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The Environment: Dangers of Deforestation and the
Benefits of Agroforestry
The future of our soil and our settlements hangs in the balance. Few people would say that chopping down trees is a good thing but few realise quite how much deforestation has actually happened and how little is being done to halt the tide. Ireland was once 80% covered in forest – those forests were destroyed, largely by human activity and fell, shockingly, to less than 1%. Now, still only at 11%, Ireland has the lowest percentage of forest cover of any European state. This in a climate where, left to its own devices, nature would create one big woodland habitat. Woodland and forest habitats around the world are being eroded at an alarming rate, largely due to the actions of human beings.
One of the problems we face is the damage being done by the current methods of the agricultural industry. Farmers are under pressure from all sides – farm subsidies encourage them to grow monoculture cash crops to the detriment of more natural forest ecosystems. Global 'weirding' of weather patterns makes growing more difficult – flooding, droughts, unpredictable temperatures can all affect crops. Crops are worse affected by weather extremes when shelter belts of trees are lost and nature bulldozed over. Climate change and Geoengineering is happening and those who grow our food are going to continue to find it ever more difficult to do so. Increasingly, agricultural workers will be unable to rely on machinery that runs on fossil fuels. Local food production will become increasingly important as the oil for transportation runs out. What is more, current non-organic agricultural practice in many places damages the soil, decreases biodiversity and hurts the environment. It is clear that the agricultural industry must change if we are all to weather the storms.
The role of government at all levels must be to enable farmers to make the necessary changes. True sustainability involves economic stability as well as environmental consciousness. But economically and environmentally, the change can be effected. To see exactly what is possible in terms of agriculture we can look at Cuba. During Cuba's 'special period', they were artificially plunged into a fossil-fuel independent state. Out of necessity, Cuba began to radically overhaul their agricultural industry in order to feed the people. Land was divided into smaller parcels that could be worked without heavy machinery. Use of chemical fertilisers dropped dramatically. Experts in permaculture (permanent agriculture) came in to advise Cubans on how to work organically with nature rather than against it. Cubans grew food successfully and even grew healthier throughout the 'crisis'. Food crops were grown thoughtfully on land that could continue to be productive for generations. Waste products from agriculture were even used to help the country to become self-sufficient in terms of electricity generation.
Permaculture principles used in Cuba, and elsewhere are the key to sustainable agriculture. The food production of the future is one that works with nature rather than against it. Incorporating the layers of a woodland habitat into farming are one of the ways of doing so. Rather than planting huge mono-crop fields, annual crops can be layered and inter-planted with trees and beneficial companion plants that reduce pests and attract pollinators. Agroforestry or, on a smaller scale for individual gardens and community plots, forest gardening, can help re-forest the country, feed the people and ensure that food production is sustainable.
Paul Clarke, Independent
Sustainability & the Environment
Glass is a sustainable, fully recyclable material which provides great environmental benefits such as contributing to mitigating climate change and saving precious natural resources. It is also highly appreciated in many applications for its inert nature and its contributions to safeguarding people’s health ad well being.Mitigate climate change
In many of its application glass can help to save energy. It is most obvious in the case for insulating glass for windows and facades but also for less known products such as weight-lightening reinforcement glass fibre used in automotive, aviation and other transport modes to reduce the weight of vehicle and their fuel consumption.
Glass is also used to generate renewable energy through solar-thermal and photovoltaic applications and wind turbine, which largely profit from light weight reinforcement glass fibres.Save natural resources
Glass is a resource efficient material which is made of abundant natural raw material such as sand and glass waste (cullets). Glass is a fully recyclable material that can be recycled in close loop over and over again.
This is particularly true for glass bottles which on average have a recycling rate varying from 50% to 80%. Thanks to glass recycling, significant amounts of raw materials are saved and natural resources are preserved. Glass recycling also helps in saving energy as cullets melt at a lower temperature than raw materials. Consequently, less energy is required for the melting process.
In other glass sectors, considerable efforts are made to recycle glass after use even though each sector has its own specificities and quality requirements. The amount of solid waste produced by the glass industries during manufacturing is extremely low in the glass industries as almost all glass waste (cullets) are immediately recycled and put back to furnaces to serve as raw material.Safeguard people’s health and well-being
Glass is among the preferred materials not only for its aesthetics but also for its own characteristics. Glass preserves taste and vitamins. As an inert material, it guarantees that food and beverages placed in glass containers are not stained by the packaging. It is also commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry to preserve the properties of medicines. In another side of the medical sector, optical glass helps improve the vision of millions of Europeans.
In construction as well, architects not only use large glazed areas for their energy-saving properties but also because they provide natural light into buildings which enhance living and working conditions of occupants. Studies show that glass in buildings, through all these benefits, contribute to people’s well-being and improved health conditions.
Drowned by EU millions: Thought 'extreme weather' was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm
- Water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate of soil under grass
- Farmers are not eligible for EU payment if the land is covered by trees
- As a result, flood-preventing trees are cut down, removing vital protection
We all know what’s gone wrong, or we think we do: not enough spending on flood defences. It’s true that government cuts have exposed thousands of homes to greater risk, but too little public spending is a small part of the problem.
It is dwarfed by another factor, overlooked in public discussion: too much public spending.
Vast amounts, running into billions, are spent every year on policies that make devastating floods inevitable. This is the story that has not been told, a story of destructive perversity.
At risk: The river Severn threatens the recently-built flood defence system in Upton-upon-Severn, England +5
At risk: The river Severn threatens the recently-built flood defence system in Upton-upon-Severn, England
Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour. It’s about not building houses in stupid places on the flood plain and about using clever new engineering techniques to defend those already there. But to listen to the dismal debates of the past fortnight, you could be forgiven for believing that rivers rise in the plains; that there is no such thing as upstream; that mountains, hills, catchments and watersheds are irrelevant to the question of whether or not homes and infrastructure get drowned.
The story begins with a group of visionary farmers at Pontbren, in the headwaters of Britain’s longest river, the Severn. In the 1990s they realised that the usual hill-farming strategy – loading the land with more and bigger sheep, grubbing up the trees and hedges, digging more drains – wasn’t working.
It made no economic sense. The animals had nowhere to shelter, and the farmers were breaking their backs wrecking their own land. So they devised something beautiful. They began planting shelter belts of trees along the contours. They stopped draining the wettest ground and built ponds to catch the water instead. They cut and chipped some of the wood they grew to make bedding for their animals, which meant that they no longer spent a fortune buying straw. Then they used the composted bedding, in a perfect closed loop, to cultivate more trees.
One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him. The water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass.
Preventable: People ride horses through flood water near Langport in Somerset, England during this month's flash-flooding
The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir that sucks up water and then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small, sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable, a hard pan off which the rain gushes.
One of the research papers estimates that – even though only five per cent of the Pontbren land has been reforested – if all the farmers in the catchment did the same thing, flooding peaks downstream would be reduced by about 29 per cent. Full reforestation would reduce the peaks by about 50 per cent. For the residents of Shrewsbury, Gloucester and the other towns ravaged by endless Severn floods, that means – more or less – problem solved.
Did I say the results were astonishing? Well, not to anyone who has studied hydrology elsewhere.
For decades the Government has been funding scientists working in the tropics and using their findings to advise other countries to protect the forests or to replant trees in the hills to prevent communities downstream being swept away. But we forgot to bring the lesson home.
So will the rest of the Severn catchment, and those of the other unruly waterways of Britain, follow the Pontbren model? The authorities say they would love to do it. In theory.
Natural Resources Wales told me that these techniques ‘are hardwired into the actions we want land managers to undertake’. What it forgot to say is that all tree-planting grants in Wales have now been stopped. The offices responsible for administering them are closing down. If other farmers want to copy the Pontbren model, they must not only pay for the trees themselves, but they must also sacrifice the money they would otherwise have been paid for farming that land.
Here we approach the nub of the problem – for there is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment – by far the biggest component of farm subsidies – that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation’. Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills. Just as the tree-planting grants have stopped, the land-clearing grants have risen.
Despite the fact that water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate of soil under grass, farmers are not eligible for 'single farm payment' from the EU if the land is covered by trees
In his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, made during the height of the floods, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, boasted that hill farmers ‘on the least productive land’ will now receive ‘the same direct payment rate on their upland farmland as their lowland counterparts’.
In other words, even in places where farming makes no sense because the land is so poor, farmers will now be paid more to keep animals there. But to receive this money, they must first remove the trees and scrub that absorb the water falling on the hills.
And that’s just the start of it.
Governments can now raise the special mountain payments, whose purpose is to encourage farming at the top of the watersheds, from £208 per hectare to £371.
This money should be renamed the flooding subsidy: it pays for the wreckage of homes, the evacuation of entire settlements, the drowning of people who don’t get away in time.
Pig-headed idiocy doesn’t begin to describe it.
The problem is not confined to livestock in the mountains. In the foothills and lowlands, the misuse of heavy machinery, overstocking with animals and other forms of bad management can – by compacting the soil – increase the rates of instant run-off from two per cent of all the rain that falls on the land to 60 per cent.
Sometimes ploughing a hillside in the wrong way at the wrong time can cause a flood even without exceptional rainfall. This practice has blighted homes around the South Downs (which arguably should never have been ploughed at all).
One house was flooded 31 times in the winter of 2000-2001 due to ploughing. Another, in Suffolk, below a field churned up by pigs, was hit 50 times. But a paper on floods of this kind found that ‘there are no (or only very few) control measures taken yet in the UK’. Under the worst Environment Secretary Britain has ever suffered, there seems little chance that much of this will change.
In November, in response to calls to reforest the hills, Mr Paterson told Parliament: ‘I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do.’ (Bare, in other words.) When asked how the resilience of river catchments could be improved, the only thing he could think of was building more reservoirs.
But while he is cavalier and ignorant when it comes to managing land to reduce the likelihood of flooding, he goes out of his way to sow chaos when it comes to managing rivers.
Houses are threatening by the water in Cookham, Berkshire after the River Thames burst its banks and flooded homes and gardens worth millions
Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water. They soon discovered that this was not just wrong but also counter-productive.
By building ever higher banks around the rivers, reducing their length through taking out the bends and scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things: they increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster; and, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional flood plains.
The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic. In many countries, chastened engineers are now putting snags back into the rivers, reconnecting them to uninhabited land that they can safely flood and allowing them to braid and twist and form oxbow lakes, which take energy and speed out of the river.
Rivers, as I was told by the people who had just ‘rewilded’ one in the Lake District – greatly reducing the likelihood of floods downstream – ‘need something to chew on’.
There are one or two other such projects in the UK. Otherwise, Paterson’s department is doing everything it can to prevent these lessons from being applied. Last year he was reported to have told a conference that ‘the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water’. In another speech he lambasted the previous Government for refusing to dredge. Not only will there be more public dredging, he insists, but also private dredging: landowners can now do it themselves.
After he announced this policy, the Environment Agency, which is his department’s statutory adviser, warned that dredging could ‘speed up flow and potentially increase the risk of flooding downstream’. Elsewhere, his officials have pointed out that ‘protecting large areas of agricultural land in the flood plain tends to increase flood risk for downstream communities’.
Paterson has ignored all this advice, and started seven pilot projects in which farmers will be permitted to drag messy wildlife habitat out of their rivers, to hurry the water to the nearest urban pinch point. And he has demanded massive cuts at the Environment Agency, including many of the staff responsible for preventing floods.
Since 2007, there has been a review, a parliamentary inquiry, two Bills and new flood-management programmes, but next to nothing has changed. Floods, because of the way we manage our land and rivers, remain inevitable and will become more dangerous as climate change kicks in.
Christine Baker, right, helps Sue Hyland through the flood waters at Abbey Fields caravan park in Chertsey, Surrey following floods last week
We pay a fortune in farm subsidies and river-mangling projects to have our towns flooded and homes and lives wrecked. We pay again in the form of the flood defences necessitated by these crazy policies, and through the extra insurance payments (perhaps we should call them the Paterson tax) levied on homes.
But we also pay through the loss of everything else that watersheds give us: beauty, tranquillity, wildlife and, oh yes, the small matter of water in the taps.
In The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, Izaac Walton wrote: ‘The best Trout-anglers be in Derbyshire; for the waters there are clear to an extremity.’ No longer. Last summer I spent a weekend walking along the River Dove and its tributaries, where Walton used to fish. All along the river the water was a murky blueish-brown. The beds of clean gravel he celebrated were smothered in silt.
You had only to raise your eyes to see the problem: the badly ploughed hills of the mid-catchment and above them the drained and burnt moors of the Peak District National Park, comprehensively trashed by grouse shooting estates.
A recent report by Animal Aid found that grouse estates in England, though they serve only the super-rich, receive some £37 million of public money each year in the form of subsidies. Much of this money is used to cut and burn them, which is likely to be a major cause of flooding.
A combination of disastrous forms of upland management has been helping Walton’s beloved river to flood, with the result that both government and local people have had to invest heavily in the Lower Dove flood defence scheme. But this wreckage has also caused it to dry up when the rain doesn’t fall.
That’s the flipside of a philosophy that believes land exists only to support landowners and waterways exist only ‘to get rid of water’.
Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets.
And all of it at public expense.