Sunday, December 30, 2012

Where have all the trees gone - reading other people's landscapes, or, why does Bolivia look like Wales?

Terracing on Titicaca - but how old are they? When where they abandoned?
Walking on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca – actually floundering around in a futile search for some Inca ruins, there is an uncanny resemblance to ?Cornwall, ?Scotland, ?Ireland. The distant view is of islands and headlands, so much like the west coast of Scotland, or Scilly Isles. The land we walk on is treeless hill plunging down to water. Nearly everything is divided up into little terraced plots for crops, with thick growth of low shrubby indigenous vegetation growing out of the little retaining walls. There were places in Cornwall like this in Cornwall until the mid 20th century, as people grew crops on tiny terraces. I had a very powerful feeling of being somewhere generically Celtic and British Isles west coast, but also of being there back in time. Yet we are on the other side of the world. It was an extraordinary experience.

The little figure is Jo, not a Bolivian peasant lady

I always find myself trying to read the landscape when I'm travelling. It is not always apparent quite what is going on – is this a natural landscape? Or one that's modified by human agency? Or might it be a lot more modified than we think at first possible? Reading the landscape is partly about loving natural and semi-natural landscapes for their own sake, but also about trying to interpret them: their history and what they mean for people locally. The level of biodiversity they support is of passionate interest – like many people, I travel partly in order to see places of natural beauty and biodiversity. Farming in some fashion usually impacts the landscape and the wild flora and fauna it supports. Understanding farming practices and reading their impact on landscapes, now and in the past, is crucial to an understanding of what is going on. It is also vital to help us understand how the landscape might evolve. Anyone concerned with biodiversity needs to have some understanding of farming – agriculture is the main reason why natural landscapes are modified, usually to the detriment of natural biodiversity – indeed I am tempted to say that agriculture is the dominant consumer of the landscape.

So, here I'd like to reflect on my recent travels and ask a few questions, such as: how is the landscape being used? Is it being used productively, how much biodiversity does it support? Why does it look like it does? and finally – Where have all the trees gone? And when?
Travelling by bus from La Paz to Cocacobamba on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia across the altiplano (3500m upwards), I was struck by how much the landscape looked like Scotland or mid-Wales. Come all this way and it looks like Wales! In reading other people's landscapes, it helps to be able to read one's own. The issues are often the same – people have to scratch a living from the land, technologies are similar the world over, so it is not surprising that outcomes are often similar.

This train of thought started with staring out of the bus at bleak hilly landscapes, covered in rough grass, with some attempts at arable farming in the level valley bottom along the road. The first thought is: there are no trees. But then, I see eucalyptus, big healthy eucalyptus. More about this later, but for now, it is obvious that we are not above the tree line and that if eucalyptus can grow so can other trees. Where are the native trees?

Distant view of hills - no sign of terracing, but utterly treeless, so grazed presumably
Immediately in front of above, clearly arable crops in little fields
Looks like fallow, post-harvest, but there is an awful lot of this.
Let's start back home. Much of upland Britain has a similar appearance, of bleak rolling hills, covered in grass/heather/bracken. Lower elevations may conceal woodland, and on the hills (certainly in south and mid Wales) the odd hawthorn tree stands as a reminder that trees can survive. The fact is that upland Britain used to be forested, and is now severely deforested. Our Celtic ancestors made a start, and the Cistercian monks who colonised upland England and Wales finished the job, with their insatiable need for firewood and their flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. The process in Scotland did not involve monks; the deforestation process was completed by the infamous clearances whereby the indigenous people were thrown off the land for the sake of huge herds of sheep and cattle. We tend to think of upland Britain (and the Scottish Highlands) as natural landscapes – they are not, they are arguably ecological disaster areas. Their tree cover lost, they do not hold water well; the overstocking with sheep (subsidised by the EU), prevents the re-establishment of tree cover exacerbates the problem – flooding downstream is a result.
Gorse flowering on moorland, South Wales. The result of historical deforestation.
Keeping sheep is part of the culture in much of Wales and the borders. This, allied to the cachet of supposed quality attached to 'Welsh' lamb means that far more people keep sheep than perhaps should. Sheep are responsible for the ever onward march of bracken; if cattle ranching (as in similar habitat in Scotland) were more popular, then the bracken would be much less of a problem (cattle eat the young shoots and crush it, sheep tiptoe around it). My suspicion that unreflective rural conservatism plays a big part in the ongoing sheep problem is confirmed in occasional discussions I have with a local agronomist – he is appalled by the conservatism of local farmers. Looking at the bigger picture the current practices of Welsh border farming is pretty irrational.

Very intensively managed farming around the village of Challa, Isla del Sol, Titicaca.

Back to Bolivia. The terraces on that part of the Isla del Sol, and around Challa, the central village, are intensively cultivated – for crops such as potatoes, oca (an Oxalis with an edible root) and possibly corn. The fact that the little walls are so species rich means that this whole system of farming is surprisingly biodiverse – because it is arable, any animal grazing is highly controlled (i.e the occasional tethered goat). However over most of what we see, things look in a pretty bad way. There are large areas where it is actually quite difficult to see what is going on – there are rather half-hearted patches of crops, occasional grazing areas, and large areas of fallow – it is fairly obvious that everything is being grazed for at least some of the year, apart from the crops. It all looks very poorly managed. I have seen this before, in Brazil and in India.

The sad truth is that a lot of small-scale farming in developing countries is actually pretty bad. There is a lot of politically-correct sounding talk around about how traditional farmers have a whole range of techniques and crops which successfully exploit the environment without damaging it – this is usually the result of occasional examples of good practice being given a lot of publicity. I remember reading about some research the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now Garden Organic) Third World Support Group did in central Ghana in the late 1990s. They found that the knowledge and skill level of the majority of farmers they surveyed very low. So much for all that finely-honed centuries of traditional knowledge.

Overgrazing, the land in front is pretty well stripped bare, the green grass is as short as a golf course.
The brutal truth about many (maybe most) rural areas in developing countries (and in the rich world too to some extent) is that the brightest and most innovative head off for the cities as soon as they can. Back in the countryside, there is usually little to help with innovation or advice (unless there happens to be a small-farms-orientated NGO in the area). Places with government-backed education and advisory services are few and far between – one of the few is Kerala in southern India, and it is worth pointing out that none of what I say applies to Kerala, which is almost Dutch in its intense and precise land management.
There is a saying from the south of France - "grandfather had sheep, father had goats, I have nothing". Goat grazing is the most destructive of all.

There is going to be a very poor yield from these potatoes. More than anything else, it is the time involved in producing poor yields that is the real tyrany in poor farmers' lives. The Green Revolution does not appear to have reached here.

Low quality, unproductive agriculture degrades soil quality, the ability of the land to hold water, and destroys biodiversity. Poor farmers, forced onto marginal land, with few skills or adaptability, cause worse problems than modern intensive arable agriculture, which uses land very efficiently by comparison, reducing pressure on marginal land, which can be left for watersheds, forestry, biodiversity, and maybe some traditional hunting and gathering.

The folks left behind in the countryside usually work hard enough, but with a declining ability to adapt and innovate, the quality of farming and the ability to earn something from the land goes down too. The next stage in the story can be seen in much of Europe, where villages empty and much marginal farmland is abandoned (this has happened in the UK much more than many appreciate). From the point of view of both biodiversity and a healthy landscape this is often a good thing. One result is the onward march of woodland. Not that woodland is always a good thing; in some places open, traditionally-managed upland pasture supports more biodiversity – I'm thinking in particular of limestone pasture in central Europe (very similar to England's South Downs); here well-managed grazing is a very good thing.
Small-scale desertification plus eucalyptus.
In Bolivia, later on, on our walk across the Isla del Sol, we see examples of real land degradation. Overgrazing has led to a process of desertification. Occasionally, amongst the wasteland of bare stony ground and chewed-looking shrubs, someone is bravely trying to grow a few crops. One cannot but admire the hard work and gritty struggle to survive that goes into this. At the same time however, I feel that the sooner people have the economic means to give up this unequal struggle, the better for all concerned: people and environment.

Unlike the precision of arable farming, where a long-term decision not to cultivate means that at least some natural plant community gets to survive, loose grazing can be incredibly destructive. This can be appreciated by the Welsh hills and the Scottish Highlands, where stocking levels of sheep/deer are too high to allow for regeneration of trees, and where the idea of the regeneration of woodland is actually an alien one. It happens on a vast scale across many environments which are too marginal for arable farming. In Kyrgyzstan in the summer, we came across some areas where a little grazing was clearly beneficial to biodiversity, keeping areas within woodland open, so allowing for a diversity of habitats. There were some areas where there was clearly massive overgrazing, so erosion was beginning to occur – apparently there is very little regulation of grazing here. The irony of overgrazing is that the pastoralists who rely on their herds are destroying their own futures. Their reason behind such overgrazing lurking in the background, is the demand of growing populations, and wealthier populations, for meat. One big reason why I don't eat meat.
Woman working, hand weeding potatoes. Picturesque peasant but who wants to swap places with her?
Back to the question which puzzled me between on the bus ride across the Bolivian altiplano. Where are the trees? It is clearly below the tree line because of the eucalyptus. There was a related question in my mind, which was raised by Robert Peel, an Englishman who gave an interesting lecture on gardening in Argentina at the Royal Horticultural Society library a couple of years ago – the pampas supports trees, but why are there no trees there naturally, or indeed were there at the time of the Spanish conquest? No Argentinian colleague seems to know why?

Before I pitch in with a possible answer, I should point out the one feature of the altiplano hills which did not remind me of Wales or Scotland. The fact that many of the hills, far from any existing settlement, and often very high up (4000m plus), clearly had the remains of terracing, so clearly huge areas once had intensively managed arable crops. Nowadays these are only seen being actively cultivated around the villages. It looks as if this area must once have supported a population far far more numerous and denser than today.

The answer is not that they are all living in La Paz or El Alto (see my previous travel blog), or for that matter Miami (Latino-Central in the USA). I am now going to suggest that you read 1491 by Charles Mann who has written extensively on the pre-Columbian Americas and indeed very sensibly about modern agriculture. Any American reading this blog, in particular should read this. Bascially Mann's thesis is that:
  • before 1491 (the year of the Encounter, when Columbus landed) the Americas were densely populated with cultures who farmed/gardened/managed landscapes on an epic scale
  • the only comparable cultures in the Old World which could rival them in the efficiency and intensivity of their agriculture were those of China and South-East Asia
  • after 1491 their numbers were decimated by diseases inadvertently introduced by Europeans – as much as 95% death rate!
  • as a consequence, what we see looking at many American landscapes, are places denuded of their population.

Buddleia coriacea
 Perhaps this explains the empty treeless landscapes. Not only had there been several millenia of very active management, which is a polite way of saying that pre-Columbian farmers engaged in massive deforestation, but also that since the holocaust of 1491, intensive arable has been replaced by extensive grazing, so eliminating native tree species over vast distances.
Of the original species you do see very few. Two stand out: Buddleia coriacea, which has very attractive upright-swept branches with very dark evergreen leaves and Polylepis tarapacana, which has leaves which clearly point it to being in the Rose family; it actually grows higher than any other woody plant (5000m+); it has amazingly stringy cinnamon-coloured bark. Both are short, wiry and scrubby. Indeed a great deal of the woody plant species of the areas we have visited in South America seems to have this character (see previous blog – Tango at La Pasionaria). These are not species which have any economic value beyond (I imagine rather slow-growing) firewood. So, no wonder that there is little economic incentive to preserve let alone grow them, AND no wonder everyone plants eucalyptus.
It is frightening how little grows beneath Eucalyptus
Eucalyptus are everwhere. We saw vast numbers in coastal Uruguay, and there are patches all over the Bolivian altiplano areas we visited, and again on the hills lower down where we are now. It is almost sinister, and alarming, how totally the native woody plant flora has just vanished, to be replaced by this alien species.
However, eucalyptus produces good timber (unlike many locally native species) and very good firewood. Its presence will reduce the plundering of the remaining local forests; if I were a local farmer, I would plant it.
There is considerable debate about whether the Ozzie import causes environmental damage, e.g. by taking too much water out of the ground. I'll leave you with two opinions, one from Kenya and one from Ethiopia.


Lisa said...

Noel, you're so on target with your observations.

I'm a passionate gardener (and a plant ecologist by background, too), so I'm always wondering about the same things that you're commenting on. It's strange and worrisome to visit areas that should be producing food, but aren't, and/or that have tremendously transformed landscapes - think India as well as South America.

We were in the Caribbean over winter break (for the first time) -- first on St. John, which has low rainfall, in spite of their sugar cane growing heritage, and then on Dominica, which has abundant water resources and volcanic soil (as well as an agricultural heritage) -- so where are the vegetables? Imported. Scary. We walked by two small-scale vegetable growers near where we were staying, and I was glad to chat with them -- but home-growing as well as larger-scale agriculture (aside from free-trade bananas) and basic taro, cassava, and yams, etc. -- not much!

We enjoyed staying on Taquile (sp) Island on an overnight some years ago while visiting Peru --definitely subsistence agriculture with potatoes!

Thanks for an interesting post!

christine said...

I am not a gardener but I love to see and walk through beautiful ones and from your pictures I wish I could do just that
Thanks for sharing

James Golden said...

A disturbing, even frightening post. Having just read Rambunctious Garden a second time, I'm made aware of the dangers of not recognizing degraded ecosystems for what they are and at least attempting to manage them in beneficial ways. I hope you're thinking about a book.