sep 29, 2018

Restoring soil with Ecosystem Restoration Camps

In 1995, a film maker and journalist by the name of John D. Liu was sent by the World Bank to document a large-scale project that aimed to restore the heavily degraded soils of the Chinese Loess Plateau. The results of this restoration project so impressed John Liu, that he decided to change his career, to learn everything he could about the large-scale restoration of ecosystem functions, and to tell the world about its potential. This resulted, among other things, in the release of several documentary films, including “Hope in a Changing Climate” in 2009 (which can be viewed on Vimeo, Youtube and iTunes) and “Green Gold” in 2012. As the press kit of the first documentary states:

“On the Loess Plateau, an area the size of Belgium has been successfully restored over ten years. A barren, brown landscape, denuded and degraded, has been brought back to life; a people entrenched in back-breaking poverty now work, farm, herd, and live, in a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export.”

Or as John put it: “It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.” This is a welcome, positive message, among depressing stories of climate-doom and ecosystem destruction. It shows that humans aren’t just destroyers of nature, that we can actually help speed up the self-repair of natural systems and create situations in which humans are a part of functioning ecosystems.

Fast forward to 2016, when John D. Liu proposed the idea of “Earth Restoration Peace Camps” in Permaculture Magazine. The concept of such camps, later renamed Ecosystem Restoration Camps, is that these are places where people can go to learn restoration techniques in practice, by actually restoring degraded pieces of land, and to learn about ecosystem function and meet and learn from and discuss with other people. A Facebook group was started soon after, to further discuss the idea and to form an active community around it. Early 2017 the first Ecosystem Restoration Camp was started, on a degraded five-hectare piece of former farmland in the Altiplano region of Murcia, a dry, windy and remote area in the south of Spain.

Early 2018 I heard about this project, became a member and got involved as a volunteer, initially to design an off-grid energy system for the Camp. The energy system didn’t materialise for another year, due to lack of funds, but I did visit Camp Altiplano in the spring, to document some of the progress in the form of photos and video material, and to help set up a solar-powered drip irrigation system.

In September, Camp Altiplano published its first Restoration Report, which describes the restoration work done in the first year at the Camp. To accompany the report, I made a series of three short videos about some aspects of the restoration, notably the creation of earthworks to capture and hold water, the decompaction of the soil by deep ripping and the establishment of a mixed cover crop to protect and restore the soil.

The area of Camp Altiplano is dry, and on the rare occasions when it does rain, the water often comes down in huge torrents. One of the first things that needed to be done is to make sure that the little rain that falls (only around 300 mm annually) is captured, rather than running off, creating large erosion gullies and taking the soil with it. Therefore, a series of ponds, swales and a sediment trap were created to capture rainwater and slow its flow across the site:

One of the big problems with modern mechanised agriculture is that tractors and other heavy machines cause the soil to become compacted, which is a problem for plant growth and soil life. Annual tilling does decompact the upper 30 cm or so, but unfortunately it also destroys much of the soil life, removes soil carbon and creates a very hard “plough pan” layer just below plough depth, which water and air cannot penetrate. Therefore, the land was “deep ripped” to break through the plough pan, so that water and air and plant roots can again reach into the lower soil layers:

After water management structures were created and the soil was decompacted by deep ripping, compost was spread on a part of the land, and organic fertilizer pellets were used on the remaining land, and a cover crop was sown. The cover crop is a mix of 30 native plant species, which provide ground cover and organic matter and which will improve soil structure and fertility:

To learn more about the restoration process at Camp Altiplano, you can read the Restoration Report 2017-2018 and the Restoration Plan 2018-2021.

Also, you can learn more about Ecosystem Restoration Camps, and even better, become a member at their website:

To learn more about the work and ideas of John D. Liu, visit his Academia-page, or if you’re in a hurry, watch his talk on TEDx. The early period of Camp Altiplano is nicely documented by Timothy Sexauer in the first episode of his Muse Ecology podcast, which is worth listening to. While you’re at it, also listen to his interview with John D. Liu.