United for soil health


Indicator plants are widely used by farmers to judge the health of soils. Photo by E. Barrios/ICRAF

Combating land degradation and building soil health needs a holistic approach that brings scientific findings together with the knowledge held by farmers.

For instance, to judge soil health, scientists typically analyse it for organic matter content, levels of nutrients available to plants, acidity or alkalinity, texture, and so forth. To determine the same thing, farmers often use the look and feel of the soil, how easy it is to plough, and the types of native plants and small organisms living in it.

“Taken together, these ‘technical’ and ‘local’ indicators give us a more comprehensive picture of soil health, which can allow us to predict how well the soil can be expected to sustain agricultural production, as well as the delivery of the numerous other ecosystem services the soil provides to society, into the future,” says Edmundo Barrios, land and soil management scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

This integration of knowledge is the focus of a recently released methodological guide titled InPaC-S: Participatory Knowledge Integration on Indicators of Soil Quality. The six-chapter volume is designed to guide workshops and fieldwork that unites farmers and technical professionals in designing—together—farming solutions that support soil health and take into account farmers’ realities and challenges.

The guide was originally published in Portuguese and has been successfully applied in Mozambique through South–South collaboration with Brazil. The English version was released earlier this year and has already been applied in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

“By marrying local and technical knowledge, farmers and technical professionals can together arrive at locally appropriate agroecology principles and soil management options for particular farming conditions. These options fit the local knowledge held by farmers into a conceptual framework based on findings from scientific research,” says Barrios, the book’s lead author. “The methodology has the advantage of being systematic yet flexible. This means it can be replicated in many different locations around the world,” he adds.


Multistorey agroforestry systems with the right combinations of trees and crops—like this one in Igarapé-Açu, Pará State, Brazil— promote soil health and are highly productive. Photo by E. Barrios/ICRAF

The publication emphasizes that soil degradation in agricultural land is often caused by a complex set of conditions, including poor selection of crops and cropping systems, policies related to land tenure, as well as various types of incentives or hindrances to sustainable farming practices.

“Can a farmer afford or gain access to chemical fertilizers and organic nutrient inputs? What types of usage rights do they have on their land? All these things influence their adoption of practices that enhance soil health,” says  Barrios.

Beyond helping with diagnosing soil constraints, the InPaC-S guidebook discusses soil management principles and provides a number of short-, medium- and long-term options for addressing some of the most commonly encountered soil problems like erosion, compaction and acidity.

Another aim of the InPaC-S methodological framework is to strengthen local institutions that support rural communities in making decisions related to soil management. The hope is that such institutions can continue to independently apply the participatory techniques into the future. According to Barrios, such capacity building aspect is key, since soil health monitoring is a continuous process, and not a one-time activity.

There is everything to be gained from healthy soils: Besides being vital for the production of food and natural commodities, the soil provides ecosystem services by recycling nutrients, storing carbon, regulating the availability and quality of water,  helping to decompose contaminants, regulating pests and diseases… the list goes on.

Download PDF of the publication

In English:

Barrios E, Coutinho HLC, Medeiros CAB. 2012. InPaC-S: Participatory Knowledge Integration on Indicators of Soil Quality – Methodological guide

In Portuguese:

InPaC-S: Integração Participativa de Conhecimentos sobre Indicadores de Qualidade do Solo – Guia Metodológico.

About the InPaC-S approach and publication

The InPaC-S participatory approach and methodological guide are the result of more than 10 years of South-South collaboration and knowledge sharing between Latin American and Africa. The methodological guide was jointly published by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) following three years of synthesis and further development with representatives of farmer communities, governmental and non-governmental rural extension and advisory services, national and state research institutions and universities across five major biomes of Brazil, with financial support of the Embrapa Fund to the CGIAR.

The Portuguese version of the guide was published in 2011 and it was instrumental during a capacity building workshop of IIAM (Mozambique Agricultural Research Institute) and their partners in extension, higher education, government and NGOs that was held in Nampula, Mozambique with financial support from the Africa-Brazil Agricultural Innovation Marketplace. The English version of the guide was released at the beginning of this year and has been used at the Kiberashi Sentinel Site of the AfSIS project in Tanzania, and also in Adama, Ethiopia as part of the ACIAR-funded project ‘Trees for Food Security’ furthering the South-South knowledge exchange process.

Related articles:

African agriculture: Dirt poor

Soil knowledge vital to boosting agricultural production

New X-ray technology to reveal the makeup of Africa soils: bit.ly/12a2o9m

The answer lies in the soil

Soil knowledge vital to boosting agricultural production

New book breaks new ground for soil conservation

Press links on ICRAF’s Land Health Research: http://bit.ly/14WDFci

Why is Soil Important? [PDF]

Ecosystem Services [PDF]


Related Links

Land Health research  at ICRAF

ICRAF will participate at the eleventh session of the UNCCD Conference of the Parties (COP11), Windhoek, from 16 to 27 September 2013.


Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...