History of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI) or "Landgræðsla ríkisins" is a governmental agency under the Ministry for the Environment. The SCSI main aims and objectives are preventing desertification by combating, sand encroachment and other soil erosion processes, and promoting sustainable land use on reclaimed and pristine land Icelandic Parliament, Alþingi on November 22nd, 1907.

gamli gunnarsholt-2At the turn of the 20th century, Iceland was among the poorest countries in the world. Life through the 1100 years of human settlement in Iceland had been a constant battle fought against harsh natural conditions in geographical and cultural isolation for survival. A combination of non-sustainable land use and natural factors had resulted in vast degradation of vegetation and soil erosion.

The peak of the ecosystem destruction may have been reached in the late 19th century, caused by the interaction of increasing size of livestock population and climatic fluctuations. Repeated disastrous events occurred, sandstorms in the early 1880s were especially harmful, and numerous farms were destroyed and abandoned due to erosion. This catastrophe triggered some reaction against the destruction. In 1895, the first formal and organized measures aimed at curtailing erosion were taken with the Act for Resolution on Sand Erosion and Reclamation passed in Alþingi. However, the effect of this legislation was negligible and of little value since it provided no means or incentives for erosion control.

Eventually a unique legislation was passed by Alþingi in 1907 aimed at halting soil erosion and restoring lost and degraded woodlands: the Act on Forestry and Protection against Soil Erosion. This act is considered as the onset of systematic public efforts in these fields, although some initiatives had been taken earlier.

This legislation proved to be a crucial milestone, establishing special agencies for forestry and soil conservation in 1907. This law was created only three years after the Danish Government had agreed to give Home Rule to Iceland, enabling the nation to leave the colonial past behind and establish authority over domestic affairs. The agencies for forestry and soil conservation were symbols of a new era, reflecting the foresight and determination of the newly self-governing people who resolved to deal with modern challenges in a constructive and responsible manner. The Icelandic pioneers in soil conservation were empowered with energy and vision, courage and determination, and campaigned long and hard to protect the land and halt overgrazing to stop the exploitative utilization. The task they faced was overwhelming, the sheer enormity of the problem, on top of the disbelieve of the public that a solution could be reached, in addition to very limited financial means and primitive technology, made this a daunting task. General disbelief, a general lack of incentives to care for the land, and similarly, and a lack of disincentives to reduce unsustainable use, are indeed a recurrent theme through SCSI´s history, that has prevailed until recently.

gardar keldum-2However, the pioneers drive by idealistic force and determination, along with relentless work, led to their success.

During the 100 years of soil conservation in Iceland, much has been achieved in the battle against soil erosion, despite limited resources during most of this time. The first sixty years were almost entirely devoted to the urgent task of halting sand dune advance and other forms of catastrophic soil erosion and vegetation destruction in pastures and rangelands that left barren deserts behind and threatened the existence of several communities.

By the late 1950s, the most serious sand drifts had been halted and many districts and farms saved from destruction. This work was mainly conducted by fencing off areas of severe erosion to prevent grazing and seeding of the native sand stabilizer, the lyme grass (Leymus arenarius), the only native plant capable of halting moving sand in Iceland.

As the threat to inhabitant areas lessened and with the new availability of machinery, imported grass species and manufactured fertilizer, the work on larger areas of denuded land could be started. As positive economic aspect of revegetation was demonstrated, more interest grew for land reclamation.

Close cooperation was between the SCSI and the Agricultural Society and later the Farmers Association right from the beginning. Obviously these entities were not always in agreement but on the whole there has been mutual understanding of each other's position. Fortunately this cooperation has prevailed throughout the 100 years of SCSI´s history and has become increasingly promoted and initiated as participatory approaches to soil conservation has proved to most successful.

Since 1990, the SCSI has increasingly promoted and initiated participatory approaches to soil conservation as this has markedly increased the adoption and success of conservation projects. During this period, the soil conservation work has developed towards ecosystem management with multiple goals and multiple benefits.

The 100 years history of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland reflects the changes that occurred in Icelandic society during this time. In the beginning most work was done by hand or with primitive tools, such as building stone walls from lava rock to halt blowing sandstorms. But new technology, increased knowledge and awareness led to greater success resulting in healthier ecosystems through enhancing existing vegetation or restoring and revegetating severely degraded areas.

In 2007 the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland published the book "Sáðmenn sandanna" to celebrate a century of organized soil conservation and land restoration. "Sáðmenn sandanna" was awarded as the Book of the year 2007, by the Icelandic Library and Information Science Association. There the 100 years history of soil conservation in Iceland can be read in more details.


Milestones along the way

1907: Gunnlaugur Kristmundsson, later the first director of SCSI, begins working on soil conservation on behalf of the government.
1907: The first law passed by Althing on soil conservation, 22nd November 1907, the Act on Forestry and Protection against Soil Erosion.
1908: The first soil conservation fence erected for grazing control, to protect areas from grazing, Reykir á Skeiðum, S-Iceland.
1914: Amendments of law. The first unique laws on soil conservation are passed and two state institutes were subsequently established: the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and the Forest Service (FS) of Iceland. Both have emphasized conservation of soils and vegetation; the SCS is primarily concerned with soil erosion control and revegetation, but the FS is responsible for protection of the remaining birch woodlands, reforestation and afforestation.
1923: Authorization allowed by law for governmental expropriation of degraded land for soil conservation purposes.
1926: The SCSI buys the farm Gunnarsholt.
1941: The position of SCSI director is established by law.
1947: New technology, the use of motorized vehicles (tractor) and importation and experimental use of new species from Alaska.
1947: The director of the SCSI resides in Gunnarsholt. 
1954: Páll Sveinsson becomes director of the SCSI.
1958: Aerial distribution of grass seeds and manufactured fertilizer using aircrafts revolutionizing the work and revegetated large areas in short time.
1965: New law on soil conservation, „Lög um landgræðslu" no. 17, April 24th 1965, and a name change of the institute from „Sandgræðsla Íslands" to „Landgræðsla ríkisins".
1970: Landvernd", The Icelandic Environment Association a non governmental organization was established.
1972: Sveinn Runólfsson becomes director of the SCSI.
1972: The Air Iceland (Flugfélag Íslands) donates „Gljáfaxi", a DC-3 airplane for soil conservation and revegetation work. The aircraft was changed from a passenger carrier into an operational seed and fertilizer distributor. It was registered under a new name, appropriately as TF-NPK and named Páll Sveinsson (after the former director of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland). During the next three decades it was successfully used for large scale soil conservation projects, and always flown by volunteers from the Icelandic Airline Pilots Association.
1974: „Þjóðargjöfin", The National Endowment Gift, a present from the nation for a 5 year effort in soil conservation. The pledge from 1907 was renewed in 1974 when Icelanders celebrated 1100 years of settlement on the island. The National Endowment Gift resulted in a major additional effort to protect and reclaim lost soil, protect the remaining natural forests and plant new ones.
1974: "Landgræðsluáætlun", operational framework decided by the parliament Althing, for the period 1974-1978.
1979: The SCSI becomes a supervising authority in control efforts against riverine erosion.
1980: "Landgræðsluáætlun", operational framework for the period 1980-1984.
1987: "Landgræðsluáætlun", operational framework for the period 1986-1990.
1988: Seed processing plant of the SCSI start operation, managing the seed production process from sowing to harvesting, handles seed processing, packaging, transport and export of seeds.
1990: „Farmers heal the land" or „Bændur græða landið" was initiated, a 'cost-share' partnership with farmers, with conservation work jointly funded by the government and farmers, but execution of the work is done by farmers themselves.
1991: The booklet "Stefnumið í landgræðslu og gróðurvernd" is published by SCSI and the ministry of Agriculture on ethics in environmental protection and how to obtain long-term goals in restoration of former land qualities.
1992: he first regional office of SCSI is established in Húsavík, N-Iceland.
1992: The first local soil conservation association was established in southeast Iceland, "Landgræðslufélag Öræfinga".
1997: Soil Erosion in Iceland" a survey conducted during 1992-1996 by the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service in collaboration with the Agricultural Research Institute of Iceland (now the Agricultural University of Iceland) completed in a National Assessment of Soil Erosion and Land Degradation, creating a map of soil erosion in Iceland in the scale of 1:100.000.
1997: "Landgræðsluáætlun", or "Revegetation strategy. The objectives, methods and main tasks up to the millennium", operation framework describing means, ways and major projects until the end of the century.
1998: The SCSI established a department of research and development at Gunnarsholt. It was assigned three primary functions: to conduct research and development work in soil conservation and revegetation, to collaborate with others on such projects, and to share research conclusions and knowledge.
2000: Quality management in horse breeding - the land use factor. The Horse Breeders Association of Iceland (Félag hrossabænda) and the SCSI established a voluntary action where horse breeders can take part in quality management for utilization of land. The SCSI supervises annual certification of participants of the program to ensure sustainable land use of grazing and range land, and to ensure animal welfare.
2003: "Landgræðsluáætlun 2003-2014", or "A soil conservation plan 2003-2014". The Althing, the parliament of Iceland, decided on a comprehensive programme, giving the SCSI an operational framework for the period 2003-2014. This programme sets goals for mitigation of land degradation and desertification, revegetation of eroded land, and attaining sustainable land use. The main tools for the programme's achievements were described, and financing improved substantially, mainly for halting desertification, extending farmer involvement in healing the land, and by establishing a new land care incentives programme that was mainly intended for projects at the communal or co-operative level.
2003: Landbótasjóður Landgræðslunnar" or the „Land improvement fund of SCSI" was established. It provides financial support to facilitate that responsibility, initiative and execution of the soil conservation is a local effort.
2003: Quality management in sheep farming - The SCSI supervises certification of sustainable land use as a part of requirements in a voluntary action regarding governmental agricultural subsidies, and provides consultation for plans of improvement is necessary.
2007: Celebration of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service Centennial.
2007: Publication on the centennial history of soil conservation in Iceland „Sáðmenn sandanna. Saga landgræðslu á Íslandi 1907-2007".
2008: The SCSI moves from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry for the Environment.
2008: Policy formulated by staff of the SCSI for 2008-2020, „Auðlindir, arfleifð og lífsgæði".
2010: Land Restoration Training programme (UNU-LRT) in Iceland becomes officially a part of the United Nations University offering training to developing countries in capacity development in restoration of degraded land and sustainable land management.

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland (SCSI).
Dr. Anna M. Ágústsdóttir.