Centuries-old African soil technique could combat climate change

Adding kitchen waste and charcoal to nutrient-poor rainforest soils makes them capable of supporting intensive farming

A farming technique practised for centuries in West Africa, which transforms nutrient-poor rainforest soil into fertile farmland, could combat climate change and revolutionize farming across the continent, researchers say.

Adding kitchen waste and charcoal to tropical soil can turn it into fertile, black soil which traps carbon and reduces emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to a study carried out by the University of Sussex in England.

The soils produced by the 700-year-old practice, known as “African dark earths,” contain up to 300 per cent more organic carbon than other soils, and are capable of supporting far more intensive farming, said the anthropologist behind the study.

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“Mimicking this ancient method has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of people living in some of the most poverty- and hunger-stricken regions in Africa,” said James Fairhead, a professor of anthropology at the University of Sussex.

The research was carried out by anthropologists and soil scientists who lived with communities in Liberia and Ghana, the study said.

A previous top-down approach from the scientific community and lack of engagement with African farmers may explain why such a simple method had not been studied until now, Fairhead said.

“Scientists need to pay more attention and respect to existing practices, especially if these practices can boost food production and sequester carbon,” he said.

Similar soils created by pre-Columbian era inhabitants of Brazil’s Amazon forest have recently been discovered.

An estimated 180 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by soil degradation.

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