Farmers on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius have pumped the ground full of chemical fertilizers. In an effort to rescue the soil, the government is offering subsidies on organic compost.
Kritanand Beeharry is a farmer with a small plot of land in Soreze, not far from the Mauritian capitalPort Louis. The farmer has cultivated hundreds of watermelon seedlings. He proudly shows off their roots as he prepares to plant them in the soil. These watermelon seedlings have been grown without any chemical fertilizer. Beeharry tills his fields using organic compost and manure.
"In the old days, farming was done in a traditional way based on backyard gardening," he told DW in an interview. "It was an integrated type of farming. Farmers had their crop cultivation, they reared animals such as goats and cows and they used the manure from their livestock to fertilize the soil. It was done in a sustainable way."
But Beeharry explained that as the island turned towards commercial production, farmers started using chemical fertilizers to bump up their yields.
Chemical fertilizers have provided farmers here with crop reliability and increased output, but in some areas the soil and groundwater have been damaged. Chemical fertilizers contain acids, including sulphuric and hydrochloric acids, which can compromise the binding elements within the soil structure. When these binding elements are destroyed, the soil becomes compacted and rain cannot penetrate it effectively.
There are other problems caused when farmers exhaust the soil with the overuse of chemical fertilizers. The chemicals can create an acidic environment which is unsuited to microorganisms, which provide plants with natural protection from disease. The fertilizers can also kill of earthworms, which are important for aerating the soil.
Farmers in Mauritius pump some 50,000 tons of fertilizer into the ground each year. The chemicals leach into the island’s underground reservoirs and run into the lagoon when it rains. About 80 percent of water used by locals comes from these underground sources. So the government is increasingly concerned about threats to its purity.
Some farmers are looking to organic agriculture for solutions, focusing specifically on using compost to cultivate their fields. Compost is created when organic matter, such as crop residues, animal waste and food garbage decomposes under controlled conditions.
Using compost is a key part of agricultural training programs offered by Fondation Resources et Nature (FORENA), an NGO that promotes and trains farmers in sustainable agriculture. Manoj Vaghjee, heads the program.
"Compost is a very good complement to chemical fertilizers," he said in an interview with DW. "With compost, plants grow healthier and are less prone to disease. The yield increases by 10 to 30 percent.”
FORENA is spearheading a sustainable farming movement on Mauritius. As part of this, Vaghjee heads an agricultural training program that teaches farmers about sustainable agriculture.
"In Rodrigues, we have seen two fields separated by a road. In one of them compost is used and in the other no compost. One can just see the luxurious vegetation where the compost is used, very green and healthy plants,” Vaghjee said. “On the other side, less green plants, sparsely distributed. This is enough to show that compost is doing a very good job in the protection of the soil."
About 400,000 tons of waste are collected in Mauritius each year. This provides the composting industry with plenty of organic material to work with.
Officials in Mauritius are now offering a subsidy on compost, bringing the price down by 30 percent. One ton of chemical fertilizer costs around 600 euros ($782). With the subsidy, one ton of compost now costs about 130 euros ($170).
The subsidy is intended to help reduce dependency on chemicals and encourage farmers to return to the land. Farmers here have been struggling to stay afloat as they complete on the world market with powerhouse food producers like the US and the European Union. When the EU slashed sugar prices by more than 30 percent, farmers in Mauritius had trouble selling their sugar, one of the island’s main crops.
"We have offered this subsidy to improve food security and reduce our volume of imports, improve productivity and quality and also promote good agricultural practices,” said the minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security, Satish Faugoo. “We are helping them cultivate their land at less cost with compost."
Not everyone is convinced that organic compost is the way forward. There are farmers in Soreze who swear by chemical fertilizers, arguing this is the best way ensure a healthy harvest.
"Chemical fertilizers are better because they really improve the yield of our crops and there are now very good chemical fertilizers available," explained farmer Shariff Nohur when asked why he hadn’t joined the organics training program. "Maybe we can use some compost but we cannot stop using the chemical products altogether. We cannot rely only on compost to improve the yield."
But organic farmers Kritanand Beeharry is determined to continue growing his watermelons in chemical-free soil. "Caring for the environment and for natural resources not only helps improve our production but it also gives us our daily food, now and in the future.”