Czechs Losing Ground Under Their Feet

Czechia is sitting on the proverbial "roof" of Europe. All the rivers and streams flow out of the country, none into it.  Thus, Czechs are literally losing the ground under their feet because erosion takes away tens of millions of cubic meters of fertile soil each year.

Czech landscape is picturesque but suffers from erosion | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

Green grass, rolling hills and meandering streams - the picturesque landscape of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands is a sight for sore eyes. Agriculture in this hilly area is not as profitable, and so not as intensive, as it is in other parts of Czechia. There are no big industrial complexes that would pollute the air and contaminate the land. But, surprisingly, there is another problem: that of erosion.  Professor Michael Komárek of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague who is a leading Czech expert in geochemistry, explains:

“I think the biggest problem for the soil in our country is erosion. It is not caused by industry, but by agriculture. We have very big plots of land. Fortunately, there is at least a limit: a field with a single crop cannot be larger than 30 hectares. Until 2021 there was no limit and the fields were huge and so they eroded faster. There is low content of organic matter in the soil. Czechia is on the roof of Europe. All the precipitation that gets to the soil should stay but it flows out through surface water and flows into the neighboring countries taking millions of tons of topsoil  away.”

Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

Professor Komárek also mentions that over 70 percent of the arable land in  Czechia  is rented by small owners, usually to large agricultural companies. I myself happen to be one of them. I rent about two and a half acres to one such company. They pay me a somewhat symbolic fee and I do not feel I have any power over what the company grows and how it uses my little piece of land.

Of course, there are laws and regulations on how land should be used so that erosion is minimized. But frankly, large agricultural companies are first and foremost businesses with huge lobbying power and it is no secret that they manage to bend the rules to maximize their profits. But now there is a way even for us small owners, to at least try to gain more control over our property.

Photo: Jitka Cibulová Vokatá,  Czech Radio

Martin Mrkos is the mayor of my hometown Žďár nad Sázavou. The town owns one hundred hectares or 250 acres of fields and even though in the past the local administration felt as helpless when dealing with the agro-businesses as I do, it recently changed its strategy.

Photo: Lucie Suchánková Hochmanová,  Czech Radio

“We started cooperating with a foundation called The Partnership and joined their project “Living Soil”. They offer consultations both to individual owners and municipalities free of charge. Their lawyer looks at the lease agreements between the owner and the agro-company to make sure that they are not putting the owner at a financial disadvantage. This is very important for us as a town since we are obliged by law to use any municipal property to the best advantage of all our inhabitants. Then they make sure that the text of the lease agreement ensures good care of the soil, including anti-erosion practices.

“The second part of their service is in the field. The foundation experts come and see the fields for themselves, take samples, and analyze the soil. They make an official assessment of its quality and whether there is a risk of erosion. Based on this information the owner gets a kind of ‘to-do list’ indicating if and how the use of the concrete field should change.”

Photo: Pavel Pavlas,  Czech Radio

Martin Mrkos says there are a number of things large landowners can do to help the soil better conserve water, even if these measures might not seem to be related at first sight:

“A good example is the renovation of the original dirt roads or lanes that divided smaller fields before the forced collectivization under communism. They acted as natural obstacles to erosion and helped to maintain a healthy biodiversity in the area. In land registers, they never ceased to exist, but in real life, they were plowed over and became part of the surrounding fields. As a result, these larger fields became much more prone to losing fertile soil during heavy rains.

“We have already renewed four such roads or rather trails and are planning to start working on another one this year. We plant local tree species along them to create natural shade. Apart from improving the quality of the landscape and working as an anti-erosion barrier, they have a kind of ‘social’ role. They help to make the countryside more ‘user-friendly’ for hikers and generally people who want to relax outdoors.”

Photo: SplitShire,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

I left Mayor Martin Mrkos and set out for a walk on one such renewed country lane. Sure, it is nice and pleasant. But isn’t it just the proverbial drop in the ocean? Can such local initiatives really change anything? I put that question to another scientist this time from Charles University. Vojtěch Kotecký works at its Environment Center:

Photo: Petra Kopásková,  Tomáš Chrástek,  Czech Radio

“Definitely not. The example of a town that takes care of its fields is a brilliant example of the principle: ‘Think globally, act locally.’ When it comes to soil, the most important things happen in our closest vicinity. It is a local resource. There are many villages and small towns in our country, where people realize how important land is and are aware of the need to use it well.  Very often, the fields around them are farmed by some distant company and are owned by someone who does not live there anymore.”

And there is no time to lose:

Photo: Radio Prague International

“Our fields lose topsoil that literally flows away at a rate of 2 million fully loaded large trucks every year. To reverse this trend will take dozens if not hundreds of years. But we should also pay attention to the second biggest problem, which is not that obvious, and that is the composition of the soil itself. It is losing the organic matter - or humus - which makes it arable and helps to keep it humid.”

In short, addressing the problem of erosion will not be easy, but if Czechs want to keep their picturesque landscape they have to change the way they use it.