Honoring a Down to Earth King on World Soil Day

He sat at the pinnacle of His society, but constitutional ruler King Bhumibol

Adulyadej of Thailand was a monarch and a man who was down to earth. For

much of His 70 years on the throne � the longest reign of any monarch at the

time of His passing � King Bhumibol traveled to the poorest and most remote

corners of His Kingdom, sitting on the ground with farmers and villagers,

listening to their problems and responding with over 4,000 sustainable

development projects to better their lives. Many dealt with improving water,

agriculture, livelihoods and health. As one of His closest aides said, however,

we were always confronted with soil issues.

Those issues could be vexing. But the late King's innovative solutions to soil

problems earned him the first Humanitarian Soil Scientist award from the

International Union of Soil Science in 2012. In 2014 the United Nations

designated His Majesty's birthday on December 5th as the annual World Soil

Day and the year 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with events held in

New York, Rome, Bangkok and cities around the world. In a message to the

UN, the late King said that in order to ensure viable, long-term food security

and a sustainable ecosystem, [soil] issues must be addressed as an urgent


Most people take soils for granted. Soils, however, are as essential to life as the

air and water. Healthy soils support food production. The forests and fields

they nourish host one quarter of the world's species, and are a source of fuels,

medicines, fibers and animal feed. Soils store and filter water, and play a

crucial role in preventing and mitigating climate change by absorbing and

storing massive amounts of carbon. Healthy soils are essential for a sustainable


But soils are a finite resource. Just 22 percent of the earth's land surface can be

used for producing 95 percent of our food. One third of that has been degraded

by erosion, contamination and desertification, with much of it damaged in the

last half century. The world status of soils is quite scary, said Claire Chenu, a

soil scientist at AgroParisTech. As Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General of

the Food and Agriculture Organization noted, it can take up to one thousand

years to form one centimeter of soil. And this same centimeter can be

destroyed in only a few minutes.

That type of destruction was evident to King Bhumibol when He visited the

community of Huai Sai in the province of Petchaburi in 1983. The late King

looked out at a former forest reserve and saw a dry and barren landscape �

except for rows of pineapple plants. This place will become a desert,'' He

predicted. In their desire to earn more income, farmers had plunged into monocropping

� planting a single crop while eliminating all other vegetation and

upsetting the natural balance of the ecosystem. The soil had been sapped of its

vital nutrients, and chemical fertilizers could restore them for only a limited

period. It was a problem plaguing farmers in many parts of the world.

King Bhumibol initiated a holistic program to restore the area. Today, Huai Sai

is a mixture of thick forests with abundant wildlife, family farms and gardens,

along with agricultural, environmental and community projects. The late

King's approach encompassed principles He would later crystalize in His

theory of Sufficiency Economy in 1998. Rooted in the Buddhist ethos of

moderation and balance, the Sufficiency Economy is a set of principles

designed to minimize risk and build resilience to internal and external shocks.

Its principles can be applied not only to family farms, but also to national

economies and other professions.

In 2007, the United Nations Development Programme wrote the Sufficiency

Economy has great global relevance during these times of economic

uncertainties, global warming and unsustainable use of natural resources. It

places humanity at the center, focuses on well-being rather than wealth, makes

sustainability the very core of the thinking.

The approach advocates diversification. Farmers are urged to build ponds for

fish breeding and irrigation. Instead of one cash crop, they grow and rotate

several using natural, organic fertilizers and pest management. Diversification

protects against fickle markets, and sustains soil health. He always says 'use

nature to restore nature,' '' said Sumet Tantivejkul, who oversees the King's

projects at the Chaipattana Foundation, a non-governmental organization

implementing developmental projects that are in line with royal initiatives.

In northern Thailand the late King planted rows of vetiver grass � dismissed by

some as a weed � to prevent the erosion destroying vital watersheds. He would

use it in the Northeast where vetiver's deep roots and ability to draw nitrogen

into the earth would hold the dry, sandy soil in place and enrich it, increasing

yields for poor farmers. In the Deep South, He would use other innovative

methods to turn tens of thousands of hectares of peat swamp into productive


Even though King Bhumibol is no longer with us on this December 5th,

millions of Thais and others who appreciate His legacy turned out to honor and

show their love for him at home and abroad. Many will commemorate His

achievements in sustainable development, science and even the arts. And many

will also realize the day is World Soil Day, when environmentalists and soil

scientists in every corner of the earth pay tribute to the late King whose name,

Bhumibol, means Strength of the Land.

Source: Royal Thai Embassy, MYANMAR