In this video, Ernst shows us the strategy of the ecosystem to allow forest regeneration despite all efforts we do to prevent it. The thorny species are normally considered farmer enemies, but here they show they are perfect allies to help trees grow back again.
Many places on earth share the common threat of desertification. According to a United Nations report, the world loses 12 million hectares per year to degradation, turning what once was good soil into deserts.
We are taught in schools that most deserts present on the planet today are naturally formed. Recent studies contradict this assumption and urge that we should take responsibility for the crescent rate of degraded land that we humans create as a result of our activities.
In the book “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”, the geomorphologist David Montgomery presents proofs of that. Since the Neolithic revolution, when human started manipulating nature more intensively, and above all, started farming, we see a pattern of ecosystem decay in every corner of the planet. Despite all perceived evolution of humankind, we are still repeating the same steps ancient civilizations took to turn their land into sterile deserts.
First things first, let’s give some context. The modern version of men, Homo sapiens sapiens, emerged around 35.000 years ago, in the middle of an ice age. In that period, we had fewer forests and glacial steppes were a common landscape in most places in the northern hemisphere. Although we are taught to believe that the planet was an inhospitable environment, some studies show that we lived pretty well in that period, and we were also 10 cm taller than today, with stronger teeth and bones, and less genetic problems. Well, between 13.000 and 11.000 years ago the planet warmed up, the forests advanced over grasslands and became a dominant landscape. According to Ernst’s interpretation, the climate shift affected how humans relate to nature. In our memory, we lived in open areas and couldn’t deal with the new condition: forest, which became the natural manifestation of most ecosystems in this current interglacial period.
Instead of adapting to this new environment, we decided to recreate our original condition, and that pattern repeated in most places where agriculture emerged. The recipe is not complicated. First, you cut down all the forest cover to grow grains – an important practice that allowed the first settlements but also responded for major forest loss. For the past 10.000 years, farming has become nothing but an attempt to keep squeezing the last drop of fertility of the soil, moving the ecosystems farther away to its natural condition.
The Mediterranean zone is a well-known example. Once described as the “Garden of Eden”, the region between the rivers Tiger and Euphrates have become deserts thanks to our behavior. Quoting Montgomery, it’s hard to imagine that Northern Africa was once the granary of the ancient world. Civilizations fought for millennia to control of the fertile soils of Carthage (actual Tunisia). Centuries of intense cultivation of grains and olives for export stripped down the topsoil, leading to desertification and land abandonment by the time the Vandals took Carthage from the Romans in AD 439. The presence of nomadic herds of sheep prevented rebuilding the soil, and the place turned into a desert. In that case, not a climate shift, but human interaction. If we as Homo sapiens sapiens were smart enough to learn from the evident mistakes from the past, we would do things very differently. But we are not.
“Agriculture expanded so much under the later Roman occupation that the empire’s Middle East provinces were completely deforested by the first century AD. Grazing typically replaced forests on terrain too steep to farm. Throughout the region, flocks of goats and sheep reduced vegetation to stubble. Catastrophic soil erosion followed when too many livestock grazed steep hillsides. Forest soils built up over millennia disappeared. Once the soil was gone, so was the forest”, says Montgomery.
We as Life in Syntropy are now living in a zone that is one step away to become a desert, in the south of Portugal. Looking out the window of our temporary home we see a common and apparently prosaic scene every morning. Dozens of sheep grazing the recently sprouted vegetation that grows in the slopes after the autumn rain. They eat the ecosystem attempts of regeneration. All weeds and tree seedlings that are trying to improve the place are just removed before fulfilling their tasks. No wonder there is more erosion, less rain and almost zero organic matter in the soil.
According to the classification of Syntropic Agriculture, these sites are in an evident phase of Accumulation, in which the system tends to absorb carbon in compounds more lignified. The timing is not suitable for large animals. There is still no food for them, no reserves of the ecosystem to take the next successional step. But nature is never standing or complaining. It tries, despite all our misbehavior, to reach its balance. The strategy used to deal with this situation is exemplified in the video. All we need to do is to syntropically read the environment and to participate in the regeneration process with our tools, our agriculture and our technology. We need to allow the forest to grow in order to pass the Accumulation phase and enter in the Abundance stage (or Outflow stage). At this moment, the ratio between carbon and nitrogen becomes narrower enough to perform faster transformations. That dynamics make phosphorus available and trigger water circulation. As a consequence, the fertility increases and the system provides everything large animals (including us) need to survive.