The National Soil Question: Part 1

There are some very disturbing trends in the management of the land of this nation, that cries out for action, but who will hear the cry? We are ever ready to talk about and fight about land, without the slightest inkling about or concern for the land that we are so willing to fight for. Land comprised of four basic elements, its water, its rocks, its soil and its biodiversity. These elements come together on varied landscapes to give us mountains, valleys, flatlands, forests, rivers and lakes. The protection and maintenance of these landscapes is what  dedication to ones land must be measured by; the rest is politics, opportunism and greed. Land, when seen only as an abstract political or economic entity  usually results in its degradation.  To understand one’s land, we must have some measure of knowledge about its elements. A discussion on water has begun.

In a similar manner we should also understand the basics of soil, then we will be better informed to judge what real interest there is for this land by the many who claim to want to protect it.

Soil, is one of the most important components of any land, yet its value has been overlooked by most modern approaches to land development, agriculture and forestry.  To most of us, soil is the stuff that holds trees up.  We see it as a solid surface for us to walk, ride or construct upon.  Our perception of its usefulness in our daily lives does not exceed much beyond providing a medium to grow our crops.  In fact modern agriculture has discounted the value of soil in providing nutrients for plants by promoting the role of artificial fertilizer to the detriment of good soil management.  In Sri Lanka most texts on soil only address the physical or chemical nature of soil, a view that has allowed our farmers to be pushed into reliance on ‘high input chemical agriculture’, by the Government.

The promotion of high input chemical agriculture is still being promoted, even though it has been demonstrated to be harmful to human health, local biodiversity, and sustainability of production, environmental functions, social functions and local economies.  The question that then arises is, ‘what are the options?’  There are many options that have been proposed and demonstrated, ranging from the adoption of traditional agricultural practices to developing new farming systems such as biodynamic and organic agriculture.  Unlike chemical agriculture, all these approaches pay great attention to the management of soil as a primary resource.  Thus a closer look at soil is warranted.

The soil is comprised of two distinct fractions called the ‘organic (biological) fraction ‘ and ‘inorganic (chemical/physical) fraction’.  There is a slow flow between them in the form of mineralisation and decomposition.   These fractions act as reservoirs  to various organic compounds that identify in  their history.  The organic fraction is largely the breakdown products of photosynthetic compounds and their derivatives.  The inorganic fraction is largely the breakdown products of rocks.  Most soils are comprised of a mix of these two fractions in various proportions. These fractions are called mineral matter and organic matter respectively.  The amount of organic matter in most soils is typically low ranging from under 1% to 10%.

It is this organic fraction that drives both the soil ecosystem and the ecosystem above it.  Sustainable agriculture and forestry in any area, will be an  impossibility without the levels of organic matter optimum for that soil.  The organic matter of soil when extracted is seen as a dark, amorphous solid mass.  On closer examination this ‘solid mass’ is comprised of billions of organisms.  It is also the biological filter that detoxifies a large proportion of the poisons that we apply to the environment we live in.  It is a world as complex as, and most certainly older than, the world that lives on its surface.  It lies continuous over most of the land surface of the planet it is in a very real sense the ‘living skin’ of our planet.

The world of soil is bizarre to us who live on the surface.  It is opaque to light and mostly solid.  Communication is by chemicals, e.g.. pheromones or physical, e.g. vibrations.  Movement is slow; the faster organisms like worms are the giants of this world, tunnelling through at a fairly rapid rate measured in centimetres per minute.  More common are the fungi that move by growing through the soil at rates measured in centimetres per month, or the bacteria, which have rates, measured in centimetres per year.

It is a busy world, one gram of ordinary farmyard soil can contain over 1 billion individual bacteria, over 100 million individual actinomycetes and over 1 kilometre of fungal hyphpae, notwithstanding plants like algae and animals like collembolans, nematodes or worms.   This massive diversity provides for the multitude of critical functions, that a living soil provides.

Understanding soil ecosystems and how they work is important for both production and conservation goals.  In production systems this information will enable the optimization of inputs and help develop more sustainable agriculture.  For instance, while phosphorus is needed as an amendment on most soils to produce good crops, the source of phosphorus used can make a great difference to both productivity and profitability.  Phosphorus that has been acted upon by certain soil bacteria can produce a higher volume of crop than that produced by the same amount of phosphorus added as superphosphate.   Developed commercially, it has the potential to reduce fertilizer bills significantly.  In a submission to US Agriculture In 1938 Dr, William Albrecht a leading US  soil scientist, made the following observation:

“Soil organic matter is one of our most important national resources; its unwise exploitation has been devastating; and it must be given its proper rank in any conservation policy as one of the major factors affecting the levels of crop production in the future… The Nation should be made aware of the rapid rate at which the organic matter in the soil is being exhausted. Farm-management practices should be adopted that will at least maintain, and in as many cases as possible even increase, the supply of this natural resource in the soil. The maintenance of soil organic matter might well be considered a national responsibility.”

But In 2012 in Sri Lanka, we still have to appreciate this fact.  The colonial experience robbed us of that precious organic matter, the felling of forests and clearing of land began with the colonial adventure, in 1820  all land without title ie. The forests and Forest Gardens were deemed ‘crown land’ and sold to international commercial interests.  Emerson Tennent writes that ‘the ‘coffee boom’ of 1835 saw a rush for investment in land that was only equaled by the rush for land during the gold discoveries in the U.S.’  Thus, the organic soils of the mountains of this country, built over a period of twenty million years, was destroyed in a matter of decades.

The impact of  this loss is conveyed by  Fredrick Lewis in his book ‘Sixty-Four Years in Ceylon’, he makes this observation on the process of destruction of the mountain forests in the Agra Patna area:

“I know of no more awe-inspiring sight, than that of a thousand acres on fire. Sheets of flame appear to leap into the air, and yell with a sort of devilish delight at their victory over the magnificent trees they are reducing into charred masses of cinder and charcoal. It is more than impressive, it is fearful, yet grand ! After the fire has completed its work, the land is covered with. black logs, lumps of charred timber, masses, and often great fragments of stones, broken by the heat that has swept over them. A deep black covers the landscape; impressive, but depressing.


It was in a burned wilderness like this, that I found my new home. It lay at the extreme end of one of the many blocks of land that had been simultaneously burned off. My path, for road it could not be then called led over hundreds of fallen and charred logs, and followed the valley of the Agra stream.

When morning broke upon the day following the events recorded at the conclusion of the last chapter, I found myself gazing upon a scene not altogether unfamiliar to me. All around me lay hundreds of charred black logs, stumps in fantastic shapes and outlines: fallen branches, broken and distorted by fire: cinder heaps, and little rivulets of sodden ash: all indicative of the fierce, merciless fire that but a few weeks ago, had raged over a spot that so lately had been a beautiful forest land.

It was now a blackened wilderness, to be changed into fields of coffee, by the labour and patience of man. A strange picture; fascinating in one respect: fearful in another and yet so full of a strange mixture of possibilities was this wild heap of ruins, this uncouth mass of slaughtered giants of an inarticulate, yet eloquent world, to be transformed by, industry in the pursuit of fleeting wealth.”

The process, eroded and destroyed most of the topsoil  leaving plantations that cling to the subsoil and yield only with artificial fertilizer that we have to import.  As the organic matter receded so did  soil  cohesion, such that at a slightest downpour, bit of the fields come loose and just fall away.

It is not only agriculture and forestry that benefit from the soil. The economic and industrial potential of soil biota is also largely forgotten.  Soil microbes have demonstrated an enormous versatility in industry.  Today, many countries use microorganisms for mining and the recovery of metals from poor ores or mine tailings.  Australia and America use this technique to produce copper and nickel, Canada produces uranium and Russia produces gold and manganese.  Soil microbes also show promise in the production of medicines and drugs e.g.. Penicillin, Streptomycin, Aureomycin.  Complex industrial chemicals, food and perfumes are all produced using such organisms.  All this has been achieved using just a minute fraction of the incredible diversity of organisms that make up the world of soil.  The promise of what may be gained by a systematic understanding of the soil is colossal.

This promise is made more valuable with the knowledge that the soil of this country was truly unique. It has remained un-submerged by the ocean for over twenty million years and in that time built a soil biodiversity without parallel anywhere. The largest soil dwelling snakes, limbless and bi-pedal soil dwelling lizards, legless soil dwelling amphibians suggest an ocean of soil that once covered this land.  What amazing organisms we lost will never be known.

Thus, history demonstrates that the great soil capital of this nation was lost with the advent of colonial plantation agriculture.  It was hoped that this loss could be dealt with. However, the current ill advised and thoughtless programs in agriculture and forestry will destroy the remaining bits of living soil with artificial fertilizers and monoculture ‘forest’ plantations.

  • ordinary lankan

    Thank you! That is all I can say.

    When there are thousands who will take up cudgels when a high public official utters some dirty words to a journalist there are precious few who will engage with more far reaching structural topics like this.

    I hope I will be proved wrong. Let us see how many will engage with this post……

  • Lankan Thinker

    This is certainly an important topic and I thank Ranil Senanayake for continuing to write about the fundamental changes Sri Lankans need to make regarding the management of the country’s natural resources. Whenever I watch a political debate it is somewhat irksome to continually hear government politicians repeatedly praising the huge amount of money given for chemical fertiliser subsidies. It never occurs to them that giving Rs. 50bn each year multinational fertiliser companies and having our farmers poison the land might be contradictory to their claims of ‘love of the country’ and preventing the wealth of the country being given to foreigners which are proclaimed next breath.

    That said, I am not an ecologist or argriculture expert so am not sure if we can maintain agricultural production at levels high enough for adequate food security using alternative methods. Hopefully this is something that Dr. Senanayake will address this issue in Part 2 of this article.