 2011 Journal
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Dusk had fallen after a long day observing soil profiles.  The road had become increasingly rutted and overgrown with grass.  Directions to "Ngulanko" led us to a small village perched on a hill.  Everyone came out into the night see what had brought a truck to the end of their rutted track.  Philippe explained that we were looking at the soil.  But we needed to find the CBCO church center at Ngulanko.  It turned out it was across the valley on another spur of the main ridge reaching down into the Nko River valley.  After a few minutes of trying to give us directions, Samuel said, "Why don't I just ride along and show you the way."

It was a good thing he did.  The track led through hundred-yard long sections where we saw nothing but grass and weeds six inches in front of the headlights, not a single wheel track.  It finally narrowed down to a footpath where we maneuvered the jeep through cut-off tree stubs.  Left to our own devices we would never have found the church center only 4 miles away.  Samuel was God's gift to a tired and somewhat cranky group at the end of tough day.  Because of him we found a warm welcome at the Baptist high school at Ngulanko CBCO.

Our trip to Ngulanko grew out of our continuing quest for better ways for resource-poor villages to farm.  If a traditional farmer practicing variations on shifting cultivation wants to increase surpluses, she can choose from a wide number of strategies. We have focused on new varieties that use limited resources more efficiently or minimize losses from pests and diseases. These usually give an immediate boost to yields without major changes in the basic way that people farm.

But in areas with growing population and limited land resources, the increasing intensity of agriculture uses up limited soil nutrients more quickly. Traditional bush fallow sometimes cannot accumulate nutrients (particularly nitrogen) quickly enough to sustain the demands of more frequent cultivation of a particular piece of land. As a result, even the most efficient varieties of basic food crops are susceptible to declining yields.

I have written before about using nitrogen-fixing cover crops to capture atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in a form that becomes available to food crops in the rotation. Managing cover crops is still a new science in Congo. Even a basic question like, Where can we plant Velvetbean (Mucuna pruriens)  for acceptable results? does not have a precise answer yet.

That's what brought us to the end of a grass-choked remnant of a road at Ngulanko.  With encouragement from the Catholic charity CARITAS and the European union, Philippe Kikobo and Philo Bidimbu are leading a rapid reconnaissance of soil and vegetation complexes to identify those conditions where leguminous cover crops are likely to prosper.

The rapid reconnaissance started with a 2-day shakedown survey to make sure that we all know what basic observations we want to make: soil texture, color, depth, distinctive layers (if any) in the soil profile and the characteristic land cover type. If all goes well, we hope to sample more that 300 sites over the next two weeks.

While this is no substitute for a serious soil survey, this reconnaissance WILL give area extension agents their first chance to begin to see the variation of soil and vegetation conditions in the region.

It will also give the team other unexpected opportunities.  The next day at Ngulanko, Philo and Philippe spent an hour with the principal and teachers of the agricultural high school at Ngulanko. They talked about new manioc varieties, soils, and teaching methods.  Often high school teachers despair because they lack the most basic facilities and equipment -- forget about a lab or soil sieves. The team showed those teachers how students themselves could begin to deepen the understanding of their physical environment with nothing more than a shovel and basic skills in mapping. And of course that basic observation begins to raise questions about how the environment came to be like it is, how soil helps define land cover, and how to adapt agriculture to particular environments.

Knowing more about God's creation is always better than knowing less. Often in our impatience to wrest a better life from the earth, we blunder ahead in ignorance, understanding little about how we can work in closer harmony with God's plan. We leave behind us a wake of waste.  By contrast, with this rapid reconnaissance of regional soils, we have another chance to deepen our knowledge and shape our farming approaches God's way of providing for our needs without compromising the rest of creation.