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Farmers without soil

Manuel Hernández scrapes up a handful of dirt and shows a visitor how quickly it runs through his fingers.

"It's just sand and gravel," he says. "You can't grow anything here." Hernández, owner of Finca El Carmen in Honduras' Comayagua department, is standing on what was once his most valuable land--six hectares of rich, loamy soil along the banks of a stream. Like many of the area's farmers, he had planted it all in export-grade tobacco. "The flood didn't just take the plants," he says, surveying a desert-like landscape of bleached stones and shattered tree limbs. "It took the fences, the irrigation equipment, and finally all the soil."

Farmers all over Honduras were telling similar stories in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. Never mind that most lack the means to replant ruined crops, replace equipment or repay loans to banks. Even if they did, many of them would have to move and buy new land, because their best parcels were eroded beyond the point of recovery.

Erosion has long been a serious problem in many areas in the tropics where topsoil is typically composed of a thin layer of decaying leaves and organic matter formerly deposited by the forest cover. When forests are cleared, this "mulch layer" can be quickly depleted by intensive farming and erosion, ultimately exposing an infertile substrate of clay, rock and sand. The problem is most severe on the steep hillsides where most poor farmers plant their subsistence crops, since denuded slopes are more prone to landslides during heavy rains.

Some agricultural experts predict a new Central American crisis in the years ahead, as thousands of small farmers fail to find sufficiently productive land to meet their needs. Emergency loans and grants of seed and fertilizer will not solve the problem, because degraded land does not respond well to traditional agricultural inputs. The solution--a radical shift toward farming practices and crops that rebuild and maintain the mulch layer instead of depleting it--will require massive education and investments.

Despite his losses, Manuel Hernández is among the more fortunate farmers. He is able to shift his crops to higher ground that was not washed away and is planning to plant 1,000 fast-growing trees along the eroded edges of his property as a protection against future floods.

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