Sadly we are all culpable, whether it be my Thai partner’s insistence on putting everything edible in plastic bags, apparently to discourage armies of invisible ants, my new neighbour’s construction of a six-storey condo on a postage stamp of land next to my house, or the indiscriminate ‘fly-tipping’ of garbage down each and every by-way. Am I holier than thou? Alas, no. Confession time looms…
I have a piece of land next to my house which I bought, under duress more than a decade ago, because a developer was eyeing it covetously. The envisaged apartment block would have obliterated my sea view. The fallow plot, unsold and now left to its own natural devices, went through the usual tropical transmogrifications – first, neat grass, then coarse bunch grasses, sedges and low ground-hugging weeds such as wedelia. These were in turn supplanted by evergreen shrubs that included calotropis, wrightia and thevetia, and then by scrubland trees such as acacia, macaranga, leptospermum and saraca. In next to no time, the whole area had been annexed by trees, themselves hosts to tropical vines and lianas, a dense drapery over the burgeoning sylvan outlines. In the tropics, vegetation riots. I had to decide. I could either leave the whole area to its own devices, continue to abandon it to nature and allow it to become a fully-fledged jungle, or I could take drastic action.
After much soul-searching, I summoned the backhoe. I hate hacking down trees for all sorts of reasons, from the aesthetic to the practical. Trees not only look good, they do good and they do you good – by sequestering carbon, pumping out oxygen, storing water in their roots and preventing erosion by binding the topsoil. I put all that to the back of my mind.
So the man came with the backhoe and grubbed up all the trees, some already four metres tall, and unceremoniously dumped them, roots waving goodbye, in the back of waiting lorries. And here’s the rub. I had anticipated some loss of top soil, but nothing on the scale I witnessed. As each tousled and mangled root system was deposited, it was accompanied by a liberal quantity of precious topsoil. The operator made no attempt either to shake the roots free of clinging topsoil, or to avoid shovelling up loads of loam with each giant scoop of the backhoe. At the end of the operation – and it took 14 truck loads to carry away the spoil ‒ my land, probably untilled for centuries, had been scoured and scraped.
Topsoil is a precious commodity anywhere, but especially on islands such as Phuket. Why? Because there is so little of it around. In part, that is because it is naturally sparse in these locations. Look at any excavation and you will see a tell-tale layer of dark topsoil a mere eight to 10 centimetres thick. To compound the problem, this earthy veneer has endured a number of assaults: first from tin miners who gouged the surface, then by rubber planters who replaced 60% of the virgin jungle with neat rows of havea brasiliensis, and more recently by tourists who have flocked to this once emerald isle. The result ‒ a rash of resorts and apartment blocks.
However, the main reason why topsoil is so valued is because it contains almost all the elements essential for healthy plant life. It is where earthworms tunnel away, churning out nutritious casts, it is where the macro-nutrients of nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and magnesium are all normally present as assimilable salts. And rich in organic material, topsoil is normally friable and workable. Unlike the denser substrate of sand, clay or rock, it allows delicate plant rootlets to invade its pores. It takes 500 years to replenish one inch of this miraculous loam. At a stroke, I had obliterated four or five centimetres of this fragile, life-enhancing layer.
What transpired ‒ literally in my own backyard ‒ is a microcosm of a problem that besets our planet. This process of erosion, this abrading of topsoil, has been going on all over the world. Such a harsh process not only scrapes off the top layer of earth, it dries out and exposes to the elements what little is left.
Dust bowls around the world are testament to this. To take one notorious example. In the 1930s a combination of severe droughts and farming malpractices motivated by greed, led to the erosion of vast acreages of land in the American Prairies. Farmers not only destroyed what trees were there, but more crucially, and aided by new and efficient farm machinery , they ‘tractored’ and deep-ploughed existing grasslands that had been grazed by bison for aeons. No longer anchored by tree or tough grass roots, exposed to desiccating winds, the churned-up soil was blown away in vast clouds. On April 14, 1935, and on a day afterwards known to locals as ‘Black Sunday’’, 20 ‘black blizzards’ swept across the Great Plains, obliterating the sun and reducing visibility to a few feet. What remained was a lunar landscape which could support only minimal crops. Families – see Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ‒ were forced to jump in their ‘jalopies’ and migrate west to California. In all, 500,000 Americans were rendered homeless.
What have we learnt? Not enough. Maybe less dramatically than in ’30s Oklahoma, homo sapiens have inexorably created similar problems in other parts of the globe. A map of the world’s loss of primal vegetation shows Brazil, Indonesia and equatorial Africa as ongoing offenders. In these developing countries, the predicament has been largely caused by wholesale and unscrupulous clearance of land, especially virgin jungle, often by burning, and the consequent leaching away of the exposed soil by heavy tropical rains. Climate change, the harbinger of both floods and droughts, has not helped.
So what is being done to avoid a cataclysm, a world famine of more than biblical proportions? The answer, perhaps a surprising one, is more than you might expect. As cultivable land disappears as a consequence of chronic misuse and urbanisation, new land, reclaimed from the wild, is pressed into service. Between 1960 and the late 1990s for example, land supporting cultivable crops increased by about 11%. In addition, the yield of these crops was massively increased, thanks not only to the use of pesticides and herbicides, but to the development of genetically modified strains. These so-called GM varieties have doubled or even trebled yields. More resistant to insect damage or viral depredation, they have helped, at least in theory, to arrest the indiscriminate over-use of toxic chemicals, and to control plant diseases. In Hawaii, the papaya industry was on its knees, threatened by a virus which had already decimated output. Scientists developed a new GM papaya called the Rainbow. It stopped the virus in its tracks. Now Hawaii exports papayas.
But the writing is still on the wall – and in mile-high letters. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to have grown from a current 7.7 billion to 9.1bn. Down on previous estimates, it is still an extremely alarming figure. There is still far too little sustainable agricultural practice, too much land being exploited for short-term gain, and then cast away like a well-worn glove. Despite GM crops and more efficient husbandry, we are still using far too many chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, 90% of which end up polluting our rivers and oceans, poisoning fish, creating algal blooms and upsetting the precarious balance of nature. How well are we dealing with a plastic glut so severe that the stuff will bulk larger in our seas than fish by mid-century? There has been no concerted global response to climate change. Perhaps most worrying of all is the obliteration of our forests and jungles, our natural habitats. How long does it take to replace 10 towering teak trees ? Or 1,000 mahoganies? Or just one Javan rhinoceros?
I come back to my own little tale. What happened to me in Phuket is a tiny instance of what is happening, and will continue to happen, worldwide. And it is a truly global concern. In the past, civilizations came, flourished and declined – usually as a result of their own excesses ‒ without the rest of the world being much bothered, much less directly affected. The issues were not global issues. Today they are. It is no longer a case of saying: ‘That is none of my business’ or ‘It doesn’t affect me’. It does…
I have since tried to redress the balance in my own neck of the woods. How? By replanting my denuded plot with fruit trees and edible plants. It now boasts 18 banana palms, as well as tamarind, coconut, mango, cashew, mangosteen, neem, rambutan and papaya. There are clumps of lemon grass, herbs and sweet potatoes. And the grass in between is regularly mowed. And yet I cannot avoid the naked truth. I am supposed to be an environmentalist, a nature lover. Yet I tore down trees and destroyed the top soil – like an Oklahoma bully–boy, or a Brazilian Bolsonaro. I have tried to make amends of a sort, but the land will not fully recover in my lifetime, or that of my grandchildren. Mea culpa.
Dr Patrick Campbell can be contacted at his home Camelot, located at 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13; Rawai; Phuket 83130. Tel:66 076613227 (landline), 065-5012326 or 085-7827551 (mobile). His book The Tropic Gardener, an indispensable guide to plants and their cultivation in Thailand, is available from Seng Ho bookshop in Phuket Town or Delish in Rawai, or arrange a copy to be delivered by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org