Did ancient peoples live in a Golden Age of stewardship of our planet? From forest clearances to catastrophic soil erosion, it’s clear that past civilizations had the same conflicted relationship with their environment as we do. But when it comes to how they dealt with those crises, is it fair to regard them as technologically backward?
Enter the elegant piece of land management technology called the terrace.
Terraces are a remarkably efficient way of dealing with the problems of erosion and water retention. A bare slope is too steep to hold roots or hold rainfall? Then chop it up into a series of flat surfaces. Terracing keeps soil on hillsides, helps rainwater sink into that soil and ultimately eat at the underlying bedrock (which is how soil is made), and allows roots to take hold. And best of all? All it requires is a lot of hard work and, ideally, a good supply of stone to bolster the sides. As inventions go, it’s a rock-bottom bargain – and so it’s accessible to everyone, whatever their budget.
It’s also possible to see them as a social empowerment tool, by the poor, for the poor. In places where level terrain is scarce, who gets the flat land? The people with the most money – leaving the peasantry to make do with barren hills and slopes. Since well-maintained terraces can gradually improve the fertility of soil, terracing could be a form of investment for less wealthy farmers hunting for a way to build some capital and status…
Terracing has existed for thousands of years and in many parts of the world it’s still going strong today – even as a source of tourism revenue, as with the incredible Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines. They’re environmental management on a sometimes colossal scale…and anyone can have a go (if they’re prepared to sweat for it). Backward? Not if you’re one of the 99%.