Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Khmer’s Love to Burn

Khmers love to burn and they don’t care what it is. You don’t notice burning much living in Phnom Penh, but where I am at the edge of Kampot, the stench of all types of materials going up in flames, including toxic ones, is a frequent and unwelcome visitor, especially in dry season.
Speaking generally and ecologically, there’s nothing good about burning unless there’s a special or particular reason for it (which I’ll get to later). In the grand picture, it adds to climate change and closer to home pollutes the air. Personally I’m not that worried about inhaling small amounts of smoke here and there from burning organic material, though it definitely can result in health problems for people who breathe it in on a regular basis, but I’m positively aghast when I see, for instance, young kids gaily feeding bits of plastic to their fun little fire. I yelled out something to them which had little meaning and they wouldn’t understand if it did, but I just had to do it.
Plastic today is made from petrochemicals and just the nasty acrid smell given off when burning it is proof enough that it’s a disaster for your respiratory system. Plastic bags are the scourge of the modern world and that’s especially true in a place like Cambodia, where scattered waste plastic mars city and country both. While petroleum-based plastic articles may quickly lose their integrity and not be usable in their created form, or not be easily recycled for various other reasons, it takes thousands of years before they fully biodegrade into the environment. One great thing about the coming depletion of the world’s oil will be the end of petrochemically based plastics. Most people don’t realize it but plastic can be made of corn or other organic materials as easily, but obviously not as cheaply, as from petroleum. If you buy a package of cookies, for instance, from Vietnam, Malaysia or China, you get a giant puffed-up plastic package with a few lonely cookies inside. I can’t wait for the container to cost as much as the food it contains and they are forced to cut back on wasteful, deceitful packaging.
If, on the other hand, you toss a plastic bag or drinking cup made of corn on the ground it’ll be part of the earth in a few months. That’s the way it’s supposed to be: sprung from the earth, returned to enrich it when it’s outlived its usefulness. I’m a dedicated composter. Ever since I became hippified and went back to the land back in the early seventies composting has been something I have to do. Even when I returned to city life in the later seventies, I spent a year on a composting project. It was one of those government programs leftover from Johnson’s War on Poverty that targeted the long-term unemployed, a category which included slackers, hippies and out and out freaks, of which I could easily claim some of all three. As a result of that year, I also have the technical side down.
Any kind of organic material can be composted, including anything you might ingest, except salt… A famous guy from the past once said, You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt looses its flavor, it’s not even worthy of a dung heap.   
  Composting has been around as long as agriculture itself, it therefore burns me (oops.. ha-ha) to see all that good organic material going up in smoke. It’s especially important here in the tropics to get that material back in the ground because rainfall is so heavy it leaches most of the nutrients out of the soil. Organic material also adds tilth; that is, it helps to make the soil light, aerated and fluffy.
A while back I purchased land with the idea of doing lots of gardening. It was seriously overgrown so I first hired my Khmer neighbors to cut it back and clean it up. I naturally (ahem) wanted to compost everything possible so I told them I wanted them to place the accumulated brush in piles. They refused. If I wasn’t going to burn it they wouldn’t gather it into piles. And I thought I was the one paying for the work. They did make one point in their favor saying piles made homes for snakes. Now if you do composting right with the correct level of moisture and the pile is of sufficient size - about one cubic meter - then the microbes get to working in the middle of the pile and it’ll heat up to 160º F or about 70º C. Certainly no home for snakes. Even if you can’t get the pile to the proper heat level, what’s the big deal about a few snakes?
After that first clean up I needed somebody to maintain the place on a regular basis. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than I imagined, especially since I wasn’t around every day to oversee their work. I thought I was providing a good deal but twice guys I hired would work for a few days and disappear, usually forgetting to leave the tools I had just purchased for their use. On my third try I hired an older guy recommended by a Khmer friend. We went to look at the place with local friends who could translate for me. I explained to him that I didn’t want any burning. He later remarked to a Khmer friend that he understood that foreigners don’t like burning. So what did I find when I returned to check out the land after a short sojourn in Phnom Penh? Burn piles everywhere! What the F**k? Who’s land is it anyway? If you want to burn so badly, get your own damn land. Not long later I was burned out (oops again) on the land for several reasons and gave up trying to make something of it.
On the way to the land (I’m now trying to sell it) which is about 200 meters from the main road, is a narrow track which can get muddy in places in wet season. To counteract the mud somebody has spread rice straw on the road from the last crop. Meanwhile the road passes by small parcels of croplands characterized by bare soil. What a waste. If you spread the straw on the soil around the plants - referred to as mulching - it holds moisture longer so you don’t have to water as much and by the time the crop has been harvested the straw has melted into the earth, enriching it.
Much rice straw is used as cow feed. A lot of what isn’t along with the stubble left after the rice has been harvested is burned, often creating big clouds of smoke. The thing about burning is that it’s easy. Light a match, stand back and all that organic, or otherwise, material is gone in a few minutes. And there are benefits to burning if it’s strictly organic; the ash fertilizes the ground with phosphorus and potassium and all the weed seeds are incinerated.
Weed seeds are not a problem in rice cultivation since they all die when the paddy is flooded. In contrast to burning, returning the organic material to the soil adds nitrogen as well as the same nutrients as burning does but also conditions the soil for increased fertility.
Anything organic will merge into the landscape eventually. With sufficient size, aeration, warmth and the correct level of moisture, that process can be quickened to as little as three weeks; however nothing about the process is easy like burning. To do it fast, the compost pile needs to be turned over every day or at least very often. Speeding the process also requires that branches and woody material be chipped up into small pieces.
The most difficult part, which is also the part that’s most beneficial in soil building, is dealing with food waste since it’s messy and often smelly. There are two kinds of bacteria that break down organic material; aerobic - with air - and anaerobic - without air. Toss your food waste on the ground and there’s no smell (aerobic), but put it in a sealed container and a few days later it’s rank and putrid (anaerobic). Actually, with some effort anaerobic composting can also produce methane gas that can be used for cooking and what’s left after the gas is extracted is still good for spreading on the land. This is happening on a small scale in Cambodia, mostly by farmers who have manure to deal with. You wouldn’t get much gas from a family’s food scraps. It’s actually a simple process - though I can’t get into it here - but nowhere near as simple as aerobic composting so that’s the way those of you inclined to composting who are reading this, who live outside the city and have the option, will do it.
The first problem is finding a container to store your food scraps in until you get around to composting it. Ideally that should be a container that’s both aerated and sealed against bugs. I’ve seen fancy and expensive ones in America that would fit the bill but here I’m relegated to using a plastic bucket, which means it turns really smelly after a few days. If I wasn’t so lazy and tossed it in the compost pile more often, it wouldn’t be a problem. If you are going to use a bucket for food scraps, line it with a layer or two of newspaper, that way the food won’t stick to the sides. Any kind of paper that isn’t coated with plastic composts fine.
Some people recommend against putting meat scraps in the compost for fear of attracting rodents, but I’ve never found that to be a problem. The bones won’t do much for the soil unless they’re ground into a powder, but also won’t hurt at all to be there.
Now that you’ve saved your food waste, the easiest thing is to dig a hole and put it in the ground, preferably where you plan to have a garden. A couple of months after you’ve dug it in, you can go back and your old spaghetti will have been magically transformed into light, crumbly, sweet smelling soil. Alternatively you can build a little bin to toss it in. You actually need two bins so when one fills up it can have time to fully compost while you put fresh stuff in the other. After you dump your food waste on the pile, you need something organic - leaves or straw - to cover it with… because it’s ugly and to discourage animals getting into it.
Finally, there is shit. Most Cambodians don’t have toilets so they just shit around. If they dump their loads in paddies or cropland it’ll go to some good use. As long as Cambodia is starting from scratch, the best bet would be composting toilets. It’s exceedingly simple: you build a toilet on top of a bin that’s has venting for air flow. After every use you toss a little straw or leaves or what have you on top, as well as your food scraps, and, just like magic again, you have good quality compost in about 3 months. They love their shit in China and don’t even bother to compost it. They take raw fresh stuff and place it directly on the soil around their crops. That’s why they never eat anything fresh: all their vegetables are either cooked or pickled. In rural China farmers build outhouses by the roadside hoping travelers will gift them with their good shit.
The big question is - assuming you’re not a compulsive composter like myself - Why bother? Why go through all the trouble when it’s so much easier to just put all your trash in a plastic bag and toss it in the garbage or, if you’re in the countryside, just toss it by the roadside or in the nearest vacant lot? Besides, most of you reading this live in the city and don’t have the option of composting, so maybe you’re getting bored with all this shit talk.
Well, looking at the big picture, the coming depletion of fossil fuels is going to play havoc with the growing of food. Modern industrial agriculture is totally dependent on heavy doses of petroleum for fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. This all began in the late forties when farmers realized it was a lot easier to deal with one kilo of chemical fertilizer, which requires natural gas in the production process, to get the equivalent energy of forty kilos of manure. Industrial agriculture also depends on petroleum in every step of the process starting with the heavy machinery used to plant, cultivate and harvest to the processing and shipping of food worldwide.
Now I’m not going to save the world with my little compost pile, nor you if I’ve inspired you to do the same, but it’s important for all to realize that the world will have an extremely difficult time feeding itself without access to cheap fossil fuels and that’s true even if every morsel of plant, animal and human waste is painstakingly collected, composted and returned to the earth.
Reliance on chemical fertilizers has the singular defect of masking the soil’s basic infertility, especially if it’s been done that way for a long period, since plants require trace minerals as well as the three primary nutrients; nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. The latter two are not derived from fossil fuels but a lot of energy is expended in them being mined and shipped around the world.
The sudden loss of fossil fuel fertilizer will leave the land barren and unproductive and even with heavy doses of organic material it will take years for it to regain its natural productivity. Thus to avoid the coming food crunch, every city and country should be working on retrieving all organics possible from the waste stream and composting to the greatest extent feasible... which we all agree is extremely unlikely… in Cambodia or anywhere.
So what the hell… burn, baby, burn.