Farmers are reclaiming unproductive land by filling a ravine—called a gully—with stones. Photo credit: IMWI/Desalegne Tadesse

Ethiopian Highlanders unleash traditional practices on a modern land scourge

Test out new ways of reversing land degradation

By Marianne Gadeberg, CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems

In just a couple of weeks, farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands will have finished their harvest. In January, they will then embark on what could be dubbed ‘the restoration season’. Because the harvest is over, farmers are relatively free during the next few months, which makes it a perfect time for restoring the unique landscapes they depend on for food and income.

Scientists and government officials are collaborating with communities to test out new approaches to reversing land degradation—methods that might have potential to change the status of the entire highlands region from vastly degraded to successfully restored.

Small successes show big potential for Ethiopian Highlands

Land degradation is a pervasive problem in the Ethiopian Highlands. In Amhara Regional State alone, 5.8 million hectares are considered degraded, and it is estimated that well over 300,000 hectares are affected by gullies.

Gullies are deep and muddy ravines that eat their way through cropland and communal grazing pastures, encroaching on people’s livelihoods. They are caused in part by geophysical factors, such as erratic and severe rainfall, but also by unsustainable overuse by communities and their livestock. It has been estimated that gully erosion account for almost a third of total soil loss in Tigray Regional State, just north of Amhara state.

“We’ve found that the key to stopping gullies from spreading is to take action early, while they are still small,” explains Wolde Mekuria, a land resources management researcher with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). “If action is taken early, communities themselves can halt gully advancement using materials that they already have on hand—all they have to provide is their labor.”

Scientists from WLE, led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), are collaborating with officials from the Bureau of Agriculture to pilot this new approach to reclaiming gullies.

The pilots have proved that filling the “gully heads” (the uppermost end of the ravines) with stones and enforcing the gully banks by planting fast-growing grasses or fruit trees can successfully halt gully development. This method is up to thirteen times cheaper than the technologies required if a gully is allowed to grow wide and deep.

“The extent of the gully problem is immense, and this has proved to be a fast, cheap and effective way to treat them,” says Gedefaw Beyene, a soil and water conservation expert with the Bureau of Agriculture. “Because we’ve seen unanimously positive results in the pilot sites, we’ve already expanded this approach to two other places in Amhara state—Gomit watershed and Dembiya district—and we plan to use it in several more locations during the next few months.”

Scientists deliver blueprints for community-led restoration

Land restoration efforts have been under way in Ethiopia since the 1970s, and today the country is committed to restoring 15 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.

However, while farmers and government officials have made considerable progress in reversing degradation, there is still room for improvement: Some restoration methods have proved to be disproportionately expensive, and some yield no short-term economic benefits, which critically impedes the support from local communities.

“The support of the community underpins this approach to gully rehabilitation and a lot of other soil and water restoration approaches,” says Mekuria. “Without their contributions and buy-in, these methods are not viable.”

The results of land restoration efforts are rarely immediate, which poses a conundrum to local communities. They have to give up time and labor—and in some cases even precious land—for a reward that might only come several years down the line.

Therefore Mekuria and colleagues recommend land restoration approaches that also yield immediate benefits for communities. In the case of gully reclamation, this can be achieved by planting grasses that can be used for livestock fodder on the banks of the gully. This way, the community experiences an immediate gain and can afford to invest in the process.

Another approach to restoring degraded land is to establish ‘exclosures’ by temporarily giving designated communal land areas a break from people and livestock. This allows soil and vegetation to recover, but it also robs communities of benefits, such as being able to use the land for livestock grazing.

To solve this, Mekuria and colleagues have piloted a number of exclosure management options that replace lost opportunities with new ones—such as beekeeping, which can generate additional income. The next step is to develop business models for such management options, making them easier to put into use.

“We know that reversing land degradation has been a top priority for the Bureau of Agriculture for a long time,” says Mekuria. “Therefore we focus on providing them with science-based tools and blueprints that can help make land restoration efforts more effective, for example by ensuring that communities have good reasons to participate.”

Treating the whole landscape to achieve wide-ranging benefits

Gullies have proliferated in the highlands as the growing population farm the land and let livestock graze freely. But, soil and water conservation structures themselves can actually also initiate gully formation, a correlation that receives too little attention.

Mekuria: “Gullies typically form in the lower parts of a watershed, and they can be made worse by for example ditches dug higher up on the hills to increase water infiltration and prevent soil erosion.”

In the past, reducing soil erosion on the upper, steeper slopes has been a main priority, while gullies were mostly ignored. Ditches and other physical structures have been put in place to reduce rainwater runoff on the steeper slopes. But, because these interventions are successful in increasing rainwater infiltration—doing what they are supposed to—the soil at the bottom of the hill becomes overly saturated. Oversaturation increases the risk of gullies, and in some areas the success of upstream interventions is ironically becoming the main cause of gully formation.

This highlights the need for integrated approaches to landscape restoration—no single part can be treated in isolation. Recognizing that the whole landscape is connected, Mekuria and colleagues are sharing their tools and insights with stakeholders beyond the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Other key players include the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which both have an interest because successful land restoration efforts have positive effects on land and water productivity and contribute to climate change mitigation.

It is estimated that the annual cost of land degradation in Ethiopia is about US$4.3 billion—that’s almost 6 percent of the country’s GDP. On the other hand, the cost of reversing or mitigating land degradation, including establishing exclosures or reclaiming gullies, is much lower than the cost of inaction. In fact, every dollar spent on rehabilitating degraded lands returns about US$4.4 over a 30-year horizon.

Before long, highland farmers will be out on the slopes working in tandem with government official and researchers to realize these long-term gains as well as short-term benefits. While they depend on the land, the future of the landscape also depends on them.

Learn more at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn this week. WLE, IWMI and CIAT are organizing a discussion forum on Wednesday, December 20, 16:30-18:00 CET, to explore indicators and scalability of successful land restoration initiatives at the watershed scale. Live stream the event here.

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