A new technical paper by the World Agroforestry Centre analyses what farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia currently know about ecosystem processes and the interactions between trees, crops and livestock. The aim is to use this information to guide interventions that will build more intensive and climate-resilient systems.
“Farming in Ethiopia is already severely affected by land degradation, a shortage of fodder for livestock and soil loss leading to lower productivity,” explains Aster Gebrekirstos, a scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre. “The future impacts of climate change will require these farming systems to be intensified but also sustainable.”
Developing the most appropriate tree-crop-livestock farming systems relies on acquiring knowledge. According to Gebrekirstos, the best place to start is through learning about local people’s understanding of their farming systems and identifying where knowledge gaps exist.
“For any future interventions to be successful, it will be vital to match the right components and management practices with current production systems and ecosystems.”
The technical paper summarises findings from 3 study sites with contrasting agro-ecologies, farming systems and degrees of success in integrating trees. The work was undertaken under the Africa RISING (Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation) project which aims to improve food security and farm income diversification in the Ethiopian highlands.
The researchers found distinct variation in farmers’ knowledge at different sites which was generally associated with the extent of land degradation, local management practices and constraints faced by the farmers.
For example, in Abreha Wa Atsbeha in the state of Tigray, farmers had a detailed understand of the link between conservation measures (such as revegetation) in the upper part of the catchment and water supply in the lower part of the catchment. “One community member said it was like putting your money in the bank upstream and withdrawing the cheque downstream,” says Kiros Hadgu, a scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre and co-author of the paper.
Famers in Abreha Wa Atsbeha have been managing livestock and revegetating areas for many years, motivated by a local community leader. This perhaps explains their knowledge of the benefits of conservation measures to agricultural productivity.
In Adi Gudom, also in Tigray, where livestock management practices have not been introduced, there is noticeable soil loss and land degradation. Farmers here have not been planting trees either because they rent the land or cannot access seedlings for appropriate tree species. Farmland is also a considerable distance from their homesteads, making it more difficult to protect and manage trees.
In Bekoji in Oromia state, although productivity is not declining rapidly, local people are aware that a reduction in native vegetation cover is leading to soil erosion, fertility decline and a loss of soil moisture. The farmers in Bekoji understand the value of rotating cereal crops with legumes to maintain productivity. They are also aware of how eucalypt trees (which are gaining popularity in the region) compete with crops and pasture for water.
Among the recommendations in the technical paper is to ensure that the valuable knowledge held within farming communities is taken into account when designing local interventions for sustainable intensification.
“Farmers must be involved in decision-making when it comes to any interventions,” emphasizes Gebrekirstos.
Because local knowledge can be location-specific and dependent on ecological and socio-economic situations, the authors of the technical paper advise against applying one intervention across a large area.
Capacity-building activities such as farmer-to-farmer exchanges are recommended to ensure farmers have the necessary skills to enhance their farming systems.
The Africa RISING project is funded by USAID, led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in conjunction with several CGIAR Centres, including the World Agroforestry Centre, and local partners.
For more information about the Africa RISING project, visit http://africa-rising.wikispaces.com/ethiopia_highlands
Photo: Round water well in Abreha Wa Atshbeha. Genevieve Lamond