Scientists learn ancient techniques offering key to fertile future

Indigenous women in villages of West Africa have demonstrated a 700 year old farming technique, which converts nutrient-poor soil into fertile farmland, to anthropologists and soil scientists from a number of Western universities.

The villagers invited the scientists to live within their communities and observe the women at work as they added ash, bones and other organic waste to create fertile, carbon-rich black soils.

The researchers believe the technique, could, if extended further afield, help mitigate climate change and revolutionise farming across Africa. Their visit was part of a global study led by the University of Sussex in the UK and including scientists from Cornell, Accra, and Aarhus Universities. As well as learning the methods used, they also used laboratory techniques to analyse the composition of the enriched soils at 150 sites in northwest Liberia and 27 sites in Ghana. These showed that the soils contain 200-300% more organic carbon than other soils and are capable of supporting far more intensive farming.

Similar soils created by Amazonian people in pre-Columbian eras have previously been discovered in South America — but the techniques people used to create these soils are less well understood, since the communities involved were disrupted or destroyed by the European conquest.

It is not the first time that Western science has learned the value of traditional knowledge, all but destroyed by overriding European cultural forces, in providing responses to the global climate and ecological emergency, and specifically for building fertile soils. Such knowledge may once have been widespread, and there is call for it to become so once more.

Dr Dawit Solomon, the lead author from Cornell University, said: “What is most surprising is that in both Africa and in Amazonia, these two isolated indigenous communities living far apart in distance and time were able to achieve something that the modern-day agricultural management practices could not achieve until now.”

Professor James Fairhead, from the University of Sussex, who initiated the study, said: “Mimicking this ancient method has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people living in some of the most poverty and hunger stricken regions in Africa.

“More work needs to be done but this simple, effective farming practice could be an answer to major global challenges such as developing ‘climate smart’ agricultural systems which can feed growing populations and adapt to climate change.”

Source: Science Daily

Journal reference:
1. Dawit Solomon, Johannes Lehmann, James A Fraser, Melissa Leach, Kojo Amanor, Victoria Frausin, Søren M Kristiansen, Dominique Millimouno, James Fairhead. Indigenous African soil enrichment as a climate-smart sustainable agriculture alternative. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2016; 14 (2): 71 DOI: 10.1002/fee.1226

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