2008 – An annual report (of sorts!) on the Vetiver System

Greetings my fellow Vetervites!

I wish you all a joyous season and a successful new year in meeting new challenges – some of which I hope are exciting.

I am writing to you from a very cold Pacific North West. Temperatures have been below freezing for ten days. I have two Vetiver plants (the gene pool!) inside the house; and the rest, outside, have probably already frozen to death. Far better to grow this stuff in the hot tropics!

Each time that I open our website I get a good deal of comfort from the interactive map that shows the many real time (red dots) hits from visitors in different parts of the world – what better feed back than something simple and visual.

There has been a lot of Vetiver activity during 2008 – new blogs have been established for Sardinia Vetiver Network – Senegal Vetiver Network – Vetiver Systems Hawaii – Africa Vetiver – Latin America Vetiver Network – Vetiver Latina – Vetiver Solutions Blog Thank you all for this input. Blogs are so easy to establish and for some of you can be a “Vetiver diary” (or more likely a “soap box”) to be shared with others. It is nice to know that we get many visitors to the blog sites too, even though some people may be looking for Vetiver perfumes or the “Vetiver Band”!

Our Vetiver System Google Group, has turned out to be pretty useful, and new ones have been established for Vetiver Caribbean Network, and Red Vetiver Latina. I hope to see more blogs and groups being developed in Africa and Asia. If you are contemplating establishing new ones I suggest you use Google – Google provides easy to use and effective applications.

I started off with reference to these blogs and groups, as well as Vetiver websites and Picassa galleries because the Internet provides so many opportunities to deliver and exchange information – the only cost being our time. It is these Internet activities that account for more than 90% of increased applications of the Vetiver System around the world.

To back up these communication methods, this year we published a new technical manual – Vetiver System Applications – A Technical Reference Manual by Paul Truong, Tran Tan Van, and Elise Pinners. This manual has already been translated into Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Swahili; it is also being translated into French and Spanish. The manual is available from Amazon.comand can be downloaded from Esnips (1,500 downloads since June). Also on Esnips there are a number of useful VS PowerPoint presentations available for downloading (2,700 downloads thus far). I will be expanding this power point “bank” during the winter.

We started the year with two very well attended workshops in Chandigarh and Kochi (located in north and south India respectively). The turn out was good, and for two and half days in Kochi we were able to hold the attention of some 300 people. As a result of these workshops Vetiver activities in India have increased significantly – The India Vetiver Network (INVN) was formally established under its coordinator P. Haridas. Thank you Haridas for organizing such a well focused gathering in Kochi.. More recently Shantanoo Bhattacharya has established a regional network (linked to INVN) for East India. Both networks have been busy promoting the technology.

Workshops are very powerful tools to bring potential users together, and in every case (going back since TVNI was established) these workshops (and conferences) have had important impacts on accelerated and widening VS use. We are currently planning two new workshops for March 2009, the first in Nairobi, Kenya (the country of my youth), followed immediately by a large one in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that includes a field trip to western Ethiopia, where amongst others we will meet a farmer who has 250 km of vetiver hedgerows on his farm. In both cases we hope that the workshops will expand the use of Vetiver into other sectors besides agriculture.

During this past year there have been some notable Vetiver developments. Tuon Van of Cambodia has undertaken a large project to stabilize the Mekong River bank on the boundary of his farm. It is not a straight forward job and we are still learning. It is however a great example how almost instantaneously our networking brought together support from Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, and the US. The results thus far have been interesting enough for Shanatanoo Bhattacharya of Assam, India to start a similar river bank stabilization on the massive Brahmaputra River. This one we will follow carefully.

In Madagascar Roley Noffke of South Africa’s Hydromulch, working with Yoann Coppin, has stabilized some impressively large coastal sand dunes to meet the road access needs of a major mining company. An interesting facet of this project was the use of local farmers to propagate the millions of Vetiver plants required for this project. For these farmers Vetiver plant production became a major cash enterprise, earning them more than US$150,000. This sort of private sector/community approach should be replicated all over the developing world.

In Vanuatu, Don Miller, has demonstrated very convincingly how the Vetiver System can be used as an essential component for the rehabilitation of point source erosion sites (in this case major gullies), and the resultant prevention of sediment flow to the nearby coral reefs.

In California, Doug Richardson, who has now some 60 Vetiver projects in southern California, continues to show how Vetiver can be used so effectively to stabilize slopes and prevent landslides on some pretty valuable residential properties.

In Indonesia, Norman Vant Hoff has worked in Aceh (the Tsunami town that got wiped out) establishing individual and community waste-water treatment installations.

These are just a few examples of this year’s activities. But all over the tropics VS is now being increasingly used to solve environmental and social problems relating to natural resources and their protection.

In December, Alberto Rodriguez who is a Vetiver supplier in Puerto Rico (and sells amongst other things good quality Vetiver on Ebay) represented TVNI at the “Jamaica – Caribbean All-Hazards Conference”, and gave a well received presentation on “VS for Disaster Mitigation”. As a result there is a new interest in the Caribbean in VS and Alberto has subsequently set up Vetiver Caribbean Network (a Google Group forum) and will take the lead in VS promotion in the Caribbean. In the mean time Tim Journey and Henry Green are working with aid agencies (particularly the World Bank) to introduce VS on a wide scale for the rehabilitation of Haiti. Interestingly we received today this comment from an NGO working in Haiti, Mike Mahowald, who writes “I really know that any agricultural project on the mountains of Haiti that doesn’t start with Vetiver is worthless”.

The March 2009 workshop in Ethiopia will provide a great opportunity to see the progress in that country of the expanding VS program for soil and water conservation that started 20 years ago.

Debela Dinka – Sustainable Land Use Forum, Ethiopia, writes “According to our partner NGO in Illubabor, Ethio-Wetlands and Natural Resource Association (EWNRA), vetiver technology is more or less being used in 17 districts of 22 in Illubabor. It is estimated that about 17,000 households are using vetiver. It is expected that the remaining 5 districts will be involved. The major impacts of vetiver are: decreased rate of soil erosion; increased crop (maize sorghum, vegetables) yield due to soil and water conservation; reduced siltation of wetlands & streams; groundwater recharge which subsequently improved flow of springs, streams & wetlands; survival rate of tree & coffee seedlings reached more than 80%. Other uses of vetiver: mulching in coffee plantations; thatching of houses, stores & shades (vetiver grass gives long time service); mattress making (it repels home fleas & other insects); homestead hedgerows for beautification; making rope; income generation (farmers sell vetiver clumps for planting materials); and the green leaves of vetiver are cut and spread in & around homes during holidays & social gatherings such as wedding ceremonies.”

The Ethiopian experience brings us back in a full circle – the need for a renew focus on expanding the use of Vetiver for soil and water conservation – essential if developing countries are going to meet their food requirements.

John Greenfield (TVNI Director) writes

“There is little need to trot out the statistics, it is common knowledge that from the point of view of sustainable food production, the developing world has not made it, and is not making it, especially when we look at Africa. Despite all the efforts of the UN’s alphabet agencies, and numerous other Aid agencies, NGOs and private donors over the past 40 years, Africa still cannot feed itself, what is more, the situation is getting worse.

This is not through any lack of money, or International conferences on the subject, when aid money was readily available; it is simply through a lack of, and a failure to appreciate the fundamental need for an effective technology to conserve moisture in the field, an understanding of how that technology works, and how vital it is to the more than 80% of the world’s farmers who are ‘rainfed’.

Although Africa suffers from cyclic climate conditions, there is nothing wrong or unusual with the soils or the weather in Africa, White commercial farmers in Zimbabwe using irrigation out yielded their American counterparts year after year in maize production, before Mugabe came along. In 1980 Zimbabwe produced so much maize (corn) that its silos couldn’t hold it and it had to be stacked in the field under tarpaulins. But that was irrigated farming, the problem the world faces, is that over 80% of the Third world’s farmers are rainfed, meaning they rely entirely on the weather to produce their crops.

The Aid agencies so far have not come up with any technology that can be used widely to effectively conserve moisture in the field or reduce the 70% of rainfall that presntly runoffs the land to the drainage network.

Despite all the best efforts at development in the rainfed areas, yields are going down, soil erosion is out of control, increased runoff is causing major floods, loss of life and damage to the infrastructure and all this could get worse with the threat of climate change. The total lack of potable water throughout the developing world has created a serious health problem. Increased runoff does not refill major natural aquifers, which in turn is causing a lack of clean ground water recharging village wells and perennial streams from drying up.

The present technologies being offered by the Aid agencies to rainfed farmers such as ‘No Till‘; ’Alley Cropping‘; ‘SALT’: ‘Crop Fallowing’; ’Drought tolerant crops’; ’Fanya Juu’, ’Ridge and Furrow Cropping’, etc, are often inappropriate, labour intensive, costly, and not sustainable.

The Vetiver Network International (TVNI), a purely philanthropic organisation, has over the past 20 years (with very limited funding and virtually no support from international institutions), developed a technology to economically contain runoff, conserve moisture, control erosion and increase sustainable yields of food/fuel and cash crops in all rainfed areas at very little cost and the potential of a high degree of success (see Debela’s statement above).

This technology, known as the “Vetiver System” (VS) consists of a dense hedge of the vetiver plant, capable of growing in any soil or ‘substrate’, under an extremely wide range of pH, and climatic conditions in the tropics. Once established as a hedge it is the farmers’ system. Once he has a supply of the plants, he needs nothing else, he can propagate his own plants and plant further hedges wherever he needs them. To do this, he needs no help from the government, no support from engineers, he needs no heavy equipment, all he needs are his bare hands. Once the hedges are established, he has his own system of soil and moisture conservation which he can hand down to his children, a system that will last for decades with virtually no maintenance costs. A system that will sustain his crop production under extreme conditions. This is the power of the Vetiver System.”

Agricultural output has not kept up with population growth in the rainfed areas of semitropical and tropical countries. What we know today about the Vetiver System and its potential benefit for agriculture is much greater than 20 years ago. Vetiver hedgerows will: reduce sediment/soil loss by 90%; reduce rainfall runoff by as much as 70%; significantly help in the maintenance of soil fertility, provide a source of biproducts that can be used as mulch, forage, thatch; clean up on farm pollution; recharge groundwater; biofuel, and in some cases protect crops from insect damage. This is the package that we need to promote and market to the agricultural community.

In order to accelerate the use of Vetiver Systems for agriculture and food production we have to see what have been the past bottlenecks to expansion. Recently I invited Vetiver users around the world for their feedback. Here are the responses that I received in order of importance:

  1. Lack of knowledge and technology dissemination: this covers a wide range including ignorance of the technology by administrators, policy makers and planners, uninformed technical professionals and lack of profession endorsement, teaching and learning limitations in universities and schools, limited press coverage, absence of mass marketing, lack of publications (language barriers), and not using modern marketing tools.
  2. Leadership: New technology introduction requires farsighted leadership with vision and commitment. A committed lead organization is required. Good NGOs and private sector companies can often do this best. Commitment is rarely found in government organizations.
  3. Corruption: Not always, but generally VS is seen as a low cost technology that does not attract high budget allocations, and therefore the opportunities and attractiveness for corrupt practices are much less than for high cost alternatives.
  4. Technology: Majority of solutions have in the past an engineering base. Most engineers have not been trained in bio-engineering solutions, particularly those that are low cost. Low cost biological solutions are often seen as too simple and as such are unattractive. Again applying low cost solutions result in lower fees for designers and executing contractors. Many higher cost engineering solutions do not always last long and have to be replaced. – that is good for business! Or as quoted in China “if the slope stabilization does not fail then what shall we eat”!
  5. Specifications: Engineers In particular like clear specification. Specifications and standards should be followed – bad application generally results in failure and detracts potential users. Site specificity is important. Often rather general standards are given and followed, and if not properly supervised and fine-tuned can lead to failure.
  6. Multipurpose use: Two sides to this one. For some potential user groups such as railway and highway engineers it is best to have narrowly focused workshops and training on the application at hand. For other users such as farmers and rural planners there is a need to look at the wider aspects and the multi benefits that are possible from VS. In other words sometime the focus and the message is not right.
  7. Plant Propagation: Because Vetiver has to be vegetatively propagated an upfront investment and lead-time is required. This can be a detraction. However there are plenty of demonstrations showing that small farmer private nurseries can be quickly established if there is a guaranteed market.
  8. Invasive species and native plant syndrome: This is more of a problem in developed countries. Sometimes deliberate miscasting of Vetiver as an invasive species (this has quieted in recent years). Many government projects in the US will only use native plants. Also entrenched vested interests in other more “profitable” technology work hard to keep VS out and the “invasive” slur is a handy tool to frighten unaware decision makers.
  9. Research: Some research has been very adequate, in some cases government research staff have shown little interest – conflicting agendas, jealousy, scientists without vision, research lagging behind field developments.
  10. Silver bullet: Overselling technology, this can be a problem. But generally occurs when the recipient is looking for problems. VS will do many things, but is sometimes deliberately misapplied in the hope of failure – then the silver bullet has failed. However there are cases where Vetiver has been used in very marginal climatic areas (arid) with poor results. (Note: the terminology – magic grass – was not invented by TVNI)
  11. High profile demonstrations and projects: In some countries the lack of large scale examples can result in lowering of potential user interest.
  12. Economic Benefits: Economic benefits are not always obvious to he
  13. user, particularly small farmers with limited education. Larger users
  14. need to understand the benefits and value of VS.

All of the above are “fixable”.

As 2008 draws to an end we have to give thanks to all of you who have contributed to the successes of this past year, I would like to mention you all by name. But let me say that everyone’s contribution, however large or small is truly appreciated. Our global network can only succeed through your initiatives, effort, support, sharing and feedback. It is terrific to see how more and more the VS flag bearers are you, the users, and it is you who create the conditions for progress.

Special thanks to Paul Truong who year after year supports so many initiatives and puts so much time into ensuring that others succeed. Thanks also to those who provide us funds, without this funding support our progress would be far less. I am certain that with world attention on climate change, sustainable food production, and environmental sustainability of the world’s natural resources that the Vetiver System will be increasingly seen as an indispensable technology.

Still cold here, still a lot of snow!

Dick Grimshaw
December 23, 2008