Last Saturday, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the globe in celebrating World Soil Day.
Commemorated annually on December 5, the day focuses on the significance of healthy soil and advocates sustainable management of soil resources.
This year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO’s) campaign is “Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity”, aimed at raising awareness on the importance of sustaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being.
To Africans, pertinently Zimbabweans, the issue of soil carries historical innuendoes.
While it may be a historical fact that anti-colonial struggles of the 1890s and 1970s were triggered by the land issue, the perspective that it was largely about the soil holds sway.
Broadly, land comprises rivers, mountains, buildings, forests and minerals.
Since 1890, contestations of heritage have been reflections of the tangibles and intangibles pertaining to land as an ancestral birthright.
Had it not been for the soil, the physical, spiritual and psychological dispossession of Africans could not have been such an issue.
The creation of Reserves and Tribal Trust Lands, through the Land Apportionment Act of 1931, amended 60 times to divide land ownership between blacks and whites, that allocated white setters more than 80 percent of the land, despite being in the minority (five percent), and blacks 20 percent; was more of a soil issue than a land one.
In a statement to commemorate World Soil Day, Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Minister Dr Anxious Masuka aptly pointed out: “On this auspicious day, we must realise that ‘Everything is dependent on soil and, through it, on land.'”
Indeed, all contestations in Zimbabwe were about the soil since September 12, 1890, when the so called ‘Pioneer Column’ hoisted the Union Jack on Harare Hill (Kopje) in Salisbury; and “in the name of Queen Victoria, took possession of Mashonaland, and all other unpossessed land in South-Central Africa that it should be found desirable to add to the Empire.”
The basis for possession and the blatant claim that there could be “unpossessed” land in a country with inhabitants, that could simply be usurped because it was “desirable” to do so, are interesting moot points at the level of both law and social justice, and in relation to the soil.
So what is soil?
Soil is defined as the upper layer of earth consisting of a mixture of organic matter, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life.
The earth’s body of soil, known as the pedosphere, has four crucial functions. These are as a medium for plant growth, means of water storage, supply and purification, modifier of earth’s atmosphere and a habitat for organisms.
Different types of organisms thrive in the soil, which has the greatest biodiversity concentration on the planet. Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms found in a particular area.
And what is land?
As stated in the Land Commission Act (Chapter 20:9), of the Constitution of Zimbabwe “land” includes anything permanently attached to or growing on land.”
Although the Act does not define what land is, it outlines what it comprises, and what it is capable of doing.
It allows for growth and permanence of life, which is both limiting and broad, depending on how one reads it.
In the limited sense the land is an expanse or sod of soil where crops may be grown, but not all soils can sustain life.
But in the broader sense, as the Act outlines, the word comprises everything that grows on it, or is permanently attached to it; like buildings, mountains, rivers, forests, minerals and animals.
It also refers to the motherland, or country. Since soil is encompassed in land, it may also be referred to as one’s country.
Also, because land comprises soil, it sustains life, without which man and his environment are doomed.
What becomes clear is that soil is a part of land, which can only sustain life if it is able to allow plants to grow, stores, supplies and purifies water, modifies the earth’s atmosphere and functions as a habitat for organisms.
For this to happen the composition of what constitutes it as alluded earlier on should just be right.
As collective memory recalls, whites took the richer parts of the land as determined by the composition of the soil, and condemned blacks to arid, dry and barren areas, like Shangani and Gwayi.
Colonialists were concerned about the fertility of the soil for them to be able to feed and enrich their descendants. They were worried about the texture of the soil, its dark colour and environs – green vegetation.
Thus, the contestation of heritage was profoundly on the basis of the quality of the soil and not the land per se. The soil carters for the tangible gains associated with the land.
If it so happened that the area or areas with good soils had shrines and grave-sites with spiritual connection to the indigenous people, as was usually the case, then, the intangibles were also affected.
The idea of legacy and psychological dispossession cannot be fully understood in the absence of the soil. Settlers were aware that it was through studying the soil that whatever might be beneath the land could be discerned.
Colonialists were convinced that there were vast mineral resources underneath the indigenous people’s soil. They, therefore, dispossessed them.
The issue has always been about the soil, because it is the soil that sustains livelihoods. If the soil cannot produce anything, then, it is not worth having.
Black people’s grievances hinged on the deprivation of fertile soils to sustain their livelihoods.
With the settlers claiming all the good land, either for farming, ranching or mining, basing on the soil, the contestation culminated in the First Chimurenga; and seven decades later, in the Second Chimurenga.
In post-2000 Zimbabwe, the same issue of the soil takes centre stage.
To keep the spirit of struggle alive, therefore, Zimbabweans should preserve the soil that necessitated a protracted liberation war for the Motherland at the cost of thousands of lives of fellow citizens.
As Zimbabwe focal person, Emmanuel Chikwari, head of chemistry and soil research institute – FAO Global Soil Partnership, points out: “Soil is the most precious resource, because it supports all life forms. How we value soils will determine our actions, either as the farmer or as the consumer of produce from the soil.
“Ironically, all of us are consumers of what comes from the soil. Therefore, it is a wake-up call for us to keep soil alive and protect biodiversity.”