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Regreening Ethiopian Highlands, step by step.

Monday, 15 June 2015 11:45 GMT

Stone terraces in Yewol watershed, Ethiopia; credit: Swathi Sridharan

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

17th June is the World Day against desertification. A good time to show how Ethiopian highland farmers have built miles of stonewalls and changed their way of farming to re-green barren lands.

Desertification is global and rampant and concerns us all

At 3,500 meters above sea level, the Yewol watershed in the Northern Ethiopian Highlands boasts stunning mountainous landscape but hinders farming. “Four years ago, this land was a disaster, I could barely grow my barley. Our fields were feeding the Nile down in the valley” says Ali Ahmed a farmer living in the watershed whose farm soils were being eroded away.

“It was the top soil holding the water and nutrients that was getting washed away,” explains Tilahun Amede, an ICRISAT scientist working with Ahmed to find a solution for the community. Soil erosion is a major constraint in this dryland region and the constant land degradation has led to food insecurity and gradual desertification. A recent impact assessment of land degradation from the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD) estimated that 940 million tons of soils were lost each year (18 tons per hectare) in Ethiopia’s Highlands.

This is a global phenomenon. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 168 countries are affected by desertification and 12 million hectares of land are lost annually. This is equal to a football pitch, or in agrarian terms, the same as an average marginal smallholding supporting a family of five members in India, being wiped out every two seconds.

Desertification severely impacts the poorest in the drylands. Continuous land degradation erodes not only the soil but with it, the income and food security of 1.5 billion people, especially in the drylands. It fuels conflicts as people fight over the scarcer resources, land and water.

It’s obvious we try and answer the urgent question – how do we invest to regain “healthy soils” and fight desertification?

To embrace land conservation farmers must gain from it

Ahmed explains how terraces collectively built under the Yewol watershed management programmehave made such a big difference in the fight against desertification. “When we built them, the terraces were as tall as us. Now when we stand next to them, they are half our height,” he says. The raised land he stands on is the soil which would previously have been washed away. Instead it collected behind the terraces retaining precious topsoil farmers need to grow their crops on.

Since the 1970s, Ethiopia has acquired extensive experience in soil and water conservation, and knows what could be done to stop land degradation. ELD’s Ethiopia report shows that investing in soil conservation structures in sloping lands could reduce soil erosion by 43 % in croplands and combined with better access to fertilization, agricultural production would increase by 10%. If terraces and bunds are strengthened by multipurpose legume shrubs, crop yields can even double after a period of nine years.

Yet after forty years, less than a fifth of rainfed farming land benefits from conservation measures according to ELD’s estimates. Farmers did not widely adopt soil conservation practices like terraces or fanya juu bunds (a structure common in Eastern Africa, which consists of digging a ditch along the contour and ‘throwing’ the top soil upslope to form a bund) as it was not a straightforward win-win situation for them. The agronomic benefits are not immediate and economic analyses of such practices show that farmers can get a better return from un-conserved plots, as labour and other related costs (eg the loss of cultivable land by 8-20% to dig out fanya juu bunds), outweigh the benefits of reducing soil erosion, at least in the short term.

Fighting land degradation should not be at the expense of poor smallholder farmers. Yewol watershed’s success relied on a participatory and integrated approach, so that farming could be sustainable and profitable.

Yewol’s success : stone terraces, crop diversification and dialogue

Each farmer contributed 60 days of their labour per year to build stone terraces and bunds to keep soil erosion under control, under a government “work for food” scheme. They worked with researchers from Wollo University, Sirinka Agricultural Research Centre and ICRISAT to intensify and diversify their barley-based farming systems. Improved barley and wheat varieties were introduced, as well as legumes such as chickpea, fruit trees and fodder grasses. Pulse export markets towards Middle East and India encourage cultivation of legumes which enrich soils in nitrogen and farmers are encouraged to practice crop rotation and avoid nutrient depletion.

Soil fertility was addressed through extensive soil testing, training in plant nutrition and piloting fertilizer microdosing. Land and water management are closely linked. New watering points have emerged four years after farmers built terraces and bunds. Small scale water storage structures were tested for livestock water requirement or micro-irrigation.

The enclosure of barren fields by bunds prevents wild grazing and enables trees and shrubs to regenerate naturally. This Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration provides wood, mulching for fields or fodder and increases soil water retention and reduces evaporation.

The collective dialogue has also helped enforce appropriate community resources management by-laws like grazing rights to sustain land conservation efforts.

Driving collective action through trust building dialogues

Farmers are reclaiming sloping barren lands, by working together, step by step. This was possible because farmers were the central force and the communities were eager to work collectively, together with researchers, development organisations and government bodies.

Understanding what the conditions to encourage collective action are may be the key to sustainable management of land and water. Watershed management research in India shows that there can be huge variation of collective action capacity between communities but it is always built on experience (trust building); and that having conflict resolution mechanisms is prerequisite (people learn to listen to others).

Chris Evans, coordinator of the annual Caux Dialogue on Land and Security which will take place 10-14 July 2015, explains that creating space and opportunities for dialogue among the community and between the different land users is the first step towards land restoration.

That is what happened in the Yewol community. “Life here is about conserving our water and soil,” Ahmed says. “It takes time, but we are getting there. We were able to build these terraces together. With new crops and solutions to fertilize our fields, I see a future for my children in Yewol.”