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Vetiver in the Caribbean - used extensively before 1950 and now forgotten!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The image on the left is of vetiver hedgerows in St Vincent in the 1950s. Red dots are stabilized waterways.

Some of you may know that TVNI is making an effort to see greater use of VS in the Caribbean. It is very easy to forget what technologies were used in the past. Here are two quotes on the use of the Vetiver System for soil conservation on three Caribbean island: the first from Ismael Velez in 1952 and the second from John Geenfield in 1998.

Ismael Velez of the Polytechnic Institute, San German, Puerto Rico (Science Monthly, March 1952) undertook a Caribbean tour in the early 1950s. Here is an abstract...

"The situation on St. Vincent is entirely different, for this island is largely agricultural. The soils are of volcanic origin, and on the whole are porous and well drained. Rainfall is much higher, but frequent drains are obviously unnecessary. The island produces 70 per cent of the world's arrowroot starch and a large proportion of the peanuts raised in the West Indies. These are raised on both large estates and small holdings, but from our observations, everyone seems to be soil conservation-minded. Vetiver, or khuskhus grass (Vetiveria zizanioides), is widely used to hold the soil in place (Fig. 6). Frequent cutting keeps the grass from going to seed, and the tops are used for mulching. Occasionally strip planting is practiced, alternating arrowroot and other root crops like yams, taniers, etc. Agricultural officers are not yet satisfied, but do not like to recall the days when the people would not even let the government lay the contour lines and plant the grass for them, free of charge.

Montserrat, one of the Leeward Islands, also practices soil conservation. In places where rocks are abundant, they are placed in heaps, or occasionally in rows, heaps starting on top of another large rock to save space. Even in apparently level places, where erosion seems negligible, rows of khuskhus can be seen planted to conserve the soil.

Suffice it to say that the little islands of St. Thomas, St. Vincent, and Montserrat have soil conservation practices worth observing by some of the islands where erosion is still an unsolved problem, and where heavily eroded slopes are frequently seen."

The following is adapted from John Greenfield's report of a trip to inspect the use of vetiver on the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent in 1989. He arrived at a time when a large-scale erosion-control scheme using bulldozers and expensive terracing, to be financed with foreign capital (bilateral donor), was being proposed to the people there.

"Vetiver grass was introduced to St. Vincent as the major soil conservation measure more than 50 years ago. It was used primarily in the sugar industry to stabilize fields of sugarcane, but found its way all over the island as a stabilizer of road cuttings, driveways, pathways, and tracks along hillsides. Whoever introduced the system did an excellent job, as virtually all the small farmers put their vetiver-grass plantings on the contour. This, together with the resulting contour farming, has saved St. Vincent from the ravages of soil erosion.

Throughout St. Vincent, I stopped to talk to farmers, and the general consensus was, "surely you haven't come all this way to tell us about khus-khus (as it is called locally); we have known how good it is for over 50 years!

I drove up the leeward coast of St. Vincent with the government official responsible for soil conservation, Mr. Conrad Simon of the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Agriculture. We visited one of the old sugar plantations (now abandoned) where vetiver-grass barriers had formed stable terraces 4 m high. After 50 years, the grass was still active, and there was no sign of erosion. In other areas, vetiver barriers planted on more than 100 percent slopes were providing full protection against erosion and had been doing so for years. The only area where I noticed erosion starting was where people had pulled out the vetiver on the "riser" of a terrace and planted food crops. Major rills had developed down the face, depositing deltas of silt on the terrace below.

When I pointed this out to Mr. Simon, and later discussed it with his colleagues and supervisor, Mr. Lennox Diasley in Kingstown, they all agreed that vetiver grass had given them perfect protection for the past 50 years. So why should they replace it? The main reason seems to be that nobody has ever told them that their system of soil conservation is possibly the best in the world today.

The vetiver system of soil conservation has served St. Vincent well and is a silent partner in the island's farming production. The people have lived with the grass all their lives; indeed, it has become so commonplace that they do not see it. In other words, they have passed those vegetative barriers every day without appreciating the natural terraces that have formed from soil that would have been lost had it been allowed to wash to the sea. But this "silent sentinel" doing its job 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, has been protecting St. Vincent for the past 50 years. On top of that, it has cost the country nothing".

The full article is at:

Dick Grimshaw


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