Hesperian Health Guides

Restoring Damaged Land

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 11: Restoring Land and Planting Trees > Restoring Damaged Land

Sometimes land is so damaged that it seems impossible to restore it to a healthy state. In places where healthy land has turned to desert, or where toxic chemicals in the soil have made it impossible for plants to grow, the land could take hundreds of years to restore. But in many places, with careful work and understanding of the ways the earth restores itself, we can help the land recover.

Nobody can force land to be productive. Even chemical fertilizers work for only a little while before the land no longer produces. But if we pay attention to natural cycles, we can help create the conditions the land needs to restore itself to a healthy, fertile state.

Natural succession

Sometimes, the best way to restore land is to leave it alone or help it recover in small ways. Building fences or posting signs asking people to stay out, or reducing the number of livestock that graze the land, can go a long way toward letting land recover. When land is protected from use, and the conditions are right for life to return, plants come back in a natural order, called natural succession. This process can take many years, even several generations.

A tall tree.

Natural succession will NOT restore land when:

  • There are no sources of seeds or native plants nearby.
  • Rapidly spreading plants have taken over and crowd out desirable plants.
  • The land is so degraded or contaminated that nothing will grow. (For a story about restoring land after an oil spill, see “A new way to clean spilled oil?”)

Native and non-native plants and trees

Native plants (plants from the local area) grow easily in local conditions. They also preserve biodiversity by attracting and providing homes for native insects, birds, and animals.

Sometimes, plants and trees that are not native to the local area become popular because they grow fast, produce good lumber, or help improve the soil. Some trees, such as eucalyptus, pine, teak, neem, and Leucaena have been planted all over the world.

But planting trees and plants that are not native to your area can lead to problems. They may use too much groundwater, compete with crops and native trees for water and soil nutrients, spread beyond where you want them to grow, or cause native animals and insects to seek other places to live. When non-native plants take over, it is difficult to restore land through natural succession.

Natural Succession

Illustration of the below: Rain and sun on cracked, barren ground.
Illustration of the below: Rain and sun on ground with a few small plants.
1.   Degraded land with poor soil and no plant life. 2.   Small, hardy plants called pioneer plants grow back first in places where soil can collect. Pioneer plants hold water and attract insects and birds.
Illustration of the below: Rain and sun on small plants, birds and insects.
Illustration of the below: Plant roots growing down into soil.
Illustration of the below: Plants and a tree with deep roots.
3.    Water settles into small catchments created by pioneer plants, bringing seeds and nutrients. Birds bring more seeds. 4.   Larger plants and small trees grow. Plant roots break up compacted soil. Soil builds up and holds more water. 5.   Bigger plants and shrubs grow back, and the land is restored.

How to make seed balls

A simple method to restore plant life to an eroded area is by using seed balls. Each year, collect wild seeds. Children are especially good at gathering seeds, and it is a fun learning activity. Gather as many different kinds of seeds as possible from plants native to the area. With these seeds and some soil, make little balls. Mix:

EHB Ch11 Page 204-1.png
EHB Ch11 Page 204-2.png
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1 part
2 parts
sifted compost or
planting soil
3 parts
clay soil sifted to
remove stones
a small
of water

Mix seeds with compost or planting soil, then add clay. Add just enough water to make the mixture damp. If you add too much water, the seeds will sprout too soon. Make small balls out of this mixture. Let them dry for a few days in the sun.

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Just before or during the rainy season, go to the area where you want to restore plant life and toss the balls out. Building contour trenches and other barriers there first will direct surface runoff water and help the seeds sprout and grow.

The seeds will sprout when it rains. The compost provides nutrients, and the clay prevents the seeds from drying out, being eaten by mice or birds, or blowing away. After a year the new plants will make their own seeds, and before long many new plants will grow. Soil will build up around the plants, preventing erosion. Soon, other kinds of plants will appear. If it is not disturbed, after many years the whole area will be restored.

Helping trees plant themselves
A woman sitting beneath a dead tree.

In Somalia, East Africa, there are few trees due to the dry, desert climate. But the number of trees has gotten even smaller because the few trees that do grow are often cut down to make charcoal. Some of this charcoal was used by the Somali people, but much of it was sold to other countries. When a woman named Fatima Jibrell saw this problem, she started a campaign to prevent the sale of charcoal to other countries. “When we have barely enough for ourselves,” she said, “we cannot afford to let others exploit our resources.”

Fatima’s campaign was successful. But by then, there were very few trees left. So she started a campaign to promote new tree growth in Somalia. She believed that the best way to reduce the severe poverty of her people was to bring trees back to Somalia.

The land in Somalia is very hot and dry, making tree planting difficult. And because most people in Somalia move from place to place with the seasons, it was not practical to expect people to plant trees and care for them. So Fatima started teaching people to build low rock fences as they traveled around the country. Even though the land is very flat, Fatima believed that water would find its way to the lowest places and would bring life with it. During the short rainy season, these low fences helped build up soil nutrients, and plants and trees began to grow by themselves. Now there are more trees growing in Somalia than there have been in many years. A tree beside a low rock fence.