We are starting on a 10-acre piece of land in Johor, Malaysia. It is situated close to Kota Tinggi, a place north-east of Singapore known for fireflies and waterfalls. Kevin approached us recently about this land owned by his family. He wants to do organic farming on it and provide good livelihoods to people working there. The majority of the area will be a mixed fruit orchard but there will be aquaculture and vegetables too. He does not have any farming experience, but we felt that he has good intentions and is someone we can work with.
The land was previously a 3 year old rubber monoculture plantation. When we met him, the land had already been cleared of vegetation by a tractor. He said that the contractor was going to dig up all the tree roots and dispose of them. We recommended against that for many reasons:
- The roots, despite being dead, still holds the soil together against erosion on his sloping land. Over time, they will rot and act as a slow-release fertilizer.
- Digging mixes up the naturally-formed soil horizons and disrupts all the organisms in the soil.
- Aerating soil in this manner introduces a rush of oxygen into the soil. That’s a short-term benefit with long-term losses. With the high temperature and moisture here, this means that organic matter and humus decompose rapidly and become lost as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
- Without any big trees or plants to absorb the suddenly available nutrients, they will be lost to the atmosphere (oxidized) or washed away by the rain (leached).
After the first meeting, we scheduled a date to visit the land. Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication with the contractor, the whole piece of land was dug up by the time we got there. When we got out of the car, what greeted us was 10 acres of exposed soil clumps. It was painful to watch. We felt the injuries on the skin of our Mother Earth…
But that was already done and we had to move forward. The contractor suggested a second round of digging to get rid of everything. This time we made sure he did not do that.
Interestingly, that is the standard practice for starting plantations in Malaysia. This contractor specializes in clearing land for oil palm plantations. He is so specialized in this that he does not even do the planting of oil palm, just clearing and digging. After this type of clearing and digging, in some sense it is correct when they say you need chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
We will be coming up with a design based on sound permaculture principles, especially bearing in mind “Use Small and Slow Solutions” after this episode. Keep track of our progress here: Project Lombong.
Meanwhile, here are photos of better times on the land…
This is the land when the rubber trees were standing. Note the dense undergrowth and leaf litter covering the soil.
And here it is after clearing the vegetation BUT before the digging. Note the pile of wood that is burning.