MBALE – For close to 30 years, Mr Nicholas Wodero and his wife remained organic farmers who grew crops at the slopes of Mt Elgon and heavily harvested.
Because Mt Elgon soils were fertile and Wodero was using Organic farming, an agricultural production without the use of synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.
The practice emphasises a holistic farm management approach, where rotations and animals play an integral role to the system and here soil fertility is used in organic management.
But today despite application of artificial fertilizers, the soils have become so infertile; it can’t support growth of crops, Why? The soil properties have changed as a result of artificial fertilization; there is topsoil erosion or nutrient exhaustion.
Mrs Mangadelena Mwambu, the former Chief District Agricultural officer/ production officer [now retired] says the soils have lost fertility due to over cultivation, settlement and logging, adding that Wodero like other farmers across the ridges was ill advised to apply synthetic nutrients [fertlisers] to restore degraded soil instead of concentrating on maintaining soil fertility primarily through their basic farming practices.
Mrs Mwambu revealed that across the ridges, agricultural activities have also affected forest ecosystems in diverse ways and the removal of trees to enhance agricultural production has changed canopy structure, light regimes and the structure of populations and communities.
Yes, hidden under the farmers’ feet is a miniature landscape made up of tunnels, stones and decaying matter which many a farmer does not know how to conserve for the future even when it is clear that rotting leaves, fruits, plants and organisms are folded into the soil and burped out as something new.
She explained that the soil is at the heart of our existence but as farmers we know very little about it, we do know that this fertile skin has been damaged by intensive farming, pollution, deforestation and global heating.
A UN backed study, Global Land Outlook says a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and 24bn tons of fertile soil are lost every year through intensive farming and application of artificial fertlisers.
Research at Mt Elgon by UWA indicates that human activities have had effects on the Mt Elgon Forest; in particular, overgrazing by cattle and goats has destroyed the vegetation layer and prevented plant regeneration which is now determining the disappearance of the forest.
According to Wodero, in the 1970s through the 1980s, Mt Elgon remained grassy, with various trees that lay unperturbed by activities of man – the trees stood out and the forest cover remained green.
He added that at a distance, along the slopes of Mt Elgon, the wind would whistle by and the trees would bend to allow it pass.
Reports from environmentalists reveal that In all directions from Bugisu, Sebei and across the border to Kenya, trees, imposingly stood out in every garden and the land was all veiled in green as organisms lived in symbiotically [having an interdependence relationship].
But that sadly today; they can only have nostalgic images of this past where trees stood out in the gardens and organisms interrelated freely without man’s interference.
Mr Fredric Kiiza, the Mt Elgon chief warden says the relationships among animals and plants including eating helped make up food webs to the level that organisms could also affect each other by providing habitat or competing for resources
He explained further that the foundation of all ecosystems in the community of plants that make up the base of energy flow through the system as well as providing habitat, shade, building materials for nests, and many other interactions could be felt.
An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and other living organisms that share the benefits of a particular space or environment such as air, food, water and soil. It’s no different from our human community where every citizen of a town relies on its own resources and interacts with its environment.
Mr Kiiza said clearing habitats for agriculture, for example, is the principal cause of habitat destruction and that other important causes of habitat destruction include soil mining, logging, excessive harvesting of the Mt Elgon resources and hunting by humans.
He said habitat destruction is currently ranked as the primary cause of species extinction worldwide that is affecting soil fertility.
“We must know that there is no organism without an environment, but there is no environment without an organism. And I want to state that habitat loss—due to destruction, fragmentation, or degradation of habitat—is the primary threat to the survival of wildlife and other species,” said Mr Kiiza.
He revealed that today at Mt Elgon, there is fast extinction of organisms that is damaging the entire Eco-system adding that environmental degradation is the major contributor in the extinction of some animals and plants.
Wodero agrees with UWA chief warden that the eco-system including trees that formed part of Mt Elgon, have over the years been destroyed as people struggle to get land for settlement and farming, the land has been stripped off their vegetative cover.
“The land no longer supports farming, it is infertile because all organisms that support plant growth have been destroyed, trees have been cut to create land for settlement and farming, the birds, animals and insects whose habitat was Mt Elgon have all escaped,” said Wodero.
He said because trees have been cut, children are growing up without knowing that birds are there, they only see the small ones and chicken at home.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the Manafwa district senior environment officer says that habitat destruction is the biggest issue that Mt Elgon is facing and that habitat loss is a serious problem for wildlife and humans alike.
“Without habitat, there is no wildlife. It’s that simple and without wildlife, there is no healthy functioning of the ecosystem services upon which we depend,” Ms Bisikwa said.
“Imagine waking up one day, only to discover that everything you’ve always known has instantly changed. The home you’ve lived in for your entire life is gone, all around you are elements that could cause harm and this is what happens every day to wildlife and species as their habitats are destroyed at Mt Elgon,” she added
Ms Bisikwa said about 30 years ago, man began encroaching on the Park land for farming, settlement, devouring the trees from this natural environment and that the forest is slowly vanishing through deforestation.
“And once the forest is damaged, the eco-system is also damaged, the life processes, interactions and adaptations of a specific species are also destroyed including soil fertility,” said Ms Bisikwa.
Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale district natural resources officer said in an ecosystem, each organism has its role and purpose and that disturbing the balance of an ecosystem can be disastrous for all the living things relying on it.
“Ecosystems, species, wildlife, organisms within soils, breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing at Mt Elgon and this loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being,” said Mr Wakube.
He explained that the major causes are the direct exploitation of wildlife by human beings through hunting, the impact of climate change, pollution, desire for land for settlement and the spread of invasive species.
Mr Wakube revealed that habitat destruction by human activities has rendered the entire Mt Elgon habitats functionally unable to support the species and that biodiversity has reduced.
A paper titled; A funny place to store carbon”: UWA-FACE Foundation’s tree planting project in Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda by Mr Chris Yang and Mr Timothy Byakola, 2006 says clearing areas for agricultural purposes is the main cause of habitat destruction and that other principle causes include settlement, mining and logging.
This came at the time a UN environment report 2019 said more than 40 percent of insect species are dying out and that the most affected insects according to the United Nations include bees, ants, butterflies and remoths at various mountains.
Mr Richard Matanda, warden in charge of Matheniko-Bokora Wildlife reserve, former warden in charge conservation at Mt Elgon says the earth is considered as an ecosystem on a much larger scale and that once external factors such as too much carbon dioxide or methane are introduced, the balance of the ecosystem is destroyed which in turn affects human beings.
“And the result is global warming, water shortage, extinction of species, etc. This impacts every living thing on the planet,” said Mr Matanda.
He revealed that at Mt Elgon habitat loss was endangering animal species, bird species, plant species and that even apex predators are being affected – the lion, leopard and even the mountain monkeys are all being threatened by habitat loss.
Reports from UWA indicate that the natural ecosystems are finding it hard to cope with the different pressures and are unable to adjust and that if humans continue depleting resources and destroying the environment, soon it will be too late for it to recover.
Soil is the thin layer of material covering the earth’s surface and is formed from the weathering of rocks. It is made up mainly of mineral particles, organic materials, air, water and living organisms—all of which interact slowly yet constantly.
And it must be known that most plants get their nutrients from the soil and they are the main source of food for humans, animals and birds. Therefore, most living things on land depend on soil for their existence.
Climate Action Network-Uganda [CAN-U] says soil is a valuable resource that needs to be carefully managed as it is easily damaged, washed or blown away and that if we understand soil and manage it properly, we will avoid destroying one of the essential building blocks of our environment and our food security.
Mr Kizza explains that soil formation is influenced by organisms (such as plants), micro-organisms (such as bacteria or fungi), burrowing insects, animals and humans and that as soil forms, plants begin to grow in it.
“The plants mature, die and new ones take their place, their leaves and roots are added to the soil. Animals eat plants and their wastes and eventually their bodies are added to the soil, this process goes on and on but once you destroy the vegetation/forests, you are doing away with soil formation and therefore affecting human beings, animals, birds” said Mr Kizza.
According to Mr Kiiza local people who have invaded Mt Elgon national Park forest have disrupted ecosystems, and shaken viruses loose from their natural hosts.
“Actually scientists and ecologists have now started studies on how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” he added.
Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) says while we still can, let’s do our share to stop degrading our ecosystems adding that “Our lives depend on all of us interacting in a sustainable environment.”
He explained that humans are destroying nature at an unprecedented rate, threatening the survival of a million species – and our own future too but that it was not too late to save them and us.
A Sciencing Web reveals that large scale tree cutting can lead to deforestation, a transformation of an area from forest to terrain with little vegetation that makes soils less infertile.
“So the destruction of trees may, therefore, encourage global warming and changing temperatures can alter which organisms can survive in an ecosystem,” reads the report by Sciencing website.
The report says that the soil decreases in quality once the falling leaves that provide nutrient-rich humus are gone which in turn harms the habitat of dirt-dwelling organisms.
Environmentalists explain that clearing of any area of native vegetation at Mt Elgon is having significant impact on biological diversity of the mountain
Mr Muramuzi of NAPE adds that clearing of forested areas has been identified as a threat to a number of species, communities and populations listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.
It is clear that Ecosystems maintain a very delicate balance in the environment and various human activities which are threatening to disrupt this balance could destroy the Mt Elgon’s ecosystems.
A paper by UWA entitled how to save Mt Elgon suggests that reducing negative human impact requires three concepts: environmental management, management of human consumption of resources, and awareness of cultural and political concerns to increase sustainability.
Another paper by Ms Claire Stam of the Eurac City published on 26 March, 2018 says land degradation caused by human activities undermines the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services and endangers food security.
While soil biodiversity deserves to have a value in itself, if policymakers don’t see soils for what they are – a rich and diverse world – we will quickly see ourselves in a situation where both the subsidies to farmers and the price of our food will systematically increase.
“The depletion of soil organic matter will make the food system less resilient and less adaptable to changes in climate.”
The future of our soil hangs in the balance as the UN prepares for the first Global symposium on Soil biodiversity, with scientists warning that that soil degradation is as important as the climate crisis and destruction of the natural world above ground.