Free community labour: critical to Ethiopia’s drive to restore land and improve livelihoods

Terracing in Abreha Atsbeha, Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Ake Mamo


Farmers and pastoralists have contributed countless hours of labour across Ethiopia’s vast and varied landscapes through an under-recognized program


By Emily Sigman*


Farmers and pastoralists in Ethiopia have provided huge amounts of time and labour, free of charge, and coordinated the mass movements needed to sustainably manage Ethiopia’s landscapes. They have also significantly altered their practices through mastering land-conservation techniques, such as farmer-managed natural regeneration, reduced tillage, intercropping, hillside exclosure (also known as ‘social fencing’), agroforestry intensification, and on-farm water management. Those in the Tigray Region of Northern Ethiopia are also adept at techniques like stone-bund construction, check-dam building, and gabion stacking. Initial estimates report that Tigray — a mountainous region about the size of Italy — has by now been almost entirely terraced. Laid end-to-end, the terraces of Tigray would be longer than the Great Wall of China. All of this has occurred in the last 30 years and much of it through a program known as the Free Labour Contribution Period (FLCP).

The FLCP contributes significantly to reaching the ambitious targets set by the Government for environmental restoration and improvement of livelihoods, yet is rarely acknowledged. Ethiopia has committed to restoring 15 million hectares, or roughly one-sixth of its total land area, by 2025 through its membership of the Bonn Challenge, supported by the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative. Tremendous effort has been taking place across the country under the banner of the Sustainable Land Management Program, supported by the World Bank and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has advanced agroforestry as a strategy for land restoration, working closely with the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources to establish a National Agroforestry Platform.

The FLCP typically falls between January and March each year, when each ‘kebele’ or village administrative unit puts its men and women to work on a wide range of initiatives. Most involve landscape restoration, from soil and water conservation on hillsides through waterflow management in ravines to gully stabilization in lowlands. For a minimum of 20 days, groups of 12–1200 people will work for several labour-intensive hours a day on restoration activities coordinated by kebele and district officials.

A multifunctional landscape in Tigray’s Abreha We Atsbeha. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/B. Cika

Despite the centrality of the FLCP to Ethiopia’s many large-scale restoration initiatives, it is rarely mentioned in relation to the Sustainable Land Management Program or other similar projects in the country. Though it is a critical feature of rural life in Tigray, and plays a central role in translating international, federal and regional land management strategies to the local level, FLCP is virtually absent from discussions surrounding how best to design, manage, evaluate and expand the scale of landscape changes. A substantial portion of the pledged 15 million hectares to be restored will likely be facilitated through FLCP and related programs. Why is there so little information available about this critical piece of the restoration and livelihoods’ puzzle?

Understanding FLCP is key to appreciating the substantial human labour and organizational capacities involved in the implementation of restoration projects that are compatible with local systems, and to revealing the flow of responsibilities and benefits in a community. A number of key questions could be raised: 1) What would happen to the initiatives on the ground today if communities no longer embraced FLCP? 2) From which perspective is an FLCP desirable and from which is it problematic? 3) What role might restoration and livelihoods’ initiatives play in weakening or strengthening local political institutions that surround FLCP? 4) Would such initiatives want to be associated with that role? 5) How do the perceptions and implementation of FLCP differ from community to community and what consequences might that have for Ethiopia’s sizeable restoration and development goals? 6) Is it possible to expand the scale of restoration using the experience from Tigray, where FLCP is governed by strong local laws, to other regions in which it is rarely — if ever — employed?

Early research, supported by ICRAF, has begun on the FLCP, documenting how decisions are made, including when, where and why things happen, how FLCP is governed, and how the communities perceive it. The aim is to understand the political and social dynamics at play and eventually compare them across sites.

Through this, not only will the researchers be able to explain the detailed understanding required to effectively expand the scale of the program’s successes but will also help nuance the way ‘success’ is defined in the first place.








The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.



* Emily Sigman is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow pursuing a joint Master of Global Affairs and Master of Forestry degree at Yale University.  Her research in Ethiopia has been facilitated through an independent study with Florencia Montagnini, and supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, The Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and ICRAF.

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