The Loss of Chernozem: Russia’s Black Soil Tragedy and the Use of Folk Knowledge in Soil Conservation

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Old Map of Russian Chernozem Prevalence

Chernozem, a fascinating soil, named for the Russian words that translate to “black earth”, is recognized as a unique soil type by the United Nations and Canadian system of soil classification; Chernozem can also be described as a Mollisol in the United States soil classification system. Chernozem soils are prized, and known, worldwide, as soils with some of the highest rates of fertility which are tied to high crop yields. Although Chernozems can be found in a few regions around the world, such as Canada, they are mostly contained within the boundaries of the Russian Federation, thus earning their name and renown.

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Untouched Chernozem Soil Horizons

Recently, I came across an article in the journal, Sustainability, which talked about the loss of Chernozems in Russia and some possible efforts at restoration through the utilization of tree windbreaks. This method is considered a traditional “Russian peasants” approach, so I found it rather fascinating that it was taken on by scientists from around the world. This subject also immediately drew me in because I am interested in both the restoration and conservation of soil, as well as the human influence on their environment, and traditional cultural approaches to conservation that can be utilized on a larger scale.

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A Group of Trees Act as a Windbreak, an Example from the US

 According to the article, and my experience, through agricultural intensification, and a substantial absence of care, degradation of chernozems has become quite the problem. To my knowledge, the ordinary people, and the government, both cultivated this invaluable soil but only small villages ever attempted at any conservation of this soil, mainly through uses of available manures, windbreaks, crop rotation and various folk approaches. Not all of the villagers efforts worked, and some may have degraded the soils further, but an attempt was still made, which, to me, demonstrates concern for the environment and thus a sense of responsibility to conserve. So, ordinary people are probably not the most at fault for the losses of Chernozem.

Regardless of that, and very, unfortunately, through a combination of the government’s intensification efforts, a lack of soil management knowledge and, a general lack or care for the understanding of soil chemistry, and later, overexploitation by private companies Chernozem losses in Russia are at an all-time high. However, there is now data to support folk knowledge that a simple thing like planting vegetation, to act as a windbreak may help preserve and save the Chernozems. Read the full article and other related materials below:

History of East European Chernozem Soil Degradation; Protection and Restoration by Tree Windbreaks in the Russian Steppe: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/7/1/705/htm

Russian Soil Classification: http://eusoils.jrc.ec.europa.eu/library/Maps/Circumpolar/Download/42.pdf

Land Resource Maps, and Data, of Russia: http://nsidc.org/data/ggd601

Image Sources:

Soil Maps of the World: http://www.alfredhartemink.nl/2013%20-%20Soil%20maps%20of%20the%20world%20(Hartemink,%20Krasilnikov,%20Bockheim).pdf

Windbreaks and Crop Yield: http://blog-crop-news.extension.umn.edu/2015/04/windbreak-and-crop-yield-study.html

Written by Kristina Borisovna Hartley, UIUC SWCS Treasurer

 

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