Interview - Judith Schwartz
Working with Nature to Heal the Earth
Alice Ellerby talks to Judith Schwartz about regenerative practices that have helped restore some of the world’s most wounded places
For her latest book, The Reindeer Chronicles, environmental journalist Judith Schwartz visited troubled landscapes around the world that have been revitalised by dedicated ecorestorers who have collaborated with nature to bring about radical ecological recovery. Judith believes that the path to healing is rooted in the earth. When I ask her about climate challenges, she says: “Climate happens on the ground. It is a combination of so many processes – cycles of carbon, water, nutrients and energy – and everything happens through the earth, through the soil, through the plants.” The projects she has witnessed show the capacity of the Earth to bring these processes back into balance, provided people stop exploiting nature and instead allow it to lead the way. It is astonishing to discover the positive impact on land, climate and communities, in areas where visionary people have encouraged ecological restoration.
The way humankind has become accustomed to interacting with nature has led to widespread desertification. Judith explains what is meant by this: “Any time you see bare ground, that’s a little tiny microcosm of desertification. What it basically means is that the land has lost the capacity to sustain life. You can have a beautiful forest, but if the trees are cut down, then that alters the water cycle and the carbon cycle. You can get into a situation where the land becomes a desert, because, without the trees, the processes can’t cycle in the same way.
“Allan Savory [an ecologist], someone who’s inspired me a great deal, says that bare ground isn’t a result of climate change, it’s actually a cause of climate change. If you have bare ground, then you don’t get the cooling effect of the plants, through shading and transpiration, so the soil heats up. And when it heats up beyond a certain point, the microorganisms stop functioning, and you’re not able to keep everything going. What we want is life. Life covering everywhere.”
Judith begins The Reindeer Chronicles with the radical transformation that occurred in China’s Loess Plateau, a blighted land region the size of Belgium. Before the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project took place, unsustainable farming practices had led to extreme soil erosion which meant that people in the area were scarcely able to grow the food they needed to sustain themselves. But the project transformed the wasteland into a flourishing ecosystem supported by regenerative farming practices. The ecological restoration was a huge undertaking that took fourteen years and involved the Chinese government, the World Bank, NGO partners, and the hard work of tens of thousands of people. Although a far cry from some of the other grass roots projects Judith looks at, what the project shows is “the remarkable scale and speed at