In Ethiopia: Conservation gospel falls on fertile soil

A row of derelict tractors on an abandoned state farm is a fitting reminder that industrialized agriculture has a checkered future in this populous East African country.

With their faded red paint, gutted engines and rotting tires gradually being swallowed by the prickly underbrush, these 1970s-vintage symbols of progressive agriculture represent a technology that has little application for the majority of Ethiopian farmers who use oxen and hoe on plots of two hectares or less.

This is not to say modern technologies won’t play a role in Ethiopia’s drive to increase its agricultural output and grow its economy through an aggressive expansion. In fact, growing its agricultural sector is the best an agrarian-based economy has for options. (Click HERE to view Laura’s companion article. – Ed.)

Nor does it mean these impoverished farmers are stodgy traditionalists inherently suspicious of new technology. Any notion of that is erased by the skyrocketing number of cellphones in remote areas that lack even the basics of electricity and running water.

It’s not uncommon to see drivers talking on their cellphones (no laws against that here) while they manoeuver their donkey carts through traffic. Thanks to extra batteries and recharge stations in towns and villages, rural Ethiopians are leapfrogging past the expensive infrastructure required for land-line telecommunications.

But it is highly unlikely that high input agriculture will do much — at least not directly — to improve the economic welfare of the small holder farmers or for the 10 to 20 per cent of the population that is chronically food insecure.

Subsistence farmers growing maize, beans and sweet potato, lack the financial capacity for motorized implements, fuel, fertilizer and repairs. While they may prove to be prudent investments — if the rains come, they are a nothing but a lost gamble if they don’t. 

Even if they had the wherewithal to acquire more land, their access is limited. Holdings can be transferred from generation to generation, but cannot be bought, sold or even legally leased, except through the government.

Although extension workers encourage farmers to use commercial fertilizer and improved seed, that advice has coincided with successive droughts over the past decade. Many producers have come to associate commercial fertilizer with their parched, eroded soil’s declining fertility.

“The land is tired,” said Mattheas Woldemedhin, an elderly farmer in the Damot Woyde kebele (an area similar to a township), south of Soddo. “Chemical fertilizer is preferred on extensive farms, but it is not so good for the small farmer.”

A far more appealing scenario exists on a small plot of land near the local church just a short bone-jarring drive from the tumbling-down state farm near Selamber.

Zerihun Kora, the local pastor for the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, eagerly takes us to his “Farming God’s Way” demonstration plot, where extension workers have doubled maize yields using a combination of no-till and organic methods such as mulching.

“For us, this is a new technology,” said Joseph Abraham, who co-ordinates the church’s extensive agricultural extension work in the area. “It saves time, it saves manpower, there is no more soil erosion, and moisture loss is less.”

Because the plots are small and the maize is sown by hand, the manure-based fertilizer is placed near the seed at planting, which increases nutrient efficiency.

The project is in its early stages, but local officials say there are already 14 demonstration plots established in the area, and adoption by local farmers is expected to be rapid. 

The Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church is supported by the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

But make no mistake. Although this approach is being promoted by church-based development organizations, it isn’t about a bunch of missionaries proselytizing in a bid to convert more souls. 

This is about saving a soul of a different sort — that of the soil’s.

Relentless pressure to produce more with minimal inputs, increased erosion caused by droughts that have reduced or eliminated crop residues, and continuous grazing by livestock has started a downward spiral in productivity. The less the land produces, the more it is being asked to produce.

Sam Van der Ende, the CFGB’s field representative based in Addis Ababa, said “Farming God’s Way”  is a way of communicating a conservation message to communities that are already deeply rooted in spirituality. “The indications are that it is being embraced quite enthusiastically,” he said.

“If you are coming out of an evangelical background with your farming manual and hoe in one hand and your Bible in the other, it makes sense,” he said.

“It’s about your relationship with your family, your relationship with your neighbour, your relationship with the land, and your relationship with God — that’s what farming God’s way is all about.”

“That’s very attractive because Ethiopians are very, very spiritual people. So the connections being made are certainly seeds that are falling on very fertile soil.”

A conservation ethic permeates virtually all the programs CFGB members support through locally based partners.

Not far from the zero-till/organic plot is a micro-irrigation project also co-ordinated by the Kale Heywet Church with Canadian support. A food-for-work project constructed a weir to divert river water into a 65-hectare plot of land divided among 260 households. A reliable supply of water first allowed producers to increase their maize production, but they have since begun to grow higher-value crops such as red peppers, onions, ginger and banana. They also leave their crop residues on the soil to improve its fertility.

Participating farmer Oych Ya, said before gaining access to irrigated land, his small holding didn’t produce anything more than what the family would eat. “There was never anything for external income,” he said.

But he is now selling the cash crops of onion to supplement the family income. It has meant he can send his seven children to school regularly. In the past, their studies were interrupted whenever the family ran short of money to pay for their supplies, uniforms and room and board in town. 

In another initiative in the Kindo Koisha hills above Soddo, farmers are paid with food-for-work or cash-for work to terrace denuded hillsides and sow them to trees. These projects not only supply much-needed supplementary support to prevent crop failure disaster from becoming tragedy, they help protect and revive the soil resources.

– Laura Rance is the editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, reporting this week from Ethiopia on a media food study tour with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Watch this site this week for updates on her travels.

Related story:

In Ethiopia: Agricultural growth a multifaceted challenge, Feb. 7, 2012

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