Challenge of Soil Degradation in Chitral

.. by Islamuddin

Environmental degradation is the biggest problem facing mankind today. Part of this degradation happens to be the price we pay for our material comforts and consumption habits. However the most consequential degradation is the one that has taken place in our soil, which is the source of food for all of us. With the increase in population and fragmentation of arable land, chemical inputs have replaced natural inputs of farming to increase production. In recent years the negative impact of chemical farming on human and animal health as well as soil has attracted attention of agri-scientists.

A strong campaign to return to organic farming is already showing results in Hunza valley where organic villages are being implemented. The inorganic agricultural products are in great demand besides attracting tourists to the valley. There are many farms around big cities engaged in organic farming. Dr.Zafar Altaf, an eminent agriculture scientist managing a farm in Islamabad told an audience during his lecture at ISA that he used composted fertilizer and natural pesticides on his farm. He denied the impression that organic method of farming reduces productivity. Even if it is accepted for the sake of
argument the fact remains that its positive impact on human health more than compensated for the decrease in production.

Playing foul with nature is never rewarding. When federal capital was being shifted to Islamabad, local plants were replaced with the quick growing paper mulberry trees imported from China and no environment impact study of the plant was carried out. Later on when allergies increased leading to asthma and skin rashes, it was found that paper mulberry was the cause. A civic minded citizen complained to the Federal Ombudsman requesting for the elimination of paper mulberry trees from Islamabad. CDA was directed to do the needful but it came back saying that Islamabad would become barren as no other plant can achieve quick results like paper mulberry. It also stated that the plant germinates from root and seeds scattered all over the land. The only way out was to invent a chemical that will burn its roots and seeds without harming other useful plants. In Chitral also this mistake has been committed.

NGOs have introduced quick growing alien plants in the Chitrali soil for quick forestation. There are reasons to believe that these plants are causing allergies in Chitral. Because of their wild growth like the paper mulberry farmers are now finding it difficult to eliminate these plant species. There were many local plant varieties that could have grown on dry and barren lands but in their zeal for quick results havoc was played with nature which needs to be reversed.

Having been cut off from down country with no means of communication, Chitralis practiced subsistence economy and grew all crop varieties on their land for self-sufficiency without considering cost-benefit ratio. Now when communication links are in place, we still follow the past practices out of habit rather than necessity. Traditional mindset resists any innovation. Educated people do not go into farming which could have ushered in progressive farming according to market needs. Land fragmentation owing to inheritance laws has further reduced land holdings making them uneconomical. In the past opium and bung were cultivated as cash crops on their small pieces of land (this practice still continues in neighboring Afghanistan) and which brought them enough money to meet their needs for the entire year. Since 1960s these products stand banned.

As the saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention” the people adopted potato farming as cash crop. However unlike opium and bung, potato crop requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides in large quantities which kept on increasing year after year resulting in soil degradation. Chemical contents in the product have now reached poisonous levels placing human and animal lives in jeopardy. Soil contamination has destroyed organic matters in the soil making it unfit for future farming. Crop rotation is not practiced because of limited land holdings. Natural species like earth worms that make soil fertile have disappeared and the harmful ones have become resistant to pesticides requiring increased dozes of insecticides and pesticides. The product coming from such a crop is not fit even for animal consumption. A couple of years ago many cows died in potato growing Begusht village after eating potato plant leaves.

If our present cropping practices are not reversed and if we continued impoverishing our soil, we run the risk of not only losing our soil but would also be bequeathing barren lands to our children on which even a blade of rough grass cannot grow. What kind of elders would like to make their lives comfortable at the cost of their future generations? What is the use of wealth (made through corrupt practices) when there is no life left? It is the measure of environmental degradation that many plants, animals and bird species that were part of our environment are nowhere to be seen and with it life and food chains are on the verge of complete breakdown. It is time that we took a leaf out of the experience of Hunza and say no to
chemical farming and return to organic farming.

All domestic waste including animal excrements and dead leaves (except plastic) should be composted to be used as natural manure. For this pits will have to be dug to store the composting material. After filling it should be covered in at least one foot soil and left in the sun to ferment before unloading on the farm as manure. For pesticide, solution of red chili and garlic has been used to good effect. Traditional crops may be replaced with the ones that can bring more cash to replace potato. Given the climatic condition and market needs, Chitralis can make more money with fruit trees and vegetables which are not only soil friendly but can also bring more cash. Besides it will have salutary effect on the environment causing rain and improving water availability.

The biggest challenge for Chitral in the years to come is going to be shortage of potable water. Glaciers are melting fast causing flash floods. Rains have become rarer because of less transpiration rates and global warming both caused by deforestation. Underground water resources are depleting; wells and springs have dried up rendering fertile lands into barren ones. Time is running out. If remedial measures are not taken on war footing Chitralis would face the problem of drinking water shortage 50 years down the road. The way out of this predicament involves planting water efficient crops, lining of water channels, plantation in upland areas, regular dredging of river beds to reduce flood losses and return to organic farming. .. Islamuddin, Garm Chashma Chitral, 13 March, 2023

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