Sunday, May 9, 2010

One Man's Trash

The foundation of the Malian economy is composed of subsistence agriculture in which peasant farmers feed their families with the fruits of their own labor. Indeed, the manual work involved in millet cultivation could be made faster and easier with better shovels and ploughs – but it is difficult to expand the annual harvest yield very much with a limited allotment of land and water. Here in the epoch of pre-capitalist means of production, there are only so many ways of stimulating the economy. The cost of farming with a tractor, combine or commercial pesticides could not be justified by a crop that is consumed by the people who grow it and hardly sold at market for currency. Hence microcredit or cash grants are of little use to expand millet production, and any new international trade agreements or adjustment of currency exchange rates would be all but irrelevant to the subsistence agricultural economy. What rural millet farmers need to increase their yields is something more organic than capital, something tangible and solid…

To find an apt method to stimulate economic growth, Peace Corps Volunteers are not asked to further the Obama administration’s international trade policy or the interests of American business. Instead, we must return to the first principles of the American Republic and the sustainable agricultural practices of the Founding Fathers.

Though most remember George Washington as the commanding General of the Continental Army and as the first President of the United States, Washington has been overlooked by history for his innovations as an organic farmer and poop management engineer. Paul L. Haworth’s biography George Washington, Farmer states that at his Mount Vernon Vernon estate he “saved manure as if it were already so much gold, and hoped with its use and with judicious rotation of crops” to reap plentiful harvests of tobacco, corn and wheat. Washington also experimented with fertilizers, finding that the fertilizer with the most stimulating effect was a mixture of sheep poop and black mould.

Thomas Jefferson – the author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State, second Vice President and third President of the United States – was also deeply interested in organic fertilization. In Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, Edwin Morris Betts explains:

Jefferson used dung in three different stages of decomposition – fresh or long dung, half purified or short dung, and well-rotted dung. He does not state which condition of the dung he found most beneficial for his crops. Jefferson probably used very little manure of any kind on his lands in the early days of farming at Monticello and at his other plantations. The newly cleared land was plentiful and rich and brought fourth abundant crops. He expressed this idea in a letter to George Washington on June 28, 1793. He wrote, “…Manure does not enter into this, a good farm because we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old acre…” But later, after the soil had been robbed of his fertility by successive crops of corn and tobacco, fertilizing his soil became a necessity.

James Madison – co-author of The Federalist Papers, father of the Bill of Rights, Secretary of State and our fourth President – also stood out among the Founding Fathers as the most eloquent student of waste management. On May 12, 1818 he gave an address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia:

Nothing is more certain than that continual cropping without manure deprives the soil of its fertility. It is equally certain that fertility may be preserved or restored by giving to the earth animal or vegetable manure equivalent to the matter taken from it. That restoration to the earth of all that naturally grows on it prevents its impoverishment is sufficiently seen in our forests, where the annual exuviae of the trees and plants replace the fertility of which they deprived the earth... That individual farms do lose their fertility in proportion as crops are taken from them and return of manure neglected is a fact not likely to be questioned. The most logical mode of preserving the richness and of enriching a farm is certainly that of applying a sufficiency of manure and vegetable matter in a decomposed state; in order to procure which too much care cannot be observed in saving every material furnished by the farm. This resource was among the earliest discoveries of man living by agriculture; and a proper use of it has been made a test of good husband in all countries, ancient and modern, where its principle and profits have been studied.

Though Washington, Jefferson and Madison probably only owned slaves descended from the inhabitants of what is now Mali, the Minianka subgroup of the Bambara tribe independently developed similar practices of organic agriculture. One might even contend that the Minianka are more absolutist in their waste management methods – so much, in fact, that they make efficient use of the contents of their own solid waste. Even in fairly densely-populated cities, a common sight in Malian streets is the evacuated contents of emptied pit latrines. When the poop has left the latrine, the Minianka no longer refer to it as bo - "poop" - but as nogo – which has a double meaning; nogo can mean “filth”, for they will refer to something extremely dirty as “nogolen don”, but it can also be translated as a more benign “compost”.

Part of the reason why most Malians just throw their shit into the street is that they simply do not understand the health hazards that this poses to their neighbors. But they also use their collection of months of their phosphorus-rich fecal matter as the foundation of a prime compost pile. As they harvest their various crops, Malians cover their crap with nitrogenous and carbon-rich millet stalks, peanut shells, corn husks, mango pits, and all of the other waste that is produced while farming, cooking and eating their food. And livestock also enjoy rummaging through these compost piles to find all sorts of goodies, so poop eventually gets more distributed among the layers of vegetable matter. Over the course of the eight months or so between the addition of one season's agricultural waste to the compost pile and its recycling into the next season's fertilizer, all of that poop and organic waste should decompose into a rich humus.

Down the street from me, Soongalo Sogoba maintains one of the most impressive compost piles in all of Sanadougou.

Malians harvest millet from October to November, and if they farm cotton they pick it in December. The start planting again when the rainy season begins in June – so depending upon the crop designated to it those fields have been lying fallow for seven to nine months. Cotton robs the nutrients from the soil so thoroughly that the cotton fields are pointedly more austere. Crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing plants like beans and peanuts is seldom practiced, so if these fields are to be useful the next planting season the soils must be rejuvenated with fertilizer. So during April and May they send boys to load their compost onto donkey carts and bring it out to the fields.

Over the next few weeks the farmers will rake their compost through the rows, and once the rains come they will aid the fertilizer’s decomposition and carry its nutrients into the soil.

However, the composting practices prevalent in Mali are not as organic as those at Monticello. Only a few generations ago, very close to 100 percent of all solid waste produced by Minianka farmers was composed of agricultural waste and it all made great fertilizer. But in recent decades as foreign-made industrial goods have begun to penetrate this remote market and household garbage now includes decidedly inorganic plastics and metals, the quality of Malian compost has significantly degraded. To be more precise, Malian compost can now be toxic – roughly correlating to the degree that a particular family participates in the market economy. Here is a close-up of Soongalo’s massive fertilizer collection.

A lot of Malians are concerned about all the plastic bags lying around – only because goats and sheep often think that they are food, try to swallow them and choke to death. So it is common for people to burn their trash in the streets – something that wouldn’t be so bad if trash still consisted entirely of millet stalks and corn husks. But burning plastic releases noxious fumes into the air, exposing the population to toxic heavy metals, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carcinogenic dioxins. Even with the complete and utter lack of industrialization, air quality is surprisingly bad in market towns like Sanadougou because everyone sells their wares in cheap Chinese-manufactured plastic bags which are inevitably incinerated; the concentrated burning of plastics makes breathing in Malian cities absolutely intolerable. Air quality is at its worst when night falls, because many people think that breathing plastic fumes is only bad when you can see them.

What is even more hazardous is that people can buy cheap Chinese-made batteries for use in flashlights and radios, and these batteries also make their way into their compost piles. Every battery carries a warning “MAY EXPLODE OR LEAK IF CHARGED OR DISPOSED OF IN FIRE” – but of course, no one can read here and even if they could read they can’t read English. Batteries also carry a pictogram of a garbage can with a cross through it and “Pb” – the abbreviation for plumbum; anyone in the developed world should be able to recognize this to mean that they should not throw their batteries in the garbage because they contain lead. But in a society without trash collection where hardly anyone could identify the image of a garbage can, these safety warnings are meaningless hieroglyphics. So Malians burn their batteries with the rest of their trash, they explode, and battery acid containing extremely toxic concentrations of lead, nickel and cadmium seeps into the compost and the soil.

Taken from another angle, one can see how Soongalo’s otherwise awesome compost pile is actually really dangerous because he collects it only a few meters from the well where his family draws all of their drinking water.

Even if this were a purely organic compost pile, a significant amount of that cow, sheep and donkey shit would inevitably make it into Soongalo’s uncovered drinking water supply. And it does. But since he also tries to compost plastic and batteries, Soongalo is also polluting his family's drinking water with toxic concentrations of lead, nickel and cadmium. Thus it should come as a surprise to no one that most of Soongalo’s children have severe neurological disabilities. I’ve tried to politely tried to explain to him why he should move his compost pile somewhere further from his well, but the modern consensus on lead poisoning can be much-too-easily rejected by a man who is convinced that his children are mentally retarded because they have been cursed by an evil sorcerer.

The health hazards of improperly disposing extremely-toxic substances are particularly acute when they are thrown away directly adjacent to the wells from which people draw their drinking water. But even if plastic bags are thrown away in trash heaps far from the water supply, if that refuse is eventually used to fertilize the fields then the toxic materials are going to seep into the soils, they will be absorbed by the millet plants and people are still going to consume that lead, nickel and cadmium with their food – albeit maybe in smaller concentrations. You are what you eat – and if you fertilize your food crop with batteries, then your body is going to contain lead, nickel and cadmium and you are probably going to develop anemia, cancer, renal failure and irreversible brain damage.

If there is anything that can be done to improve the quality of the water, air and soil in this country, it is to teach people about the health hazards of pollution and safe waste management practices. When you consider how controversial environmentalism is in the United States, you can only imagine how much more difficult it is to get these concepts across is in a conservative culture like the Miniankas who are generally ignorant of modern science and believe that illness comes from frogs, the wind, whistling at night and voodoo spells. In a society where people are more scared of soap than they are of consuming the fecal matter of those who don’t wash their hands before eating from the communal food bowl, it will long remain an uphill battle to get people concerned about the carcinogens they put into the air and the battery acid they put into their food and water.

Of course, the absolutely most environmentally-sound course of action would be to encourage Malians to reduce or eliminate the inorganic trash they produce by going to market with canvas tote bags and replacing their disposable batteries with rechargeable Energizers –insh’allah this strategy might be feasible over the course of the next few centuries. Though in the meantime, Sanadougou needs to adopt different ways of disposing their organic and inorganic waste.

In some cities and larger towns, Peace Corps Volunteers or NGOs have helped communities to establish trash collection agencies. Such a project often entails creating demand for services where none might exist. But once there exists a critical mass of families who are interested in separating their organic from their inorganic waste, one would have to get them separate containers to contain the latter; in the past PCVs have bought empty steel gasoline barrels and hired blacksmiths to split them in half to serve as trash cans. And then they have to get the village to designate a fallow field isolated from the water supply and dig a massive hole to serve as a landfill. And they would have to dig a separate hole and line it with concrete so that it can contain the toxic chemicals in batteries. And then they have to organize any number of donkey cart owners to serve as trash collectors, come to these people’s homes once a week, take their inorganic waste and dump it in the appropriate pits in the landfill. And this is the kicker: the trash can-owners would have to pay for these services and the donkey cart owners or le Bureau de la Mairie would have to collect payments and manage their funds without any fraud or embezzlement so that this trash collection agency can stay afloat as a profitable business. Even in those few municipalities in Mali where there is a trash collection agency, services are often so irregular that subscribers stop paying their bills and collection stops altogether. But nevertheless, even if the agency functions relatively well, without laws mandating participation there will always be cheap, lazy, ignorant people who won’t spend money on trash collection when they can burn their trash for free.

Most importantly, any effort to improve the sanitation of Malian waste management practices cannot lose sight of the fact that the application of garbage as fertilizer constitutes a crucial part of this country’s agricultural economy – no grassroots campaign to improve the safety of local composting practices can succeed unless it can also promise farmers that these new practices will improve the total yield and quality of their harvest. Even if the health hazards of consuming plastic and battery acid is beyond the comprehension of the intended audience, extension agents like myself have to emphasize that the toxins at hands are harmful to their millet, corn and cotton crops.

So I have been collecting my own compost pile to demonstrate how to make even better quality humus.

The quality and potency of compost increases accordingly with the ratio and concentration of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. I collect nitrogen-rich millet stalks and corn husks like everyone else in town, though the only livestock I have to my name are a dog and a cat so for phosphorus I pay children with milk candies to collect buckets of cow, donkey, sheep and goat manure. I add my rotten vegetables, mango pits, banana peels and orange skins, but I prevent my compost pile from emanating the sour reek of organic fermentation because the ample vegetable matter contains enough carbon for the micro-organisms to finish their job and break down dead matter into usable molecules. And my compost is even richer than that of my neighbors because I add my own urine – which contains 90 percent of excess human potassium. So not only is my compost essentially free of the toxic chemicals which ruin Malian compost, but it contains much more potassium so that my garden crops can utilize the nitrogen and phosphorus to build complex chemicals needed for plant growth and reproduction - and I get to consume the fruits of my labor.

1 comment:

dzent1 said...

Dear Zac -
I've been perusing your blog with the greatest of interest for the last couple of hours now. Seldom have I received such an education in so short a space of time. You are a gifted writer with rare powers of elucidation and observation; your lack of reverence for "official policy" and sense of the absurd is delightful and welcome, because the subject matter is actually quite weighty.
When I can, I'll send you some of the goodies you might be lacking that you've listed in the blog sidebar, and I wish you all the best in your every endeavor. You magnificently represent the best impulses of humanity, and I thank you for the effort.
David Zent, Bakersfield, CA