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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How The War Is Doing Long-Term Damage To Ukraine's Fertile Soil

Ukraine's fertile soils used to feed the world. But even when the war ends, food production will take decades to recover because of damage to the land.

Photo of a missile in the dirt

A tailpart of a missile sticks out of the ground in the village of Chornobaivka, near Kherson

Oleksandr Decyk and Vitaly Alekseev

KYIV — After the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most of the world's consumers of agricultural products such as wheat, sunflower oil and corn suddenly learned that most of these products were grown in Ukraine. They also discovered that this is a country whose fertile lands feed a significant part of Africa and Europe.

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Without its wheat and sunflowers, many all over the world will starve to death. So, the war in Ukraine has become a world war. And even when the hostilities end, Ukraine will not be able to immediately resume feeding the world, as Russian troops are destroying the basis of its agriculture — chernozem soil.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, during the war in Ukraine, significantly degraded agricultural land increased by 13%. A significant percentage of the land is at risk of degradation. Scientists call it ecocide – the deliberate destruction of Ukraine's ecosystem. More than 200,000 hectares of territories in the combat zone are contaminated with mines, shells, and debris.


And the soil is full of heavy metals, which will pose a threat to health for years.

A long recovery process

Scientists note that the issue of restoring land fertility after Russia's aggression is already something that should be a priority. The areas of agricultural land filled with mines and ammunition or contaminated with oil products and chemical compounds are increasing every day. And this is primarily in the regions with the most fertile soils in Ukraine.

“We see that soils with the best agrochemical characteristics and a fairly high ecological and agrochemical score are negatively affected,” says Svitlana Romanova, deputy general director for scientific activities of the Soil Protection Institute of Ukraine.

The destruction of the upper nutrient-rich layer due to the toxic effects of explosive devices, ammunition and military equipment ultimately leads to a loss of soil fertility and makes the fields unsuitable for agricultural production. As history shows, the recovery will take more than a year. Because, for example, according to Belgian scientists, even 90 years after the First World War, the concentrations of heavy metals exceeded maximum permissible limits at the sites of former battles.

Russian missiles destroyed warehouses with grain in the Zaporizhzhia Region

Dmytro Smolyenko/Ukrinform/ZUMA

The demining process

Dmytro Slivchenko, chairman of the Beryslav District Council in the Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine, said in an interview in November: “Our region is agricultural. 90% of the profits of our communities came from land, land rent, farmers' taxes. And now these fields, even if not mined, are scattered with unexploded shells, and we are talking about very large areas.”

However, the demining process should only be started after checking power lines, office buildings and yards.

What’s more, the longer the territories are under occupation, the higher the level of their mining. In particular, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, one of the highest levels was recorded in the liberated territories of the Kherson region.

Metals in the soil

But the soils suffer not only from mines and ammunition. As a result of the war, another huge problem is the contamination of arable land with compounds of heavy metals.

“At the end of April, the Armed Forces managed to drive the aggressor out of Kharkiv, where our institute is located, and we collected primary data on the outskirts of Kharkiv, where the fiercest fighting took place,” says Maksym Solokha from the National Scientific Center Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research.

It will take decades to clean up Ukraine's fertile lands after the war

On the basis of instrumental studies, scientists have concluded that the level of lead and cadmium in the soil exceeds acceptable norms. They are present in craters, primarily artillery, at a depth of about two meters.

“They are considered heavy metals. They will not go anywhere... And then they lead to cancer. We know that there are other metals besides these large accumulations of cadmium and lead,” he says.

The most dangerous are places where heavy equipment was burnt. “According to our estimates, the area where heavy armored vehicles exploded is the most polluted, the most toxic. And this area needs to be fixed in order to determine the places of spills of various liquids, in particular fuel and lubricants. Even when armored vehicles explode, not all toxic substances burn out,” the scientist says.

According to the experts' conclusions, it will take decades to clean up Ukraine's fertile lands after the war.


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Geopolitics

Minerals And Violence: A Papal Condemnation Of African Exploitation, Circa 2023

Before heading to South Sudan to continue his highly anticipated trip to Africa, the pontiff was in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he delivered a powerful speech, in a country where 40 million Catholics live.

Minerals And Violence: A Papal Condemnation Of African Exploitation, Circa 2023
Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — You may know the famous Joseph Stalin quote: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” Pope Francis still has no military divisions to his name, but he uses his voice, and he does so wisely — sometimes speaking up when no one else would dare.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Belgian Congo, a region plundered and martyred, before and after its independence in 1960), Francis has chosen to speak loudly. Congo is a country with 110 million inhabitants, immensely rich in minerals, but populated by poor people and victims of brutal wars.

That land is essential to the planetary ecosystem, and yet for too long, the world has not seen it for its true value.

The words of this 86-year-old pope, who now moves around in a wheelchair, deserve our attention. He undoubtedly said what a billion Africans are thinking: "Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered!"

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