Eddy de Pauw (Syria)
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
At the end of my M.Sc studies in geology at the University of Ghent I was clueless about what to do next. At the time the prospects for a fresh geologist were to move to Australia, Canada or South Africa, to hang on at a University, or to become a teacher. I was more interested to work in developing countries and as there were job prospects for soil scientists in UN organizations, I did a M.Sc. in Soil Survey at the ITC for Postgraduate Soil Scientists in Ghent in 1972.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
I think that honor should be partitioned between two eminent soil scientists, Prof. Ren Tavernier and Prof. Karel Sys. As an undergraduate student, Tavernier's enticing earth science lectures convinced me to make a mid-course change from chemistry to geology, and afterwards to get the Soil Survey M.Sc. Later on, at the crossroad between different career options, he persuaded me to take a job in FAO as associate expert soil survey in what was probably the best possible place to start, Southern Sudan. The work of Prof. Sys on land evaluation methods made me realize that soils are important in tier own right, but that the information can only be used optimally if combined with other data sources. The basic land evaluation techniques he developed are still used today, and I help my counterparts in national research institutes to upgrade and adapt them to their local conditions and make use of the superb power of GIS.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
My field experience gave lots of opportunities for reality checking the synthetic view from the classroom and the deductive approaches of land evaluation. Interaction with local farmers - participatory methods avant-la-lettre - made it obvious that the reality was much more complex than could be glimpsed from the course syllabi. It only started to make sense by taking a more holistic perspective, looking also at climate, terrain, land use and farming systems information and putting it all together using GIS. The evolution from making soil maps to mapping soil properties is a very welcome development. This may revive a somewhat moribund discipline - in many developing countries the discipline is quite literally dying off together with the retired soil surveyors - by integrating local and expert knowledge about soil-climate-landscape-land use relationships with field work, secondary data sources and advanced statistical methods.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
Putting a soils module into a high school geography curriculum can certainly help teenagers to see it as a key natural resource. As for young graduates, one successful mechanism to hook them onto soil science is through internships in international organizations or research institutes. The latter can provide the students with a research topic that addresses a concrete soil management problem, includes field work, requires interaction with farmers, and offer a supportive work environment and good supervision. Of course, whatever romance with soil science may bloom will only last if there are jobs for soil scientists in the society at large, not just in universities, and that is currently a bit of a problem.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
I am struck by the fact that in so many countries they still use soil maps from the 60s-70s. With such long depreciation period this indicates that the much belittled systematic soil surveys of the past were not such a bad investment after all. At the same time they point to a need to update this valuable information in its more transient properties, e.g. salinity or soil carbon mapping. So many natural resource management studies are currently flawed by either a lack of soil data or by errors propagating from inappropriately used soil maps. Looking at the possible role of soils in modifying the global carbon source-sink balance, the need to save water and the consequences of land degradation in the context of climate change, especially in the vulnerable drylands, the need for soil information can only grow in the future. The new mapping tools for updating our soil inventories are now in the research stage and could be operational in developing countries 5-10 years from now. But it is going to require a lot of convincing decision-makers that an investment in the rejuvenation of soil mapping will be a good one.