, Volume 61, Issue 1-2, pp 7-18

The role and function of organic matter in tropical soils

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Soil organic matter (SOM) has many functions, the relative importance of which differ with soil type, climate, and land use. Commonly the most importantfunction of OM in soil is as a reserve of the nitrogen and other nutrients required by plants, and ultimately by the human population. Other important functions include: the formation of stable aggregates and soil surface protection; maintenance of the vast array of biological functions, including the immobilization and release of nutrients; provision of ion exchange capacity; and storage of terrestrial carbon (C). This paper considers the quantity and quality of SOM of soils in the tropics, which are estimated to contain one quarter of the C in the global pool in terrestrial soils, and supports strongly the use of analytical methods to characterizing labile SOM to develop valuable insights into C dynamics. As in other regions, the transformation of tropical lands for agriculture exploits SOM, and in particular nutrient reserves. The process of exploitation is accelerated in the tropics by the necessity to increase agricultural production, largely through agricultural intensification, to overcome inadequate nutrition, to satisfy population growth, and to cope with the limited reserves of arable land. Poverty has an overriding influence on the exploitation and degradation processes. Areas at greatest risk of land degradation are the infertile acid soils of the tropics, which, invariably, are cultivated by the poor. Soil organic matter has a central role in sustainable land management, but perspectives on the roles of SOM differ widely between farmers, consumers, scientists and policy-makers. Some consider SOM as a source of nutrients to be exploited, whereas others can afford to utilize it as a key component in the management of the chemical, biological, and physical fertility of soils. Still others see SOM as a dumping ground for excess nutrients and toxins, or as a convenient store for fossil fuel emissions, particularly CO2. Farmers need sustainable land management systems that maintain OM and nutrient reserves. Nevertheless, many available practices, whether based on indigenous or scientific knowledge, do not meet social and economic criteria that govern farmer behaviour. Much scientific knowledge about the various roles of SOM does not reach farmers and other decision-makers in a form that can be used easily. The biggest challenge to researchers is to engage with clients to pinpoint gaps in knowledge and utilize new and existing information to devise decision support Systems tailored to their needs.