In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

Stephen McGrath                                  April 22, 2021

 

Vidra, Romania (AP) — In the trash-strewn slums of Sintesti, less than 10 miles from Romania’s capital, Mihai Bratu scrapes a dangerous living for his Roma family amid the foul reek of burning plastic that cloys the air day and night.

Like many in this community, for him illegally setting fire to whatever he can find that contains metal — from computers to tires to electrical cables — seems like his only means of survival.

“We’re selling it to people who buy metal, we are poor people … we have to work hard for a week or two to get one kilogram of metal,” 34-year-old Bratu, perched on an old wooden cart, told The Associated Press. “We are struggling to feed our kids … The rich people have the villas, look at the rich people’s palaces.”

You don’t have to look far.

The main road that runs through Sintesti, a largely Roma village in the Vidra commune, is lined with ornate, semi-constructed villas and dotted with shiny SUVs. Behind lurk the parts where Bravu and his young children live, a social black hole with no sanitation or running water. The two worlds are strongly connected.

For Octavian Berceanu, the new head of Romania’s National Environmental Guard, the government environmental protection agency, the pollution from the illegal fires that burn here almost ceaselessly was so bad that he started regular raids in the community — where he says “mafia structures” lord it over “modern slaves.”

“This is a kind of slavery, because the people living here have no opportunity for school, to get a job in the city, which is very close, they don’t have infrastructure like an official power grid, water, roads — and that is destroying their perspective on life,” Berceanu told The Associated Press during a police-escorted tour in April.

The slums of Sintesti, like Roma communities elsewhere, have long been ignored by authorities. They’re made up of makeshift homes, where unofficially rigged electricity cables hug the ground and run over a sea of trash.

“For too many years, they were allowed in some way to do this dirty job,” Berceanu said. “Nobody came here in the past.. to see what’s happening.”

On one day in April during a patrol of the local area, authorities seized a van loaded with 5,000 kilograms of illegal copper, worth as much as 40,000 euros ($48,000). That’s just a small cog in the local illegal metal recycling industry and highlights the staggering revenue it can bring to the wealthy homeowners.

But on top of the considerable social ills, according to the environment chief, the fires can significantly hike pollution in Bucharest, potentially by as much as 20-30%, at times pushing air quality to dangerous levels.

“The smoke particulates are taken by the wind 10 miles, it’s like rain over Bucharest and it’s destroying the quality of the air in the capital. It’s one hundred times more dangerous than wood-fire particles — there are a lot of toxic components,” Berceanu said.

During a late afternoon patrol of Sintesti, AP journalists joined Berceanu and four police officers as they homed in on an acrid cloud of smoke rising above the hotchpotch dwellings. A raucous scene broke out until a hunched-over elderly lady could be persuaded to douse the fire with water — exposing the valuable metal remnants.

“If the local authorities are not applying the law, of course people — whatever their ethnic origin — are encouraged to continue doing what they are doing,” said Gelu Duminica, a sociologist and executive director of the Impreuna Agency, a Roma-focused non-governmental organization.

Focusing on pollution from the Roma community, Duminica says, instead of on big industry or the more than 1 million cars in the densely populated capital of 2 million, is “scapegoating” and part of a political “branding campaign.”

“Everywhere in the world, the poorest are exploiting the marginal resources in order to survive. We have a chain of causes: low education, low infrastructure, low development … a lot of things are low,” Duminica said

“The rich Roma are controlling the poor Roma, but the rich Roma are controlled by others. If you look at who is leading and who is controlling things, it’s more than likely you’ll have huge surprises. Let’s not treat it as an ethnic issue,” he said.

In the future, the environment chief hopes surveillance drones with pollution sensors and infrared cameras can help paint a clearer picture of how the networks operate.

“We’re working against organized crime and it’s very hard,” he said. “If we solve this problem here, very close to Bucharest, we can solve any kind of problem similar to this all around the country.”

For local resident Floria, who refused to give a surname but said she was 40-something, a lack of official documents, education, and options leave her and her community with no alternatives.

“We don’t want to do this. Why don’t they give us jobs like (communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu used to, they would come with buses, with cars, and take us to town to work,” she told The Associated Press. “Gypsies are seen as the worst people no matter where we go or what we do.”

Mihai Bratu blames local authorities for the plight of his community, for the lack of roads, the lack of action.

“The mayor doesn’t help us!” he exclaims, as a small boy shifts building materials from Bratu’s horse cart to the muddy yard next door.

“What do we have? What can we have? Some little house? — whatever God granted us.”

Black neighborhoods in Kansas hard hit by property tax sales

Black neighborhoods in Kansas hard hit by property tax sales

Roxana Hegeman                            

 

Racial Injustice Tax Sales

The Black homeowners kept paying what they could toward the taxes while waiting to talk to a judge about a new payment agreement. Then she found out her house was up for auction online.

“We just felt like it was a scam, like they were trying to take our property and my husband said we felt like we were targeted, you know, because we are living in a predominantly Black neighborhood and they were doing everything they could to cause us to lose our house,” she said.

The Dotsons are among those in historically Black neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, who risk losing their homes amid the pandemic as delinquent property tax sales resume under a practice critics decry as racist and government officials laud for revitalizing communities.

“It is a reverse redlining that is racist. And I don’t use that word a lot, but that is the only thing, I mean, it is classism and racism to socially and economically deprive people of color who live in a particular part or who have acquired a foothold in a particular part of Wyandotte County,” said state Sen. David Haley, a Black Democrat, who has tried to help some residents in his hometown keep their houses.

Officials with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, acknowledge delinquent parcels up for tax sale are predominantly in Black neighborhoods. The county — whose population of 165,000 is about 23% Black, 30% Latino and 40% white — typically has 2,200 properties for sale annually at its three tax auctions, far more than other large Kansas counties.

Wyandotte County says it auctions residential property as soon as the law allows — when taxes are three years behind. It says the goal is to put properties into “responsible hands” to improve the appearance of neighborhoods.

A lot of the properties don’t sell at auction, and the county then gets them through the Wyandotte County Land Bank, a public authority that now has about 3,500 properties — nearly all of them acquired through tax foreclosures.

Katherine Carttar, local director of economic development, said the county decided to be more proactive with delinquent property taxes about three years ago and to use the land bank more as a way to rebuild neighborhoods. At a virtual conference last year touting its successes, she showed slides featuring now-renovated homes and credited the program with raising property values and the county’s tax base.

Critics say Wyandotte County has a disproportionately high number of delinquent tax sales compared with the rest of the state, and that the effort deprives residents of hard-fought gains in communities that for generations have faced discrimination.

Wyandotte County, where 21% of residents live in poverty, has whole city blocks of foreclosed property for future redevelopment. Displaced property owners get no compensation, Haley noted.

Carttar says most properties in the land bank have been long abandoned. The upcoming online delinquent tax sale lists 43% of properties as vacant.

The practice comes against the national backdrop of a wealth gap between white and Black households. The “first rung of the wealth building ladder” is homeownership, said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive research group.

Nearly 72% of white Americans owned their own homes in 2017, compared with just slightly more than 42% of Black families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Here we are during a pandemic where the racial impact of the pandemic has not been equal. It has been disproportionately borne by Black and brown people and there is a huge risk of evictions and foreclosures coming out of the pandemic once the various moratoriums are lifted,” Collins said. “So it might be a time not to pursue aggressive tax sales.”

The two Black county commissioners who represent neighborhoods hard hit by the sales did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.

In the Dotsons’ case, Haley noticed that their house was on the auction list and alerted them. They went to pay the full $2,300 in delinquent taxes the day of the sale, but were told it was too late, Rozetta Dotson said.

They eventually got their home back — by paying back taxes plus legal fees for the attorney for the real estate company that had bought it. The total was $5,200.

Haley successfully warned another Black resident, Karen Pitchford-Knox, that the house where she’d grown up was on the auction block this January. When Pitchford-Knox’s mom died in 2016, she inherited the house as well as more than $5,000 in delinquent property taxes. She got behind on her payment plan after losing her job during the pandemic.

Pitchford-Knox had about two weeks to — as she put it — “beg, borrow and steal from Peter and Paul” the $1,000 for the taxes.

“I most definitely do feel they are targeting Black homes,” she said, noting she knew three other Black women whose homes were on auction lists. “I feel it is like Black female homeowners and Black seniors.”

NM may lose ownership of its water rights

Tribune Publishing

NM may lose ownership of its water rights

Mike Gallagher, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.       April 24, 2021

 

Apr. 24—The New Mexico Supreme Court recently decided to let stand a Court of Appeals decision that the Engineer’s Office says would rob the state of its ability to regulate water rights in New Mexico.

Now, the state engineer is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that ruling.

The legal path leading to the problem is complicated and centers on the state’s negotiated settlement with the Navajo Nation on allocation of water rights from the San Juan River.

That settlement, approved by Congress, was challenged by the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association.

In upholding the settlement in 2018, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the state of New Mexico “lacks ownership claim” in water within its borders and that the settlement agreement “preempts” state law.

The opinion was written by retired U.S. District Judge Bruce Black, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the case. Prior to serving on the federal bench, Black was a state Court of Appeals judge.

“The opinion’s erroneous reasoning that congressional approval of the Settlement Agreement resulted in it becoming federal law that preempts state law would have dire consequences for future settlements of Indian water rights claims in New Mexico,” attorneys for the State Engineer’s Office said in a request for reconsideration.

The request for a rehearing said the Court of Appeals decision “eviscerates the primacy of the State over its water resources, in the face of 150 years of unwavering federal deference to State authority.”

The Supreme Court initially granted a writ filed by the state engineer to hear the case, but then decided not to proceed with hearing the appeal.

The latest court filings ask the court to reconsider and hear the case.

Attorneys for the State Engineers Office and others involved in the settlement with the Navajo Nation say the stakes are high.

The Court of Appeals reasoning, they argue, finds that the federal government, not the state, controls the public waters in New Mexico.

“If congressional approval of Indian water right settlements results in preemption of state law, the state will be forced to choose between losing control over its waters or foregoing the benefit to New Mexico’s economy of millions of dollars in federal funding provided for these settlements,” the Engineer’s Office said.

For example, attorneys said, the settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation brought more than $1.3 billion into the state for construction of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

The Court of Appeals decision also puts into question the way the state has traditionally adjudicated water rights.

According to the court filing, the language in the Court of Appeals decision threatens the state’s current negotiations with nine Pueblos and tribes to settle water rights claims.

“If not corrected, the language will create confusion over State permitting authority, impede efforts by stakeholders to address important water management issues like surface land subsidence, groundwater depletion and drought management by shortage sharing,” the state argues in its request.

The Court of Appeals’ reasoning that the settlement agreements preempt state law was based, at least in part, on the need for congressional approval of the settlement agreement between the state and the Navajo Nation.

But the State Engineers Office said that congressional approval was needed because the agreement included waivers of the Navajo Nation’s water rights claims and the need for congressional approval of funding for various water projects.

The involvement of Congress in approving the settlement did not strip the power of the state to regulate the waters within its boundaries, the state said in court filings.

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and the city of Gallup have joined the State Engineers Office in requesting the rehearing.

The water utility authority serves 700,000 people in the Albuquerque metropolitan area and was part of the settlement because it receives water through the San Juan-Chama diversion project.

The city of Gallup plans to play a central role in using water from the San Juan River to supply not just city residents, but areas of the Navajo Nation that are now dependent on underground water supplies.

Pesticides disrupt our hormones for generations

Pesticides disrupt our hormones for generations – even women whose grandmothers were exposed to the chemical have higher risks of obesity and breast cancer, scientists say

Julia Naftulin                      April 19, 2021
DDT spray toxic chemicals
An aerosol can, loaded with DDT, Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, is used here against flies. (AP Photo) AP

  • A new study found women whose grandmothers had DDT exposure are more likely to be obese and have early periods.
  • DDT was a widely used insecticide that’s been banned in the US since 1972.
  • Early onset periods are a risk factor for breast cancer and heart conditions.

There’s evidence that DDT, a pesticide previously used to kill insects like mosquitoes, is still wreaking havoc on human health four decades since the government banned it.

In 1972, Congress banned DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Since then, evidence has emerged – first in wildlife and then in humans – that the pesticide left an enduring mark on health.

According to a study published April 14 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the granddaughters of people who were exposed to DDT while pregnant are more likely to be obese, have early-onset periods, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

To study the effects of DDT, researchers at UC Davis and the Public Health Institute in Oakland used archived blood samples from 15,000 women who were pregnant when DDT was still used. The researchers then worked with these women’s daughters and granddaughters, collecting their blood samples to see how DDT impacted them before they were born.

Researchers found that women in their 20s and 30s with grandmothers who were exposed to DDT are between two and three times more likely to be obese and two times more likely to have their periods start earlier than usual – around the age of 11.

Early-onset menstruation can lead to other health conditions later in life, like breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes, according to the study authors.

“Even though we banned that stuff more than 40 years ago, people now walking the Earth – the granddaughters of those who were pregnant – were exposed,” Barbara Cohn told the LA Times. Cohn is director of the Public Health Institute’s Child Health and Development Studies, the institution that researched the 15,000 women who gave blood samples decades ago.

‘Forever chemicals’ are ruining reproductive abilities and overall health

This isn’t the first study to find chemicals’ lasting impact on human health.

An October 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found the daughters of pregnant women exposed to DDT were more likely to develop breast cancer. The researchers of the study also found children who had DDT exposure were five times more likely to develop breast cancer.

In addition to DDT, chemicals in plastics like water bottles are altering human reproductive abilities, Insider previously reported.

“It’s the full meaning of what a ‘forever chemical’ is – in some ways, that makes every chemical potentially ‘forever’ if it has the potential to do this,” Cohn told the LA Times.

Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows

‘If you want a scary story:’ Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows

Morgan Greene, Chicago Tribune                April 21, 2021

 

Illinois’ climate is swiftly changing,

In an extensive new report released Tuesday, the Nature Conservancy details how Illinois’ climate has transformed and looks forward to what more change might mean for the state’s agriculture, human health and already-stressed ecosystems.

“There’s a big message there that we need to be doing everything we can to prevent future climate change by mitigating our use of fossil fuels, particularly,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, and one of the lead authors of the assessment. “For those things we can’t prevent, because there’s still going to be some change, we have to adapt to be resilient.”

Even after curbing carbon emissions to meet certain bench marks, the changes in Illinois by 2100 could be stark: average annual temperatures warming 4 to 9 degrees, a month of 95-degree or higher temperatures, 3 more inches of spring rain, more flooding, and compounding health risks from heat, waterborne pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks. Not to mention the mental strain of living through it all.

What’s happening in Illinois is part of the larger story of human activity driving a changing global climate. Last year tied for the warmest on record, according to NASA scientists. Since preindustrial times, concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have shot up, and the global average temperature has increased. The Paris Agreement aims to limit warming, preferably to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a limit fast approaching.

Carbon emissions dropped during the pandemic, but carbon dioxide levels continued to climb.

“The climate of Illinois, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world, is changing and is changing rapidly,” Wuebbles said. “And that has serious repercussions on the people of Illinois.”

“If you want a scary story, that’s the story,” Wuebbles added. “And we need to be taking it seriously. We need to be doing something about it.”

Vulnerable communities

The health effects of climate change will depend on where you live; communities already disproportionately facing inequities, including low-income communities and communities of color, are likely to be harder hit, according to the report released Tuesday by more than 40 scientists and experts.

“The thing about climate change is that it really doesn’t leave anything untouched,” said Karen Petersen, climate change project manager at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s not just about temperature, or feeling hotter on a summer day, or having a rainier day. It’s about how those climate impacts, which we perceive as our daily weather, are going to impact how a farmer farms, or how someone deals with heat stress.”

In Illinois, increasing overall precipitation and heavier events are expected to intensify flooding.  Greater flooding risk may bring greater emotional stress, along with mold and waterborne disease. Additionally, dozens of Illinois health care facilities are located in flood plains, which may hinder access to care during floods.

According to a study referenced in the assessment that looked at flooding claims by county over a seven-year period, nearly all private insurance claims were in urban areas.

In Chicago, flooding has forced sludge into basements and unleashed swarms of sewer flies in nightmare scenarios. The burden is disproportionate, said Marcella Bondie Keenan, climate program director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

“You can see it on the ground in terms of neighborhoods that are being hit over and over again, places like Chatham for example,” Keenan said. “But also places like the Far Southeast Side.”

On the Southeast Side, it’s not just the basement backups, Keenan said, but also what’s being picked up along the way from industrial areas. And pollution concerns also connect to climate resiliency, Keenan said.

“Every time we make a decision around what to permit and how to develop, you’re either moving toward a climate safe future, or you’re moving further away from it,” Keenan said.

Climate change is likely to increase the total days with a dangerous heat index in Illinois and warmer weather can mean an increased risk of heat stroke. Cities including Chicago, blanketed in concrete and asphalt, also exhibit the “urban heat island effect” — warming more and staying warmer at night. If emissions rise, heat waves like the 1995 Chicago disaster that led to more than 700 deaths are expected to become more common.

Heat may also welcome some species north, including the yellow fever mosquito, which transmits dengue, and allow pests to bite for longer periods. Warmer winters may assist tick survival and mosquito population growth, leading to earlier and more circulation of West Nile virus.

Respiratory allergies and asthma attacks could be more frequently spurred by mold, pollution and pollen — which is likely to see an extended season. In Illinois, the assessment notes asthma is already high among African Americans, women and low-income communities.

“The normal that we understand now is going and is already shifting,” Petersen said. “It’s already happening.

‘A very resilient breed’

Jeff Kirwan, who serves on the board of directors for the Illinois Farm Bureau, farms corn and soybeans south of the Quad Cities in Mercer County.

Over the years, Kirwan said variability seems to have increased a bit, but it’s hard to assess. “We do seem to get more severe weather, more dynamic rainfalls, dryer spells,” Kirwan said. “The future, when you look into that crystal ball, it’s a whole bunch of uncertainty. … We don’t know. And so you just kind of adapt. And I think that’s what we’re good at, adapting to changes.”

The climate that Illinois farmers depend upon is changing, the assessment says, and farmers will be up against higher temperatures, increased soil evaporation, flash droughts — and stressed crops.

Illinois is among the top producers of soybeans and corn, which in part contribute to a more than $19 billion a year industry, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The industry employs close to a million people, but farm operators have decreased to about 75,000 from 164,000 in 1959, while average farm sizes have more than doubled with technology developments, according to the Department of Agriculture.

It’s tough to predict how Illinois crops will react to a warming climate with much uncertainty ahead, the assessment notes, but even with a longer growing season, there are some challenges farmers might face.

Increased carbon dioxide levels may benefit soybean crops in the short term, but as drought and heat intensify, elevated levels may make things worse. Corn yields are likely to be reduced by 2050 and may be particularly vulnerable to warming nighttime temperatures. Some planting zones may shift north.

With increasing precipitation, a wet spring could delay planting. In 2019, among the wettest years on record , about 1.2 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted, the assessment notes. Wetter weather can also cause erosion, which can make soil less resilient to extreme weather.

Nuisances — weeds, pests and disease — may also become greater problems, requiring more applications of control measures, including pesticides.

These competing forces mean adapting will be necessary, but the assessment says farmers may be able to make up for some losses through technology advances and management tweaks.

Kirwan’s farm uses cover crops — which can assist in soil erosion — and other conservation measures. Adopting those practices was part of thinking about sustainability, water quality and nutrient management, Kirwan said.

“But also because it helps us preserve our asset and our legacy,” Kirwan said. “It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get differing opinions, but I think overall we try and do the things that are best for our operations and for our families.”

There have been discussions about climate in Illinois for years in the agricultural world, Kirwan said, and he’s still optimistic, especially as technology has developed.

“Farming, we are always dealing with challenges — weather challenges, insect challenges, governmental challenges,” Kirwan said. “Nothing’s ever going to stay the same, we know that.”

Weather disasters, and the existential threats climate change poses, can affect mental health, and the assessment notes farmers may be at an especially high risk as they face increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.

To watch weather diminish a crop can take a mental toll, Kirwan said. “We don’t like to have to watch something that we put our hard-earned work into wither away.”

Still, Kirwan said, “Farmers are a very resilient breed — if we’ve made it this far.”

‘Things can warm up very quickly’

In Illinois, the average daily temperature has increased throughout most of the state in the last century by 1 to 2 degrees.

Nighttime minimum temperatures in some parts of the state have increased at three times the rate of daytime temperatures, leading to hot summer nights without relief, and also fewer freezing evenings in winter — the season that has seen the most warming. In some parts of the state, minimum winter temperatures have warmed by more than 3 degrees.

Daytime high temperatures have been kept at bay in part by increased precipitation, which increases soil moisture. Average annual precipitation has increased by 5% to as much as 20% in pockets of the state, and there are 40% more days with 2 inches of rain or more, while in recent decades extreme droughts have become more rare.

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and heavier rains are likely to continue, especially in the north. But that balance may shift in coming decades, as temperatures increase and summer precipitation decreases.

“Once you dry out those soils, things can warm up very quickly,” said Jim Angel, a lead author of the report and a former state climatologist for more than three decades.

An exceptionally hot 1936 summer, with temperatures 4.5 degrees above a 30-year average, could become the norm.

And more extreme weather may become more likely — more exceptionally warm days, more intense rains and longer dry spells.

The assessment’s lower scenario model predicting the effects of climate change depends on a rapid retreat from fossil fuels and lower emissions overall, while in a higher scenario model, emissions continue to steeply rise.

Wuebbles, a former White House expert on climate science, said he thinks people can adapt to the lower end. “It’s the high scenario, or anything approaching the high scenario, that by the end of this century I think would be disastrous for humanity.”

The higher estimates for the state by the end of the century are difficult to imagine. In northern Illinois, for example, at the extreme end, the annual average temperature could increase from 49 degrees to as much as 63 degrees — a 14-degree jump.

“It’s not in the abstract,” Angel said. “We’re actually observing these changes taking place now and the projections are that not only are they going to continue, but in many cases become much more problematic moving on into the future.”

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Wuebbles said, “My big worry is getting to 2050 and having our grandchildren saying, what were they thinking back in 2020?”

Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Civil Eats

Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Reducing tillage—which often relies on herbicides—has long been out of reach on organic farms. Now, a group of veteran growers are undertaking a soil health experiment with implications for California and beyond.

Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)

Last summer, veteran organic farmer Scott Park was bewildered when he surveyed his vast tomato, corn, and sunflower fields. Before planting the crops on 350 acres he had radically cut down on tilling the soil, planted cover crops twice, and let goats graze the land. And he was sure he’d see excellent yields.

The undisturbed soil was loaded with earthworms, but the crops grew sluggishly and didn’t produce enough fruit. Park lost almost half of his yields—and over half a million dollars.

“We thought we were going to cut a fat hog,” said Park, whose farm lies 50 miles northwest of Sacramento in California’s Central Valley. “But the combination of no-till and grazing kicked me in the teeth.”

Though surprising, the result was part of a critical experiment that Park plans to replicate again—this time, on a smaller plot on his 1,700-acre farm: Because there’s more at stake than his own profit.

Park, who has been farming for 48 years and is well-known for his soil health practices, is one of a small group of innovative organic vegetable producers working with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Cal State Chico’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and California State University, Fresno to decipher how to farm with little or no tillage—and without chemicals. Similar research is also taking place at U.C. Santa Cruz.

For the vast majority of organic growers, tilling the soil is a crucial tool. It helps control weeds (which are a much bigger challenge for farmers who don’t spray herbicides) and helps incorporate compost and other nutrients into soil. But that system may begin to change.

Organic no-till farmer Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

The so-called no-till farming system, which is said to boost soil health, sequester carbon, and bring myriad other benefits, is popular among commodity grain farmers in the Midwest and the Northeast—many of whom rely heavily on herbicides and increasingly use the term “regenerative” to describe what they do. But even among those farmers, most haven’t cut out tilling altogether, alternating no-till with tillage practices.

Switching to no-till on mechanized organic farms—and particularly in organic vegetable cropping systems—has long been considered the holy grail, and practically impossible to achieve, especially in the water-parched arid West, a region that dominates U.S. organic produce production.

Two growing seasons into the California experiment, Park and the other farmers have faced an array of challenges. Some have been economically painful, while others have led to promising results. And yet, if the farmers can get past the hurdles presenting themselves in these early years, their efforts could catalyze a massive shift to reduced tillage—and a new understanding of soil health—in the organic industry in California and nationwide. And because no-till is held up as a central tenent of regenerative agriculture, it could also be seen as a boon for farmers hoping to take part in the carbon markets the Biden administration has put forward in response to climate change.

“When soil transitions to a no-till system, yield reduction is usually a temporary thing,” said Cynthia Daley, a professor at Chico State who is involved in the project. “These farmers see the benefit of going into no-till, but they are trying to find a way to get there that doesn’t result in a negative economic impact in the long run. Their dedication is incredible.”

No-till could also create a carbon sponge to retain water in the soil and cut back on evaporation, a change extremely welcome in California, where water is scarce and droughts are common, said Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, another farmer participating in the no-till experiment. The cooling effects on soil would also be crucial, Muller said, given that hot temperatures can negatively impact the soil’s microorganisms.

“We’re trying to figure out . . . whether there’s a better system without tillage where we can empower the microbial communities under those plants to supply them with what they need,” said Muller. “We’re at the beginning of that curve of knowledge and of understanding how these practices can capture more carbon and put more vitality into our farming system.”

No-Till Catches on with Organic Farmers

Intensive tillage on a large scale took off in the U.S. with the invention of the steel plow in the 1830s. But while it facilitated the conversion of prairie land and large-scale farming across the country, tillage also led to massive erosion, habitat loss, and the release of greenhouse gases. It culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an agricultural crisis so severe that it caused some farmers to adopt conservation practices and the U.S. government to invest in teaching them how to take care of their soil through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Soil Conservation service, which eventually became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). And while those efforts convinced some farmers to change their practices, most continued to intensively plow their fields multiple times each season.

No-till rose in popularity throughout several regions of the U.S. in the 1970s and today, its adoption is concentrated in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, no-till was used on 37 percent of U.S. acres, and reduced tillage was practiced on an additional 35 percent. Since reducing tillage is part of a wider set of regenerative practices, some farmers are also planting more cover crops to regenerate their soil and prevent erosion. Cover crops use rose by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017, but they still only grow on about 4 percent of the nation’s total cropland.

On most farms, the phrase “no-till” is a misnomer, as many farmers use it to refer to a greatly reduced approach to tilling and not to the continuous lack of tillage. For this reason, teasing out the differences in approaches between regenerative and organic systems can be a challenge.

Some organic farmers have scoffed at the idea of no-till and regenerative agriculture systems that include herbicides. They argue that organic farming, which is built around the idea of soil health, can build up soil fertility or sequester carbon better than regenerative/no-till agriculture. Some research indicates this is true because the addition of manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

Other research shows that organic farms’ ability to store carbon at deeper soil levels exceeds that of conventional farms, even those using cover crops. Scientists are still learning to understand how soil works, so the jury is out on whether organic production that includes tilling but cares for the soil in other ways equals or outstrips no-till farming.

While science continues to evolve, a third of all organic farms nationwide self-define their operations as “no-till” or “minimal till”—but, as is the case for conventional growers, for most, these terms don’t mean that they have stopped tilling.

The “organic no-till” project at the Rodale Institute, is a good example. The Institute has been working since the 1990s on ways organic grain growers can disturb the soil less.

“On one hand, organic farmers claim to be improving soil health, but with the same breath they’re doing multiple tilling operations in a single season,” said Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute’s executive director. “Tillage day isn’t a particularly good day if you’re an earthworm.”

Moyer, who spent 35 years as Rodale’s farm director and farm manager, began encouraging large organic grain growers to plant cover crops prior to their cash crops and to use the residue as mulch to suppress weeds. To facilitate the process on large farms, he re-designed the roller crimper as a tool to help organic corn and soybean farmers reduce tilling. Hitched to a tractor, the crimper flattens cover crops, breaking their stems and creating a dense mat of mulch. With the right tool, the farmer can then plant the cash crop directly into the newly rolled mulch.

A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)

This system has allowed some organic farmers, mostly in the Midwest, to reduce their tillage—cutting it down to one deep-till pass per crop rotation. In the past, those farmers would make a primary tillage pass over their fields, followed by multiple secondary passes to disc, pack the soil, make a clean bed ready for planting, and then—once the crop is growing—to rotary hoe and cultivate multiple times to manage weeds.

“To the microbial life in the soil, it feels like tillage over and over again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Moyer said.

In addition to the tillage to establish the cover crop, Rodale’s system reduces multiple passes through the fields to just two, planting and harvesting, Moyer said. And farmers time the deep tillage for late summer, when the weather is dry and the earthworms and other soil life burrow deep in the soil in search of moisture. They also apply compost, manure, or other soil amendments, which—in addition to the benefits derived from the cover crop—reduce the negative impacts of deep tillage, he added.

The roller-crimper system has worked so well for organic grain corn and soybean that some conventional soybean growers are also using it to reduce their use of expensive herbicides, said Moyer, who is also the author of the newly published book, Roller/Crimper No-Till.

The approach has gone from total obscurity to adoption by organic farmers on millions of acres—mostly in corn and soybeans, but also on orchard and vineyard floors, Moyer said. Other institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-MadisonWashington State University, and Iowa State University, are also conducting research on reduced tillage in organic farming using the roller-crimper.

Organic Pioneers Form No-till Partnership

In California, organic vegetable growers have made multiple attempts at reducing tillage over the past decade, with little luck, said Tom Willey, an organic pioneer who retired three years ago from his 75-acre farm near Fresno. Willey, who farmed for nearly 40 years, is now helping other growers return to the effort.

A historical photo of Tom Willey in his farm field.Tom Willey holding soil from his farm.

“Our early attempts at no-till were so disappointing, we gave up,” Willey said.

Then, in 2018, three well-established organic farms, Scott Park’s farm Park Farming Organics, Full Belly Farm, and Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce joined forces with U.C. Extension, Cal State Chico, and Fresno State to launch on-farm trials focusing on various forms of reduced soil disturbance. Since then, with financial support from a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the farmers and researchers are trying out various approaches and equipment. While the farmers choose which practices to use, the universities are collecting soil and tissue samples and doing additional reduced till and cover crop experiments on the schools’ farms.

The partnership is especially significant in a state that has always been at the forefront of organics but has offered little to no research development or extension services to organic farmers.

The participating farmers have all grown cover crops, incorporated compost, and managed complex crop rotations for many decades; they have all also experimented with reducing tillage. Yet, in a sense, they have decided late in their careers to go back to farming school, putting aside prevalent, economically secure concepts of organic production to learn a more nuanced, complicated version of soil microbiology. It’s a significant risk, but one they hope will be worth it.

“It’s like looking at the world through a different lens . . . a more reverential one that says we don’t know a whole lot and we should stop screwing it up. And maybe it can teach us if we step back,” said Muller of Full Belly Farm.

The farmers and academics are part of a growing informal network that shares knowledge, swaps scientific papers and on-farm trial updates, organizes farm tours, and hosts a slew of soil health experts, including conventional no-till farmers.

“[There are] too few farmers left in this country to waste time being at war with each other,” Willey said. The hope is to eventually replicate a farmers’ network for organic vegetable producers that is akin to No-till On the Plains, which connects conventional growers from the Great Plains and Midwest regions.

Several hurdles to organic vegetable no-till have become immediately clear, said Jeffrey Mitchell, cooperative extension specialist at U.C. Davis and the lead on the CIG no-till project.

One of them is seed size. Unlike corn and soy, which will germinate well and emerge robustly in soil blanketed with thick cover crop residue, most vegetables seeds are very small and delicate. They don’t have the same ability to push out of mulch-covered soil and establish themselves. The lack of expensive no-till equipment in California is another challenge, said Mitchell, who over the past two decades has conducted reduced tillage studies in conventional farming systems. The farmers in the organic no-till project have “scrambled, borrowed, and modified” existing tools, he said.

California also has unique climate characteristics that make reducing soil disturbance more difficult. Unlike in the Midwest, there is no real winter or hard frost, which means year-round, hardier weeds. And for most of the year, California lacks the rainfall that Midwestern farmers depend on to add moisture and help integrate nutrients into the soil without tillage.

“For high-value vegetable organic farmers in California, the switch to reduced soil disturbance is high-cost and high-risk, so it’s been very challenging to break in with it in our state,” Mitchell said.

Using a ‘Cadillac System’ to Boost Soil Health

To Park, who grows processing tomatoes, dry beans, seed crops, wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, and corn, those risks are all too real.

February found him trying to understand what went wrong with the combination of grazing, double cover crops, and reduced tillage he’d deployed last year. He refers to it as his “Cadillac system,” because it’s a deluxe approach that uses multiple practices that are typically used piecemeal to support soil health.

Following a wheat crop, which Park chopped and used as mulch, he planted a multi-species summer cover crop. Once it matured, he brought in about 6,000 goats to graze it. He then spread compost and shallowly tilled it in 2–3 inches deep, planted a winter cover crop, mowed and lightly tilled the following spring, then planted tomatoes, corn, and sunflowers.

Park’s standard practices include eight soil disturbances (down from about 20 on a typical vegetable farm), but on the trial fields he has further reduced them to four light disturbances.

Park believes that combining multiple regenerative farming practices can improve the soil to a point where it can have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. Such soil can make more nitrogen available to the crops, while cutting down on pest and disease pressure. It also holds a lot more water.

“The idea is to flow with nature and not have to fight nature back,” he says. But this latest attempt at amping up his practices turned out to be a “complete disaster.”

The cover crops added plenty of biomass into the soil. And the fields had 70 percent of normal water and enough time to digest the residue, he said. But something—the decision to vastly reduce the number and depth of tillage passes, the grazing, or both—had “tied up” the nitrogen and starved the plants, he said. Park added granular organic fertilizer to 70 acres of the Cadillac fields, but it didn’t help.

Park is not the only farmer in the reduced-till trials who is seeing a yield drag, and knowing that provides motivation to continue the experiment. Thus far, all of the farmers who are part of the project have seen yield reductions ranging from 20 to 50 percent in most of their trial fields.

Given the weed control and yield issues, Park isn’t sure that organic growers in California will ever be able to cut out tillage completely

“There’s unbelievable interest in moving the dial and I’m 100 percent behind it,” said Park. “But every farm has its own personality and its own needs . . . These practices have to fit your crops.”

Cover Crop–Cash Crop Match-Making

Two-hundred miles south of Park’s farm, on California’s Central Coast, farmer Phil Foster was getting ready to plant carrots and lettuce in his reduced till trial fields. Foster, who co-owns Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce, has a much smaller farm than Park—300 acres split among two ranches—but grows 60 different organic fruits and vegetables in a carefully orchestrated year-round rotation.

During the on-farm trials, Foster and the other farmers have come to realize that cover crops are the key to sustaining a reduced or no-till practice. These crops, planted between cash crops, mainly for their benefit to the farming system, perform different functions: they may suppress weeds, fix nitrogen, or improve the soil microbial community. In recent years, research has pointed to the benefit of cover crop mixes—as opposed to a single species—because they mimic the natural ecosystem.

Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

Cover crops also must be chosen based on cash crops’ planting time and attuned to the crops’ nutritional, pest control, and water needs. And the various species should all have a similar maturation rate. Given all this, Foster say it will take time and a lot of experimentation to find that attunement with all his crops.

“We are continuing to learn the many nuances to cover species,” he said.

Foster has been farming organically for 30 years and keeps careful soil records. By cover cropping about half his acreage every year and incorporating the green manure and compost, he has been able to raise his soil organic matter by several percentage points. “I have seen how much more dynamic the soil is and how much easier it is to farm,” said Foster. “If you can attain a certain organic matter level, the soil takes care of the crops a lot better.”

But over the past decade, the organic matter on his farm plateaued, which lead him to consider reducing his tillage and a renewed focus on cover crops.

“We’re still disturbing the soil, but we’re bringing our soil disturbance from historical levels of 8 to 15 inches with discs and chisels, which we don’t run anymore, to 4 to 5 inches or even just a couple of inches,” Foster recently said during a presentation on the project at the EcoFarm Conference.

After joining the no-till trials, Foster upped his cover crop acreage by 20 percent. He also has increased the diversity of his cover crop mixes, with vetch and oats as the workhorses, and is now using “cocktails” of 5–10 species in different ratios that also include rye, field peas, safflower, sunflower, phacelia, mustard, flax, and tillage radish.

Like Foster, Full Belly Farm’s Muller is also expanding his mixes and now uses 10–12 different species. Muller is trying to make more use of cover crop grasses in his trial fields, including rye or sudangrass, which grow quicker than legumes such as vetch and provide a large amount of biomass. Grasses don’t decompose as rapidly, which has a down side in that they can tie up nitrogen and keep it from getting to the cash crops, but they also provide thick mulch that keeps weeds down for a longer window.

“We want to armor our soil as much as possible through the year,” Muller said. “That’s why we need to keep as much cover on the ground as possible at all times.”

For Park, whose tomatoes get planted in early spring, the options are slimmer. He has resorted to planting vetch in the fall, which matures quickly and can be terminated in March. While its residue supplies a quick boost of nitrogen to the tomatoes, it doesn’t suppress weeds, meaning that Park still has to till a few inches deep to get rid of them.

“Figuring this all out has been “a school of hard knocks,” he adds.

On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension.On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing in tilled soil on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension)

By far the biggest challenge, Foster said, is figuring out when and how to kill—or terminate—the cover crops and to manage their residue on the planting beds before seeding. For instance, not all cover crops terminate well with the roller-crimper. In Foster’s no-till melon field, for example, the cover crop did not die when flattened with the machine and grew back, “meaning competition with the melons and lower yields,” Foster said.

Muller had a similar experience two years ago, when he tried a cover crop mix with oats. The oats didn’t die when flattened multiple times, and he finally brought in sheep to graze them down. It took three weeks to terminate the cover crop.

To deal with the problem, the farmers have mostly resorted to using a vertical tillage tool with undercutting knives or repeated mowing, although the fine clippings don’t keep weeds down for long.

Like Park, Foster isn’t quite ready to take his farm to zero till—mainly because planting the cash crops amidst the cover crops is still a work in progress. For now, he and the other farmers are using a strip tiller, which tills only a narrow, shallow strip for planting seeds in—a technique that’s still rare in California.

Does Plastic Hold the Keys to Vegetable No-till?

Foster and Willey, the retired Madera farmer, have been experimenting with cutting out all tillage on Foster’s trial fields via plasticuture and occultation, techniques often used by no-till gardeners and very small-scale farmers. They involve the use of plastic tarps and cardboard or other barriers to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

The plasticulture trial is the only experiment in the project thus far that has successfully addressed one of the major challenges for organic vegetable no-till in California: how to add fertility to the soil and prevent yield reductions.

Typically, organic producers incorporate compost and cover crop or crop residue into the soil through tillage. But with no-till, the residue and compost are left on top of the beds. Leaving plant “nutrition” on top isn’t a problem in rainier environments, Willey said, since the moisture turns the residue and compost into mush and brings it down to the plant roots. But that’s not the case in the arid West. And most California farms have switched to drip irrigation, which is buried in the soil and doesn’t help break down what’s on the top layer of soil.

The plasticulture and occultation trial fields have avoided this problem, Willey said, by mimicking or re-creating an artificial Midwest or Northeast climate through sprinkler or drip irrigation under the plastic “mulch.” The plastic helps retain moisture and keeps the soil warm. And the moisture, in turn, helps the decomposition of organic matter, which releases nutrients for plants to take in.

Last season, when Foster and Willey grew melons and watermelons this way, they saw high yields. It was a victory, though ironically Foster has worked for years to eliminate plastic from his fields and said he isn’t thrilled to use it on a large scale again.

Muller ran a similar experiment last year, also using a thin sheet of plastic on top of his beds. The eggplants he transplanted into the system had “great plant vigor, earlier set of fruit and better consistent yields,” he said.

Closing the Nitrogen Loop with No-Till

While most of the trials in the no-till project have seen less-than-stellar results so far, Muller takes the long view. He believes that with time, going to continuous no-till will be possible and advantageous to organic vegetable farmers.

“It’s going to take us time and we have to commit to reestablishing the soil microbiome and to providing a habitat for those organisms that fix nitrogen for the plants,” said Muller.

Muller, who was born and raised on a conventional farm, grew up seeing the impact of pesticides on both farmers and farmworkers. Like Foster’s operation, Muller’s 450-acre farm in the Capay Valley west of Sacramento grows over 80 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And he has focused on natural practices to maximize the vitality of his farm and his soil, including cover cropping and applying compost. Now, he hopes cutting down on tillage can take the effort further.

Muller hasn’t tilled his trial field for nearly three years. He likes to walk through it examining the soil; he brings a shovel, but it’s easy to dig in with his hands.

Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

“There’s more earthworms, more vitality, more fungal activity, and much better water retention,” he said of the soil. The cover crops have also attracted beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. “I’m not a scientist, but I can see the differences.”

Muller has been rethinking his views about soil fertility and “how farming practices determine the health of microbial communities, on which plants depend for nutrient acquisition, their diversity, who dominates and how both water and nutrient cycling are impacted.”

He and the other farmers are looking to emerging soil health research to understand the impacts of reduced or zero tilling on the living processes happening below ground. In recent years, scientists have come to understand that the soil’s fungi-to-bacteria population ratio is a good indicator of plant growth and nutrient uptake. Most tilled soil is higher in bacterial growth than fungi, which is damaged by tilling. But the ideal is to balance the two.

Higher inputs of nitrogen fertilizer have also been shown to cause lower fungi-to-bacteria ratios. In fact, studies show that adding any nitrogen inputs, including animal manure or other organic soil amendments, to soil can be detrimental to the mutually beneficial relationships mycorrhizal fungi form with plants.

“When you add nitrogen to the soil, you make the plants and bacteria lazy,” Muller sums it up.

The farmers in the trial have been influenced by the work of Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, who has found that the best way to mimic nature and ensure a robust microbial community is by having green plants grow in the soil year-round. Jones’ work has shown that cover crop mixes in a no-till system can create a self-sustaining closed loop in which bacteria and fungi will naturally do the work of fixing nitrogen and make it available to plants as long as enough carbon is available for them to digest. Such a system would decrease fertilizer greenhouse gas emissions as well as input, labor, and fuel costs.

“There’s emerging scientific evidence that diverse soil microbial communities can deliver never-imagined levels of nutrients to crops if our farming practices facilitate, rather than interfere with, their ability to do so,” Willey said.

Is Organic No-Till Farming Even Possible, or Worth It?

If these three California farmers do figure out how to eliminate tillage in their production systems, it’s not clear how long they can sustain such practices.

In experiments at the Rodale Institute, for instance, Moyer has seen that after five years without tillage “things start to break down.” There’s often a shift from annual weeds to perennial weeds, which are more challenging to control. In some areas, shrubs and trees start popping up in the fields. And groundhogs can become a problem.

“In the Northeast, our landscape wants to be hardwood forest . . . so the soil will try to revert back to that. In the Plains states, it wants to be grass prairie,” Moyer said. (In California, which has a Mediterranean climate, lack of rainfall limits forest growth, so this issue may bear less weight.)

“I don’t think we’ll be able to fight back the succession of species with mulch forever,” he added.

It may be, Moyer said, that agricultural soil that isn’t tilled needs an occasional reboot, much like a computer. For organic growers, “tillage is the reboot system,” Moyer said, “while for conventional farmers it’s increasing or changing the chemistry.” Organic farmers can quickly mitigate the damage from the occasional tillage by applying compost or animal manure and immediately planting a cover crop, he added

For the California farmers, who are planning to continue with the on-farm experiments beyond the four years of the CIG grant, the experiment is worthwhile. And they’re hoping other organic farmers will join the conversation. Ultimately, farmers need to figure out whether the overall benefits of reducing tillage outweigh the drawbacks in large-scale vegetable production systems. But the answers may not be far off.

“It’s one of the most exciting times I’ve had as a farmer,” said Muller. “The scientific body of knowledge is making wonderful leaps in our understanding of soil ecology. The hunches we had as organic growers . . . are now being borne out and understood.”

Gosia Wozniacka

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) civileats.com and follow her on Twitter.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

Civil Eats

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.

The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.

By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.

For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.

Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.

In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.

“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”

At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.

In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats

Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.

That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.

In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.

“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.

Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”

In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”

The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.

California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats

About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.

The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.

If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.

“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.

They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”

Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture

Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.

In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.

“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.

Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.

With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.

Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.

“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”

The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy Rep. Deb Haaland's office)Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)

The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.

Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.

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Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico.

Post-pandemic boom poised to get smacked with severe shortages

Post-pandemic boom poised to get smacked with severe shortages

Victoria Guida                                 April 17, 2021

 

 

With the economy set to boom this year and government aid inflating bank accounts, American businesses and consumers are ready to splurge. That is, if they can find enough of what they want to buy.

Production and shipping bottlenecks have cropped up around the world, a result of the coronavirus pandemic; severe weather events like the winter storm in Texas; a shortage of computer chips serious enough to spur President Joe Biden to summon CEOs to the White House; and even that ship that got stuck for days in the Suez Canal. Federal Reserve surveys show that delivery times are more delayed than at any time since 1951.

Compounding those difficulties is the unexpectedly sharp rebound in many sectors of the U.S. economy — an uneven reopening that makes it all the more difficult to predict what people will spend money on and ensure that supply is there to meet demand.

All of this raises the stakes for the Fed. Despite the raft of positive headlines around soaring consumer purchases and lower jobless claims, the disruptions have led to an uptick in costs for companies in industries from furniture to food. That could lead to a surge in inflation if passed along to consumers, putting a drag on Biden’s hopes for a robust recovery and fueling pressure on the central bank to raise rates far earlier than it wants to.

“The economy’s a fine web where everything’s matched together, and that got torn apart by the pandemic,” said Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard University and a former chief economist to President Barack Obama. “We’re just hoping it all comes back together.”

Supply chain problems have been unfolding throughout the pandemic, as people radically shifted what they bought — canned beverages instead of fountain drinks, sweatpants instead of suits — toppling the normally efficient order of global supply chains.

Higher prices, at least temporarily, would bring supply and demand back into balance, a dynamic that the Fed — as the country’s inflation cop — has been watching closely. The central bank has argued that any price increases due to supply disruptions will only have a short-term effect on inflation data, and Chair Jerome Powell says the Fed won’t act to raise interest rates unless there is a more long-term, concerning shift upward in price levels.

“There’s a difference between essentially a one-time increase in prices and persistent inflation,” Powell said last week. “Inflation tends to be dictated by underlying inflation dynamics in the economy, as opposed to things like bottlenecks.”

Still, the Fed’s anecdotal analysis of different regions of the country, known as the “Beige Book,” this week showed that supply chain disruptions were cropping up in nearly every industry, the caveat to an otherwise optimistic outlook for the economy.

“This supply disruption is getting to the breaking point where we’re going to have to start raising prices, and we’re going to see inflation,” said Jim Bianco, head of financial analysis firm Bianco Research.

In the meantime, a key question is how markets will react as inflation rises, even if it’s only temporary. So far, the Fed has attributed gradual increases in yields on U.S. government debt to the brightening outlook for the economy, a scenario that should bode well for stocks as well as bonds, since faster growth is also positive for the long-term performance of corporations.

But if yields were to rise sharply because bond investors are spooked about inflation, that could lead the Fed to pull back its support for the economy sooner than expected, popping financial bubbles and hurting the latest record-breaking stock market rally.

“If rates are rising because real growth is causing a huge demand for credit — great,” Bianco said. “But if rates are going up because inflation is occurring, that is a problem for the stock market.”

The most high-profile supply problem is the global computer chip shortage, fed by a surge in demand for tech products as millions of people moved to work from home. That’s rippled out to hurt industries like auto manufacturing, with cars now so dependent on computerization.

Biden convened a group of CEOs to discuss the problem on Monday, and he said there is bipartisan support to boost funding for U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. His own infrastructure plan would set aside $50 billion for that purpose. But the results of that effort would take years to manifest and would do little to address the crunch in the near term.

Other shortages might be resolved more quickly, with mismatches driven more by the difficulty of advance planning in a situation that continues to be highly uncertain.

“It’s easier to turn the lights out at a plant than to ramp up,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “The rebound in goods in many cases was a surprise.”

The reopening of many restaurants, for example, has sparked a rise in purchases of single-serve ketchup packets, but there’s only so much capacity to produce those at once. And unless it’s clear that the higher level of demand is going to be sustained, companies might not want to invest in expanding their production capacity.

“If I were in the aluminum can business, I’d be reluctant to be ordering new machines until I knew what the fountain business looked like,” said Scott Miller, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’d be doing a lot of market research in Florida and Texas, where bars and restaurants are reopened, to determine how much of the shift is temporary and how much is permanent.”

Plastic rain is the new acid rain and a hidden threat to health, warns wildlife expert

Plastic rain is the new acid rain and a hidden threat to health, warns wildlife expert

Helena Horton                              April 15, 2021
Plastics line the shore of the Thames Estuary in Cliffe, Kent - Getty
Plastics line the shore of the Thames Estuary in Cliffe, Kent – Getty

 

Plastic rain is the new acid rain, the head of The Wildlife Trusts has said, as microplastics from the sea are polluting our soil.

Tiny particles of plastic, from bottles and other waste, are falling down on us from the sky after degrading to microplastics in the oceans.

A new study in the journal Science found that over 14 months, more than 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles fell into 11 protected areas in the western US each year, the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, said that the world is not yet taking the plastics crisis seriously, but if we do not stop using the material we will see implications for human health.

He told The Telegraph: “This will be taken as seriously as we have taken fossil fuels and acid rain. The real story that we’re going to be talking about five to 10 years from now, is the impact of plastics and particularly microplastics on human health.”

The wildlife campaigner pointed out that although we have seen “pictures of turtles drowning in the sea because they’ve eaten plastic bags”, the impact of plastics raining down on us, and entering our food chain has not been widely explored.

He said: “The extraordinary impact of microplastics on the planet never goes away. You can’t actually properly recycle them. The problems we’re seeing now perhaps relate to the plastics that have been put out to the environment over the last 50, 60 or 70 years.

“But over the last decade or so, you see the explosion of single use plastics – and some of those haven’t even worked through the system yet. So I think there’s a huge, huge concern for the future.”

While measures by countries has reduced the acid rain problem, and the chemicals can be removed from soil and buildings, plastic rain is in some ways more worrying as the impact cannot be easily reduced. There is, at the moment, no real way to filter microplastics from the soil.

This has implications for human health; a study published last year found that microplastics were found in every human organ studied by scientists.

The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis

The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis

Nabih Bulos                              April 15, 2021
GHOR HADITHA, JORDAN -- APRIL 10, 2021: A ground has sunk with the appearance of multiple sinkholes at the former grounds of the Numeira Salt company in Ghor Haditha, Jordan, Saturday April 10, 2021. The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of anywhere from 3 to 5 feet a year, and in the last three decades, the Dead SeaOs level has fallen almost 100 feet. The rate of loss is accelerating, as are the sinkholes; they now number in the thousands, like a rash spreading on the exposed seabed. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
One of multiple sinkholes at the former grounds of the Numeira Salt company in Ghor Haditha, Jordan. The Dead Sea is shrinking at a rate of anywhere from 3 to 5 feet a year. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

The first time people here saw a sinkhole, they thought a small asteroid had slammed into the Dead Sea’s salt-encrusted shore.

Then others appeared.

One swallowed the edge of a state-owned building. Another opened near a house and forced the family to move. Worried farmers scanned their fields and abandoned their harvests. At one point, a chunk of highway collapsed, disappearing several stories deep and leaving a lone PVC pipe that ran like a high-wire over the crater.

Finally, the residents of Ghor Haditha realized, the problem was literally beneath their feet, a symptom of the Dead Sea’s death and a disturbing measure of the parched land Jordan has become. This small kingdom has long ranked high on the list of water-poor countries. But a mix of a ballooning population, regional conflicts, chronic industrial and agricultural mismanagement and now climate change may soon bring it another distinction: the first nation to possibly lose viable sources of freshwater.

The sinkholes are a harbinger of a future in a Middle East precariously balanced on dwindling resources. With the Dead Sea — a lake, really — shrinking at a rate of 3 to 5 feet a year, its saltwater is replaced by freshwater, which rushes in and dissolves subterranean salt layers, some of them hundreds of feet below. Cavities form, and the soil collapses into subsurface voids, creating sinkholes.

In the last three decades, the Dead Sea’s level has fallen almost 100 feet. The rate of loss is accelerating, and sinkholes now number in the thousands, like a rash spreading on the exposed seabed.

“When I was younger, the water used to reach all the way up to that field,” said Hassan Kanazri, a 63-year-old tomato farmer, as he pointed to a spot some 300 yards away from the water’s edge. He stepped onto a patch of dark brown earth speckled with holes; the soft dirt gave way underfoot.

“We can’t use tractors here. The land is too weak, so we’ve had to plow manually,” he said.

Hassan Kanazri stands beside a sinkhole
Hassan Kanazri stands beside a sinkhole in Ghor Haditha, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

The sinkholes are a piece of a larger danger revealing how Jordan’s perennial thirst is worsening. A virtually landlocked desert kingdom with few resources, the country’s yearly decrease in rainfall could lead to a 30% reduction by 2100, according to Stanford University’s Jordan Water Project. Jordan’s aquifers, ancient groundwater reservoirs that take long to replenish, are being pumped at a furious pace, even as the pandemic has increased demand by 40%, the Water Ministry says. And precarious finances mean desalinization, which serves some of Jordan’s richer neighbors, is — for now — too expensive an option.

“The situation here is bleak,” says Water Ministry spokesman Omar Salameh. “Without a huge amount of support to execute development projects, Jordan doesn’t have the resources to provide water.”

To understand the crisis one need only take a drive on Highway 40, which stretches east from Amman toward the Iraqi border. With the capital in the rearview, you cross through to the Azraq wetlands — once a lush, water-filled stopover for migratory birds now decimated by over-reliance on an aquifer there — before you reach a vast expanse of desert. Some 92% of the country gets less than 200 millimeters — about 8 inches — of rainfall per year, with only nine countries in the world getting less annual precipitation than Jordan.

A sinkhole by the Dead Sea
A deep sinkhole along the salt-encrusted shoreline near Ghor Haditha. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

Though Jordan is uniquely challenged, it’s a preview of what the region faces as a whole. Middle Eastern nations top the list of most water-stressed countries, the World Resources Institute says.

The region is also a “global hotspot of unsustainable water use,” according to 2017 World Bank report, and whatever water is available is further degraded by brine discharge from desalination, pollution and untreated wastewater. Poor water quality costs governments as much 2.5% of their gross domestic product.

Making matters worse are broiling summers, with the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry projecting average daytime temperatures to exceed 116 degrees Fahrenheit and reaching almost 90 by night. (And it’s not just estimates; the temperature in Mitribah, in northern Kuwait, reached 129 degrees in 2016.)

Rooftop water storage containers in Amman, Jordan.
Water storage containers cover rooftops in a dense neighborhood of Amman, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

Much of Jordan’s water problem is a simple matter of math: In the 1950s, its population numbered half a million people. Now there are more than 10 million, housed in a country whose water supply, researchers say, can’t sustain a population exceeding 2 million. Residents make do with 135 cubic meters, or about 36,000 gallons, of water per person per year; the U.N. defines “absolute scarcity” at 500 cubic meters per year.

That population explosion is less a result of Jordanians’ fertility than it is of the country’s reputation as a so-called oasis of stability in a not-so-stable neighborhood.

Palestinians pushed out by the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1967 conflict; Lebanese escaping civil war in the ’80s; Iraqis fleeing U.S. bombardment and sanctions; more than a million Syrians after 2011, along with Yemenis and Libyans — if there’s a regional conflict, Jordan is probably hosting its refugees.

A 2016 census estimated the number of refugees at 2.9 million, and that’s including the approximately 1 million migrant workers in the country.

“The Syrian crisis alone raised demand for water an average of 20%,” Salameh says. It’s double that amount in northern areas of the kingdom, where most of the refugees reside, he adds.

It’s little better on the supply side, where Jordan has to contend with the tyranny of geography.

Go north from Ghor Haditha, past the baptismal site of Jesus Christ on the Jordan River (now reduced to a sewage-contaminated trickle in some parts); continue east along its main tributary, the Yarmouk River, where Lawrence of Arabia once tried and failed to blow up an Ottoman railroad, and you encounter the Al Wehda Dam, a 360-foot concrete embankment on Jordan’s border with Syria.

Jordan's Al Wehda Dam
The Al Wehda Dam, a 360-foot concrete embankment, near Harta, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

Its capacity of 110 million cubic meters makes it Jordan’s largest dam, a reliable source of more than a third of the country’s water supply. But it’s never been more than half full. That’s because Syria, which controls the Yarmouk River’s flow into Jordan, has built upstream more than 40 dams and thousands of wells to irrigate its own crops, leaving Jordan with only a fifth of its share.

A river is full of green algae
Green algae in the Yarmouk River, which flows to the Al Wehda Dam. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

“We were supposed to expand the dam and build a hydroelectric plant. The plan was we would get water, and the Syrians would get power,” said Munther Maayeh, one of the dam’s managers. “But the water we receive from the Syrians isn’t anywhere near enough for that.”

Israel too has diverted some 600 million cubic meters of water in the Sea of Galilee — another lake — from the Jordan River. The result has been a 90% plunge in the river’s flow to a paltry 200 million cubic meters per year. (Under the 1994 peace agreement, Israel regularly conducts transfers of water from the Jordan River to the kingdom.)

To make up the shortfall, Jordan increasingly turned to nonrenewable water sources such as aquifers. Jordan has 12 of them, but is already pumping 160% more than it should for them to be replenished; 10 are all but depleted.

The low supply coupled with burgeoning demand has forced the government to ration water delivery. In practical terms, that means most homes don’t get municipal water more than once a week. Many residents turn to illegal drilling of wells, Salameh says.

On the outskirts of Amman, water tank trucks back up to a communal well equipped with 9-foot-high faucets. Raafat Awamleh, a driver with his 8-year-old son, Shahem, by his side, climbed up the side of his truck, slipped a rubber hose over one of the faucets and placed the other end into his tank.

“People call us from all over Amman to deliver water,” Awamleh said, adding that the area had some six similarly equipped communal wells. The coronavirus cut a portion of his business, including water deliveries to farmers, but he expected work to pick up soon.

“In the summer we have to do this all the time,” he said. “It just gets too hot and people need water.”

Jordan’s internal topography plays a role as well. More than half of Amman’s water supply, for example, comes from the Al Disi aquifer, some 200 miles south. Another portion is taken from the Azraq aquifer, 50 miles east.

Shahem Awamleh and his father fill a water tank truck.
Shahem Awamleh reacts as he and his father fill a water tank truck at a community well near Amman, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

“That’s a huge expense on the state treasury,” Salameh says, estimating the cost at $4 per cubic meter from aquifer to tap. Power requirements for pumping water amount to more than a sixth of the country’s total power production, the government says.

The failure of Jordan’s water management is increasingly apparent, says Raed Dawood, founder and head of Eco Consult, a water-use consulting firm. Rickety infrastructure means more than half of the water leaks out of pipes or is stolen. State subsidies for agriculture, a sector that consumes slightly more than 50% of Jordan’s water supply while contributing only 3% to 4% to its GDP, give farmers little incentive to use new — and expensive — irrigation techniques or choose crops that are more profitable.

“Water productivity here is about $1.50 per cubic meter. It’s $100 in the Netherlands,” Dawood says, adding that Jordan’s top crops are tomatoes and cucumbers, low-profit plants that consume a lot of water.

To make a point, he walks out of his office and returns with a plate of dates. They were plump, with a singed caramel-colored skin. The variety is known as Medjool and the kingdom is famous for them, Dawood says. This kind of crop, he adds, could more than quadruple the value farmers get out of their water.

A man shows Medjool dates
Hamzah Rashaydeh inspects a stem from date fruit clumps at Tadros Farm. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“We have to be selective and careful in what we grow,” he says.

“All these things are matters of policy, and yes, we’re a scarce-water country, but we have to use it effectively.”

A farmworker trims a date tree.
A farmworker prepares to trim a date tree at Tadros Farm in Karamah, Jordan. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

Back in Ghor Haditha, increasing industrialization, much of it centered around the Arab Potash Co., is exacerbating the water problem. The company, along with its Israeli counterpart, pumps Dead Sea water to extract minerals, adding to the sea’s retreat and compounding sinkhole formation, says William Ajalin, a resident and head of a local environmental association.

On the rooftop balcony of the association’s building, he points to the main highway bisecting Ghor Haditha: On one side lies the Dead Sea, the foot of the Karak mountains on the other.

“People are already too afraid to do anything on the side by the Dead Sea,” he says.

“Of course we’re worried this is making it worse.”

But a change of behavior, including better conservation, would have to go beyond villages like Ghor Haditha to cities, especially Amman, says Ammar Khammash, an architect who specializes in eco-friendly projects.

“We cannot continue like we did in the ’70s and ’80s. All the water of Azraq, we flushed it down the toilets of Amman,” he says. The solution, he says, is to incorporate water storage capacity in every building.

“Governments like big projects, but the solution involves smaller pieces: A place like Amman needs to become a ‘sponge city’ where every house doesn’t waste a single drop.”

A man picnics by the Dead Sea.
Nabeel Musa smokes as he picnics along the salt-encrusted shore near Ghor Haditha. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

 

For now, the government is exploring other venues, such as Red to Dead, a joint project with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It aims to build a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan’s sole outlet on the Red Sea, and dump the briny water to replenish the Dead Sea. The project has been on the books since 2005 without much progress.

In any case, relations between Jordan and Israel have reached a nadir, with diplomatic spats flaring over the last year between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II. The last such incident was resolved Monday when Netanyahu approved Amman’s request for extra water rations from the Jordan River, almost a month after the Jordanian government asked for it. (The peace agreement allows for Jordan to request additional water supplies.)

That has forced the kingdom to look inward, conducting deep-water exploration of desert areas and drilling wells more than a mile deep. Those efforts are expected to yield 70 million cubic meters of water by the project’s end. It’s expensive, but essential at a time when the kingdom’s relations with its neighbors over water remain a challenge.

“You can’t predict what the political situation is going to be,” Salameh says.

“As long as there is no horizon for peace in the area, Jordan will remain vulnerable to the challenges imposed on it by its situation with water.”

(This is the second in a series of occasional articles about how climate change and water scarcity are affecting the politics and landscape of the Middle East.)