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Ethiopia: local solutions to a global problem

Ethiopia's soils are fragile (©FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Ethiopia's soils are fragile
©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Ethiopia's soil and water conservationists know that land degradation is a major cause of declining agricultural productivity, persistent food insecurity and rural poverty in the country. Undulating terrain and highly erosive rainfall make Ethiopia's soils fragile, and detrimental farming practices compound the problem. Yet pockets of successful land management across the country and local knowledge of mitigating soil degradation do exist.

According to the global network World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), the problem - which is global - is that valuable local knowledge and experience about better soil and water management is not documented or readily shared; the solution could rest in better access to knowledge. WOCAT has therefore developed a framework to collect, document and evaluate case studies to share successful, local, community techniques and agricultural practices among land users, in partnership with extension workers, planners and policymakers.

A fighting framework approach

In 2007, Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development used the WOCAT framework to create the Country Partnership Program for Sustainable Land Management in Ethiopia (CPPSLM). The framework guides users through a three-stage process, which starts with collective learning about desertification problems and possible solutions, moves on to the description and evaluation of local experiences and finally to the joint selection of potential solutions together with communities.

Water harvesting gullies can be constructed and managed by communities (Hanspeter Liniger)
Water harvesting gullies can be constructed and managed by communities
Hanspeter Liniger

By monitoring different farming practices and technologies, the ministry collected a database of 52 successful technologies and 28 approaches common in Ethiopia, with the intention of scaling up successful approaches to mitigate land degradation.

"The WOCAT network is different from other research strategies in that it does not advise on methods or technologies to use in a given circumstance," explains Rima Mekdaschi Studer, a senior research scientist at WOCAT's head office at the University of Bern. "Instead, it acts as a database of tried and tested methods of soil and water management, answering questions experts or communities may have." Questions like: How and where can communities find proven strategies to prevent soil degradation, and appraise and select such identified best options and new ideas?

Where the land is greener

In the densely populated, humid highland regions of Ethiopia, the green canopy of desho grass, local varieties of Pennisetum sp., spread across the escarpment, is one such example of a local tried and tested land management technique documented using the WOCAT framework and scaled up with the support of Ethiocat, the WOCAT initiative in Ethiopia.

Desho grass improves soil cover and fertility (Daniel Danano)
Desho grass improves soil cover and fertility
Daniel Danano

By using the framework to identify, assess and select a solution in partnership with local communities and district level management, desho grass was introduced along with legumes such as alfalfa (Medicago sativa), in response to degradation caused by overpopulation. Cropland encroachment onto communal grazing areas and overstocking of dairy cows and oxen has led to overgrazing, causing further land degradation, and also serious pasture shortages.

Widely available, desho grass is ideal for livestock and can be grown on small home plots, where it improves soil cover and fertility, while increasing soil moisture retention and biodiversity. Splits of the grass have been planted in lines spaced at 10 x 10 cm, using a hand hoe, while inputs and planting advice have been provided by government extension services.

The benefits of using an already existing, local land management technique are clear. While 50 households who accepted the technology in the initial phase did so with incentives such as planting tools and seeds, the rate of spontaneous adoption has been very high. At present over 500 households have adopted the technology and the total area covered is about 20 km squared.

Challenges ahead

Of course there are challenges with using the WOCAT framework, the biggest of which is collecting quality data. "To share and make use of the information effectively, data have to be good quality and describe honestly the negative and positive impacts, costs etc," explains Mekdaschi Studer. Hence, a review of the case study by a group of local or national experts is necessary before it is shared, which can be time consuming and costly.

Stone and maize trash lines reduce rainwater runoff and improve water infiltration (Hanspeter Liniger)
Stone and maize trash lines reduce rainwater runoff and improve water infiltration
Hanspeter Liniger

But through case studies already documented, important policy points have already been raised, which Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture has been able to act upon. One example is that more attention should be given to local innovations over project-based implementation of standard technologies. Another that prevention and mitigation of degradation are less costly and should be prioritised over rehabilitation.

In addition, notes Mekdaschi Studer: "The Ethiopian case studies can be shared within Ethiopia and also with countries that might have similar conditions and problems. Also among people who would like to know what others have done and what experiences, positive as well as negative, they have encountered." While WOCAT plans to integrate its tools for sustainable resource management into local, national, and international activities, in Ethiopia at least, the WOCAT documentation, evaluation and selection framework has supported decision makers to make decisions that have worked at community level.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: November 2010


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