Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: EURASIA: Page 2

     Among the most dramatic examples of agriculture on grassland and dryland are the development projects of the former Soviet Union.  The western edge of the Asian steppe on the Black Sea in the Ukraine was turned to farmland during the mid-19th century.  German settlers arrived, then plowed the soil for farming and introduced large numbers of livestock.  Military colonies of some 60,000 men were established by the Russian government by the 1840s (Stewart 1992).  By the 1860s, the once fertile soils eroded, and droughts brought famines.  A series of crop failures caused the deaths of 500,000 people in 1891-92 and droughts continued during the early years of the 20th century (Stewart 1992).  These grasslands had provided habitat for large numbers of Saiga and other wildlife over thousands of years. 
     What remained of the fertile soils became the object of the Soviet Union's settlement and cultivation program, beginning in 1929 with the announcement of a five year plan:  "We must discover and conquer the country in which we live… Our steppe will truly become ours only when we come with columns of tractors and ploughs to break the thousand-year virgin soil" (Ponting 1991).  When the steppe was plowed, dust storms and erosion resulted in a parallel to the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains in the United States, occurring at about the same time.  Dust storms in the Ukraine blew millions of tons of top soil away, but the program continued.  Collectivization of farms by Communist leaders brought even more of this rich land under the plow, and in 1954, Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered that 90 million acres be cultivated to feed the entire Russian population (Stewart 1992).  Erosion then became so severe that large areas became wasteland; in the years since 1964, portions of the steppe have been closed off to plowing, and better agricultural methods came into use (Stewart 1992). 
     Yet another Soviet agricultural plan destroyed an additional area of steppe.  Large portions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, an area of 100 million acres, were plowed between 1954 and 1960 (Ponting 1991).  Land became eroded and infertile at a rate of 3.5 million acres a year prior to 1963; by 1965, more than 40 million acres, half the area, were badly damaged (Ponting 1991).  More than 1 million acres of farmland were abandoned every year from the mid-1960s on in this region (Ponting 1991).
     The lands south and west of the Aral Sea were another target for the Soviet agriculture programs, and the Amu Darya, Murgab and Tedjen Rivers that fed this sea were redirected south to a manmade canal leading to the Caspian Sea (Sparks 1992).  These waters irrigated Uzbekistan's deserts, where monocultures of cotton were grown.  The soil became topped with salt, however, as often happens when fresh water is pumped into parched land, drawing saline to the surface (Sparks 1992).  The salts and agricultural chemicals polluted the soil to the point that by the late 1980s, the region represented one of the worst cases of ecological despoliation in the world (Sparks 1992).

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