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Vetivier to the rescue

Published: 
Thursday, August 10, 2017
This humble, tough grass is helping Paramin hillside farmers

Paramin is famous for its beautiful, steep hills, aromatic herbs, parang music and Carnival Blue Devils—but none of these was the reason for our visit last Saturday. Instead, we all came for the grass.

Vetiver grass, to be precise. A group of UNDP representatives, Paramin residents, sustainability advocates and a small Guardian crew visited Paramin last Saturday, to see progress on the recently concluded Vetiver Education and Empowerment Project (or VEEP), which is funded by the GEF Small Grants Programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Lasting from mid-2016 to July 2017, the project introduced the Vetiver System of planting to Paramin hillside farms, roadsides and cliff areas to help prevent soil erosion, landslides, and excessive water loss.

Landslides come every rainy season in Paramin like clockwork. They can make the already narrow roads even more treacherously narrow, and destroy crops and future planting areas. We saw several small to medium landslides on our way up, including one larger one which had scoured a hillside, leaving behind a long reddish stone-and-dirt gash looking like a vertical, empty riverbed.

We saw many slippery slopes slick with rain run-off and some clear evidence of erosion, including a sinkhole-like area where a past landslide had gouged out lots of topsoil, rendering that particular site unsuitable for agricultural planting.

But what if there’s a simple, home-grown solution to these issues? Enter the versatile Vetiver grass, which in many parts of the tropics, is a simple, cost-effective tool to help deal with soil erosion, landslides and water management.

Vetiver virtues

Vetiver grass—or Chrysopogon zizanioides—is a perennial bunchgrass of the Poaceae family, native to India. It grows in narrow-bladed, tall green clumps up to five feet high. But rather like icebergs, the most fascinating part of the Vetiver plant is not the small bit of it you can actually see, but the huge mass of its subterranean self. For if you could see the whole plant with X-ray vision, you’d see that the hidden root system of a mature Vetiver grass clump is several times more massive and lengthy than the grass blades above it.

The roots penetrate downwards rather than spreading out laterally, which is what makes Vetiver grass especially helpful for planting alongside crops on steep slopes. In mature Vetiver plants, the roots can form a dense vertical mat of between seven and 13 feet deep, which is excellent for binding the soil together and helping to prevent landslides, as well as sopping up extra water from rain run-off.

Jaime Romany is member of the Paramin Development Committee and project manager for VEEP. She immediately saw the project’s relevance for Paramin, and partnered with Jonathan Barcant, an engineer and local Vetiver expert, to apply for UNDP project funding to make the project happen.

Romany told the Guardian this current rainy season has seen more landslides in Paramin—about four or five major ones—than in the previous couple years. She said: “We’re using Vetiver to stabilise the land, help prevent landslips, and also using it for crafts. Farmers and residents took part. And four Vetiver nurseries were established, to provide free plants for Paramin residents.” Nurseries may also sell plants to the general population.

A tough survivor

Vetiver grass is very tough stuff indeed—it can survive droughts and wildfires, and if it is submerged in clear water, it is said to survive for up to two months without drowning. Its strong root system can grow 10 feet in just the first year. Yet, because the most commonly used commercial genotypes of Vetiver are sterile (they do not produce fertile seeds), these genotypes are non-invasive.

The Paramin VEEP project saw 25,000 Vetiver plants planted on the properties of 15 Paramin community members. All project participants helped plan the placement of Vetiver shoots, and planted and nurtured the young plants.

As part of VEEP, five workshops taught people how to prepare, install and maintain Vetiver projects, and taught some natural land rehabilitation methods. The project also included 12 craft workshops where participants learnt how to make products such as baskets, belts, mats, and chair coverings using the dried Vetiver grass.

Soaps were another craft project: Vetiver roots were processed to make sweet smelling household items such as soaps, to freshen the home and keep away insects. The craft and nursery projects offer a chance for future income earning in the community.

Cost effective

Jonathan Barcant leads the firm Vetiver TT, a company founded in 2014 which offers environmental, land and conservation services primarily based on The Vetiver System (see www.vetiver.org). Vetiver grass is a promising solution for land slippage, while costing as little as 15-20 per cent as much as hard-engineering alternatives like gabion rock baskets, retaining walls, or geotextile mats. Barcant is an important partner in VEEP, and told the Guardian:

“I always dreamed of a community project in T&T. The Vetiver System helps in slope stabilisation, erosion control, soil and water conservation, and even remediation of polluted soil. And it’s such a simple thing to implement.

“In Paramin, Jaime Romany had the vision and reached out to me, so I became the main project designer, educator and installer, while she was project manager and liaised with the community. It is the first project of this kind in Trinidad. The project took a year and a half of preparatory groundwork, before the application could be made for funding. Then the workshops and actual planting part of the project took off between July and November 2016.”

Barcant noted that although Vetiver first came from India, it’s now in over 100 countries because of its wide range of uses. A short video of the Paramin Vetiver project is being made to inspire other communities to learn. And Barcant’s firm Vetiver TT will be promoting VEEP locally and internationally. (The firm has been selected for the Swiss ReSource Award, which supports entrepreneurial solutions for resilience in water management.)

Thanks to UNDP Small Grants Programme

Rissa Edoo is National Coordinator for the Global Environmental Facility’s Small Grants Programme, or GEF-SGP, which provides grants of up to US$50,000 to community groups worldwide working to restore and conserve the natural environment. She works for the United Nations Development Programme office based in T&T. She told the Guardian:

“What we do is provide finding to non-profits, civil society organisations and community groups to do a variety of environmental projects. The main objective of the Small Grants Programme is to create global environmental benefits through small-scale community action that empowers communities and creates livelihood opportunities, while addressing issues such as climate change, land degradation, and conservation of biodiversity. This VEEP project is just one of several projects we are funding.”

Edoo noted the actual value of the VEEP project in Paramin exceeds US$50,000 because the community and various stakeholders all contributed (in cash or kind) to add to funds provided by the GEF-SGP grant.

Vetiver, once planted, can thrive year after year. This unassuming but very resilient, useful grass may be showing us how to survive better, by using inexpensive resources more usefully and profitably.