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TOPIC: agriculture


The Environmental Ruin Left Behind By The U.S. In Afghanistan

Twenty years of American military intervention and occupation have left vast ecological damage that may never be repaired.

ACHIN — Birds dip between low branches that hang over glittering brooks along the drive from Jalalabad heading south toward the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Then, the landscape changes, as lush fields give way to barren land.

Up ahead, Achin is located among a rise of rocky mountains that line the border with Pakistan, a region pounded by American bombs since the beginning of the war.

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How Planting Trees Could Inject New Life Into Dry Soil

Dry soil, hardly any rain — this summer's drought is making life difficult for farmers. In one of the driest regions in Germany, environmentally friendly farmer Benedikt Bösel is turning his fields into a laboratory, experimenting with an exciting new approach.

ALT MADLITZ — In summer, Benedikt Bösel likes to set up his table out in the fields, with herds of cattle grazing nearby. The 38-year-old has an estate and a large farm in Brandenburg, the driest region in Germany. For many years now, he has been a leader in the world of environmentally friendly farming, using Instagram, a book and talk show appearances to spread the message about his mission to save the soil.

“Everywhere now, you can feel that water is becoming scarcer, and we don’t have any healthy soil left,” says Bösel, who runs a large farm with 1,000 hectares of arable land and 2,000 hectares of woodland in Alt Madlitz, in the Briesen region, about an hour from Berlin. He has turned his fields into a kind of laboratory. In a region with one of the lowest precipitation rates in all of Germany, and with very sandy soil, he is developing new ways of using the land, in response to the environmental crisis.

Agro-forestry systems play an important role in reducing the damage caused by drought and erosion. In simple terms, this means interspersing trees and bushes throughout arable fields. The trees are regularly spaced out in rows across the fields. Experts believe this helps the soil to retain moisture, meaning that extreme weather causes less damage. When tilling the land, most farmers prefer to “drive in long, straight lines,” says Bösel, who works in partnership with a number of research institutes and is supported by the German Ministry of Agriculture.

According to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research’s records on droughts, there is a vast swathe of land, running from eastern Lower Saxony across Saxony-Anhalt to Berlin and Brandenburg, that has been consistently too dry for the past five years. As a result, farms in the east of Germany, which tend to be far larger than the national average, have suffered poor harvests.

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Twisting Open The Secrets Of Portugal's Cork Empire

In the hands of the same family since 1870, the world's largest producer of corks almost disappeared in the early 2000s. Today, this gem of Portuguese industry has not only reconquered its historic market, but has made cork the darling of many other sectors.

PORTO DE SANTA MARIA DA FEIRA — In the courtyard, mountains of bark await their turn before moving onto the conveyor belts. Scanned from every angle, they are distributed according to the thickness of their cork layer, before an artificial intelligence system scans them with cameras and tells robots where to drill, turning the bark into small cylinders. Nearby, a dozen human operators perform the same work by hand and eye. "Their expertise is unique, and we reserve it for our best customers," explains Carlos de Jesus, marketing director for cork company Amorim.

Once cut into perfect-looking corks, they undergo a final test. Conceiçao Loja, bending over bags ready for shipment, spots some with micro-defects. "Does it change the quality of the wine? No. But if you're a prestigious château, you expect everything to be perfect," proudly says the technician with 37 years' experience under her belt.

It's impossible to miss the factories along the 25 kilometers that separate Porto, Portugal from Santa Maria da Feira, Amorim's stronghold. Similar to the one we surveyed on this March morning, they're everywhere, churning out over 6 billion corks a year, which is half of the world's entire production. But wine and champagne houses, the company's long-standing customers, are not the only ones to benefit: from shoe soles to surfboards, insulation panels to rocket noses, stadium floors to ship decks, Amorim cork is everywhere.

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After Kakhovka Dam Attack, Searching For Signs Of New Life — And Water

In the Kakhovka Reservoir region, life used to revolve around the community's direct access to water – until the dam was attacked two months ago. Locals are now trying to build a new life, carrying with them hope for the end of the war and the return of their precious reserves.

NIKOPOL — Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 280,000 people lived in the Kakhovka Reservoir area. Today, following the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam two months ago, only 50,000 remain. The explosion turned the region into a war zone, with the right bank controlled by Ukraine and the left bank occupied by the Russian army – and growing fears that the Russians might target the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.

The reservoir, once the largest on the Dnipro River, is now a desolate wasteland, the landscape surreal with dry sand dunes and black strips of silt in the lowlands. The river is gradually reclaiming its former channel, displaying nature's memory of its past course.

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A recent visit felt like witnessing the slow beginning of the region's rebirth. The left bank of today's Dnipro is a new bank "made" from the bottom of the reservoir. The shore is completely sandy and devoid of all vegetation.

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José A. Cano

A Bee For Every Person: Inside Spain's Ambitious Re-Pollination Plans

The Smart Green Bees project aims to tackle the bee crisis by repopulating Spain with a symbolic 47 million native bees, one per every Spaniard. The challenge will be ensuring the project is done responsibly.

MADRID — What is killing the bees? It's a multi-faceted answer: pesticides, deforestation, the climate crisis, a rural crisis that is ruining beekeepers and diseases that are spreading faster than ever before. Farmers and environmentalists have grown tired of explaining bees' crucial presence in our ecosystem: they are the main pollinating insect, essential for biodiversity and for food security.

In North America and Europe, bee’s population decline is projected to average around 30%, while in Spain it is estimated to be close to 40%. But it is by no means inevitable. One project aims to alleviate this drop by "repopulating" Spain with 47 million bees — that's one for every Spaniard. The objective is to help beekeepers avoid having to choose between creating new hives and turning a profit.

This is the purpose of Smart Green Bees, a scheme backed by the technology company LG and run by the association El Rincón de la Abeja (The Bee's Corner). Specifically, they are bringing back the Apis meliferia iberiensis, a species native to the Iberian Peninsula and the only one adapted to pollinate all the species that inhabit its countryside.

The number 47 million is a symbolic one taken from the first Smart Green project – LG's own ecosystem regeneration project – which began with the idea of reforesting Spain with one tree per inhabitant. Now it's the turn of the bees.

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food / travel
Magdalena Rojo

In Mexico, Indigenous Women Are Saving Your Morning Coffee, One Plant At A Time

Coffee producers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are adapting to climate change by restoring their coffee plantations in agroforestry systems. While the costs of their work are increasing, the price of coffee is not.

OAXACA — Seven women gather beneath the shade of Victórica Ortiz López’ (58) house, their woven bags slung over their arms and ready for the fields. Speaking in Mixteco, the majority of these women are above fifty and still prefer the traditional indigenous language over Spanish.

In Guadalupe Buenavista, a village of around 400 people, coffee production has been the main source of income for multiple generations. “My grandfather, who is already 80, spent all his life growing coffee and so did his father,” says one of the youngest coffee producers, Paula Pérez Ortiz (34), while we wait for a pick-up to take us along the bumpy, unpaved roads.

Once we leave the village for the coffee plantations, forests are everywhere around us. Here, coffee plants grow underneath trees.

Mexico is famous for its arabica coffee, often grown in the shade of different kinds of trees instead of monocultures, where only coffee plants would grow in one plantation. The country is amongst the biggest exporters of organic coffee in the world, with Germany being one of its main importers.

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Mayamitu Neupane

Nepal’s Elephants Threaten The Farmers Who Used To Worship Them

Sick of dealing with dangerous marauding elephants, farmers in Mechinagar are changing their crops and focusing on livestock, but conservationists warn that pivoting won’t solve the problem for good.

JHAPA— Villagers in eastern Jhapa, on the border with India, used to perform puja for elephants and leave them bananas, regarding them as avatars of the god Ganesh. But that was before droves of them began rampaging their villages. Now, half a century later, after deaths, injuries and extensive crop damage, the mood has shifted.“

Half my life has been spent keeping elephant watch,” says Motilal Bhujel, 56, a farmer in Bahundangi village, in the municipality of Mechinagar. In the last decade, according to the division forest office, 58 people have been killed and 79 injured in Jhapa district; at least 16 elephants — classified as endangered in Nepal — have also lost their lives. As human-elephant conflict has escalated in recent years, villagers say they have tried many tactics to deter the animals: burning haystacks, banging on steel plates, laying down rope slathered in grease and chile powder. Increasingly, they are changing what they grow — forgoing rice in favor of tea, betelnut and lemongrass, for instance — to keep rampaging elephants away.

Residents of Mechinagar say that human-elephant conflict began in the early 1970s but has intensified recently. Five years ago, two to four elephants would encroach on rice and maize fields between June and November, around harvest season; now, as many as 60 enter settlements well into February.

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Ángela Sepúlveda

A Hot Day Melts It, But Global Warming Could Make Chocolate Vanish For Good

The devastating effects of rising temperatures include denying to people across the world their favorite staple sweet. While 2050 is the date cited for the risk of chocolate disappearing, there are efforts to reverse the effects of climate change on the production of cocoa.

MADRIDClimate change has devastating large-scale effects, including violent floods and intense heat waves, but it also has consequences for our mundane daily routines: that bar of chocolate you enjoy in the afternoon may become a luxury item by 2050. Experts predict we will see a drastic reduction in cocoa production as a result of an increasingly extreme climate.

Cocoa trees thrive under specific conditions: consistent temperatures, high humidity, abundant rainfall and protection from strong winds. These circumstances are only found in tropical rainforests, with the main producers in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Ecuador and Indonesia.

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food / travel
Jean-Michel Brouard, Jean-Francis Pécresse

Forty Years Later, 2022 Is Set To Be Another Bordeaux Vintage For The Ages

Forty years since 1982, a mythical vintage of outstanding quality, the 2022 vintage, promises to be the new model for Bordeaux wine-growers after its first taste test, says French daily Les Echos.

BORDEAUX — If the year 2022 was a great vintage for Bordeaux, could it be the best since 1982? In spite of a warming climate, vineyards in the region have been resilient. This year’s wines present an excellent balance between concentration and freshness.

Still, the year was not all smooth sailing for winegrowers, who were plagued by spring frosts, hailstorms and droughts that lasted all throughout the growing season. This was paired with abundant sunshine and particularly high temperatures. The vines were confronted with three major heat waves, which began in mid-June, and allowed them to adapt and show persistence in the face of the year's other extreme weather events.

The approach of the harvest — one of the earliest ever observed — brought calmer conditions, making it possible to obtain optimal maturities. But the harvested grapes were small and concentrated, explaining the below-average volumes (4.11 million hectoliters) winegrowers have been reaping for the third consecutive year.

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Patricia Lindrio

The Bitter Core Of Uganda's Billion-Dollar Cocoa Industry: Economic Injustice

Many of Uganda’s small-scale farmers rely on someone else to dry their beans, a practice that keeps them in a cycle of poverty. A new processing factory aims to change that.

BUNDIBUGYO — It’s harvest day on Edson Sabite’s 4-acre cocoa plantation on the hilly slopes in the Bundibugyo region of western Uganda. His two brothers and two teenage sons are helping in the garden by cutting the cocoa pods, removing the beans and placing them in basins, which will later get dried in the sun and sold.

The rural town sits in the Bundibugyo region, in western Uganda, where cocoa beans thrive in a tropical expanse blessed with particularly fertile soil. The area produces more than 70% of the cocoa the country exports. Sabite earns more than many farmers, growing his cocoa on land four times the size of most of the surrounding cocoa farms.

He has the storage facilities to dry his cocoa beans and transport them to buyers, ensuring he gets the highest price possible. But Sabite’s story isn’t typical; most cocoa farmers have small holdings and lack the facilities to dry their beans to secure a higher price than if sold wet, or freshly picked. They are forced to rely on middlemen.

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İrfan Donat

Environmental Degradation, The Dirty Secret Ahead Of Turkey’s Election

Election day is approaching in Turkey. Unemployment, runaway inflation and eroding rule of law are top of mind for many. But one subject isn't getting the attention it deserves: the environment.

ISTANBUL — A recent report from the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA) paints a grim picture of the country's environmental situation, which is getting worse across the board.

Soil is extremely fragile in Turkey, with 78.7% of the country at risk of severe to moderate desertification, mostly due to erosion, which costs Turkey 642 million tons of fertile soil annually. Erosion effects 39% of agricultural land and 54% of pasture land. Erosion of the most fertile top layers pushes farmers to use more fertilizer, TEMA says, which can in turn threaten food safety.

Nearly all of Turkey's food is grown in the country, but agricultural areas have shrunk to 23.1 million hectares in 2022, down from 27.5 in 1992 — a loss of almost 20%.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Kern Hendricks

Hard Evidence Links Ukraine War Damage To Grain Shortages Around The World

Reporting from agricultural centers in eastern Ukraine confirms a landmark study: Extensive wartime damage to the country's crucial agricultural sector risks raising hunger in places that have counted on Ukrainian grain.

KHARKIV — It was the spring of 2022 when rockets began to land in Lyonid Lysachenko’s wheat fields in eastern Ukraine.

The first rockets landed “a few weeks after the invasion began,” he said, crunching across one of his snow-crusted fields nearly a year later, in early February. He stopped and hitched up the collar of his jacket against the biting wind, then pointed east. “Their positions were only a few kilometers away at one point. This whole area was within range.”

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Lysachenko has been farming this 1,100-acre-plus plot of land for more than three decades, and, at 70, his crushing farmer’s handshake has lost none of its strength. When he spoke of the war, though, his broad shoulders sagged a little and his smile faded.

The same day that Lysachenko’s farm was first hit, his neighbor’s was too. The neighbor’s grain was also destroyed. Lysachenko estimated the loss at more than 1,000 tons “because the rocket landed right in the middle of his warehouse.”

Soon after, another Russian rocket struck the large grain elevator at the center of Lysachenko’s property. No one was injured, but the building was obliterated, along with the grain inside. The financial damage was immense.

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