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  • Picks and spades can triple farmers’ yields in Kenyan drylands

Picks and spades can triple farmers’ yields in Kenyan drylands

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A woman shows the state of six-week old maize crops within (left of picture) and outside (right of picture) of planting basins. Photo by Ake Mamo/ICRAF
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A woman shows six-week-old maize crops within (left) and outside (right) of planting basins. Photo by Ake Mamo/ICRAF

A simple farming technique is proving effective in staving off food shortages in Kenya.

The female farmers of Makueni County in southeastern Kenya rarely expect to triumph over their parched, unpropitious soils. A pick, a spade and a jovial, no-nonsense will-to-survive scarcely seem sufficient for a transition to greener prospects. In addition, the need for cash frequently robs these hardy women of men’s presence; casual labor in economic hotspots, or other work in livestock and poultry trading, is the norm.

Producing food thus rests on the shoulders of the women, many of whom are subsistence farmers or smallholders burdened with increasingly unproductive land. Severe land degradation coupled with drastic changes in climate has meant that many frequently face food shortages.

A flash appeal made by the government of Kenya and humanitarian organizations in July 2017 estimated that in the Kenyan drylands the number of people experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity owing to drought would increase from 2.6 million to 3.5 million by August of that year. Interventions are in abundance but few create an impetus to survive past a project cycle.

In her village of Mutembuku, farmer Veronicah Ngau has been working with government, development and research partners since 2005.

“Technologies like terracing and sunken-bed kitchen gardens have helped us cope but it was only in 2016 that I started to see a big change in what the land can produce,” she said. “In two planting seasons, I went from a usual 50 to 90 kilogram maize harvest from two acres of land to 270 kilograms from only one acre.”

This dramatic difference was achieved by nothing other than simple planting basins, which are a water-conservation technology that is improving food supply in the area.

However, social, environmental, technical and many other contexts differ from farmer to farmer and village to village, making it difficult to promote blanket adoption of the basins.

The most popular basin size in Makueni is 2 feet x 2 feet. Photo by Ake Mamo/ICRAF

As part of a project funded by the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development on restoring land for food security, which complements the Netherlands-funded Drylands Development Programme, the planting basins, which are also known as zai pits by the Western African farmers who innovated them, are being modified and tested, not just across villages, but also in several countries across the continent.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), together with development and government partners, is leading the research component, or ‘testing for fit’, as an element of a larger drive to restore land.

“Thousands of farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger are now in the process of comparing options for soil and water conservation, tree establishment, post-harvest pest and disease control, livestock governance and farmer-managed natural regeneration,” said the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) Fergus Sinclair, who leads ICRAF’s research theme on resilient livelihood systems and is the project’s principal investigator.

“We base this on a combination of systematic analysis of past successes and failures, local knowledge and participatory planning with farmers, extension workers and private-sector actors. It is not the basins in and of themselves we are interested in; what we are doing is looking for, and testing, options that are fit for their contexts while being relatively easy and low cost for farmers.”

Digging a pit is difficult work, perhaps more so than ploughing, but it has the advantage of being accessible to all and requires little more than a pick and a spade. Renting plough bulls operated by young, able men is not an easy option for many cash-strapped farmers in the area.

Ngau gave up on traditional tilling after three consecutive failed rains yielded stunted crops that were barely 30 centimeters high.

“Farming is a little bit like gambling here,” explained Joseph Ochola, a monitoring and data-collecting member of the project, who is local to the area.

“During droughts, the government will help us with 45 kilograms of maize per household per month; otherwise we have to buy what we need,” confirmed Ngau.

The Land Restoration Community of Practice is pictured in Mutembuku, Makueni County, Kenya. Photo by Ake Mamo/ICRAF

However, a 90 kg bag, cautiously consumed, costs KHS 2500 ($US25), which she says is a big chunk out of the KHS 6000 monthly earnings her husband makes as a casual laborer in town.

“When I started with 200 basins in a corner of my farm,” she said, “the idea was to compare the maize yields with our normal practice of farming. But in 2016, when we all lost our entire crops except those in the basins, I decided to switch and make more for myself; more than the project needed.”

A group of 10 women from her community of practice took up collectively digging three pits a week at each other’s homes. This gave them 30 basins a week but Ngau would also come home and dig three of her own each week.

“I have now covered half of my 2 acres with basins. Last season in 2017, during yet another drought, many of us with the basins were able to feed our neighbors who were not part of the project. They came to get some ears of maize every day. We were all able to eat. And even at harvesting period, I still got 270 kilograms, which also kept us going until the following planting season. I didn’t need the government handout anymore. Now others come to us to teach them how to do their basins.”

Scientists are now looking at the large data set involving thousands of farmers to explain when the basins are practical options and when they are not.

“This is only our third planting season and we are still in the process of collecting the data for all the different options related to the basins,” said Leigh Winowiecki, a soil scientist at ICRAF who manages the project. “But even in the comparisons, some areas have already been more than tripling the maize yields. Of course, it will not work the same for everybody.”

“Without this information, we cannot simply go and advise development partners to promote them,” explained Sinclair. “It will be a waste of their time and the farmer’s time to scale something that has not been tested and proven to work in the areas under question.”

By Akefety Mamo, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World.

The project ‘ Restoration of degraded land for food security and poverty reduction in East Africa and the Sahel: taking successes in land restoration to scale’ is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the European Union (EU)

This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • A review of research on the effects of drought and temperature stress and increased CO2 on Theobroma cacao L., and the role of genetic diversity to address climate change

A review of research on the effects of drought and temperature stress and increased CO2 on Theobroma cacao L., and the role of genetic diversity to address climate change

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The global status of research on the effects of drought, temperature and elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on the cacao plant, and the role of genetic diversity in producing more resilient cacao, are presented in this report. With the aim to enhance what we know about the resilience of cacao to climate change, and generate a comprehensive understanding of the questions that remain, this report highlights significant advances in published and ongoing research on drought and temperature tolerance in cacao.

Most of the information about ongoing or unpublished work was obtained from personal communications and surveys involving research institutes around the globe. Organizations were selected to participate in the survey based on their presence in the relevant literature, referrals from other organizations, or personal communications from individuals attesting to their involvement in research related to drought and temperature tolerance, or increased CO2 response, in cacao. A vast network of public and private sector partners including research institutes, producer organizations, and industry representatives around the world participated and were involved to collect additional information on unpublished and on-going research work in this area.

Over 100 scientists from 50 institutes across 29 countries participated. Additional information was gathered from personal communications, surveys carried out in collaboration with WCF and its USAID-supported Feed the Future Partnership for the Climate-Smart Cocoa Program, the Global Network for Cacao Genetic Resources (CacaoNet), the International Network for Cacao Genetic Improvement (INGENIC), the Regional Breeders Working Groups, and the research team on cacao and climate change at the University of Reading, UK. Fundamentally, the literature compiled in this report serves as a basis to understand the questions that still remain regarding cacao’s responses to abiotic stresses, highlight the resources that are available to answer them, and identify synergies and complementarities.

The report also helps to identify key research questions and partners for the development of a proposal for an international/multi-institutional research programme, to be implemented over the next three to five years, as part of the Collaborative Framework for Cacao Evaluation (CFCE). Although future climatic predictions are worrisome, the genetic materials held within national and international collections offer much potential in the development of improved planting material. The objective of the report is to gather as much information as possible, so that we can aim to maximize the resilience of cacao through the discovery and use of improved planting material, in combination with improved management practices.

The authors express gratitude to all of those who provided details of thier research on cacao genetic resources and abiotic stress and acknowledge financial support of WCF and its Feed the Future Partnership for Climate Smart Cocoa, through a grant to Bioversity International from USDA-FAS, the ECA/CAOBISCO/FCC Joint Working Group on Cocoa Quality and Productivity; and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

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  • Cocoa agroforestry is less resilient to sub-optimal and extreme climate than cocoa in full sun

Cocoa agroforestry is less resilient to sub-optimal and extreme climate than cocoa in full sun

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Cocoa agroforestry is perceived as potential adaptation strategy to sub-optimal or adverse environmental conditions such as drought. We tested this strategy over wet, dry and extremely dry periods comparing cocoa in full sun with agroforestry systems: shaded by (i) a leguminous tree species, Albizia ferruginea and (ii) Antiaris toxicaria, the most common shade tree species in the region.

We monitored micro-climate, sap flux density, throughfall, and soil water content from November 2014 to March 2016 at the forest-savannah transition zone of Ghana with climate and drought events during the study period serving as proxy for projected future climatic conditions in marginal cocoa cultivation areas of West Africa. Combined transpiration of cocoa and shade trees was significantly higher than cocoa in full sun during wet and dry periods. During wet period, transpiration rate of cocoa plants shaded by A. ferruginea was significantly lower than cocoa under A. toxicaria and full sun. During the extreme drought of 2015/16, all cocoa plants under A. ferruginea died. Cocoa plants under A. toxicaria suffered 77% mortality and massive stress with significantly reduced sap flux density of 115 g cm−2 day−1, whereas cocoa in full sun maintained higher sap flux density of 170 g cm−2 day−1. Moreover, cocoa sap flux recovery after the extreme drought was significantly higher in full sun (163 g cm−2 day−1) than under A. toxicaria (37 g cm−2 day−1).

Soil water content in full sun was higher than in shaded systems suggesting that cocoa mortality in the shaded systems was linked to strong competition for soil water. The present results have major implications for cocoa cultivation under climate change. Promoting shade cocoa agroforestry as drought resilient system especially under climate change needs to be carefully reconsidered as shade tree species such as the recommended leguminous A. ferruginea constitute major risk to cocoa functioning under extended severe drought.

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  • Why should China include a gender perspective in its climate change policies?

Why should China include a gender perspective in its climate change policies?

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A Tibetan woman waters barley and vegetables. Photo by ICRAF
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A Tibetan woman waters barley and vegetables. Photo by ICRAF

Women are playing a leading role in coping with and adapting to climate change in the mountainous rural areas of China’s Yunnan province, where disruptions in weather patterns and increasingly extreme events are expected to impact agricultural livelihoods.

However, while women are assuming more responsibility than men, their voices are mostly excluded from the policy-making processes that affect their daily lives.

A study on adaptation to water related hazards and climate change conducted in this southwestern province by researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences demonstrates the importance of gender inclusion in responses to climate change in the region and warns that the lack of a gender perspective in Chinese policy-making could undermine climate adaptation efforts. The study was part of an international research project under the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP).

“Women in the region have important responsibilities as managers of natural and household resources and are therefore well positioned to contribute to adaptation strategies. But they are more vulnerable than men to climate change as they face more social, economic, and political barriers limiting their adaptive capacity,” said Su Yufang, ICRAF China’s deputy director and the lead author of the study.

“HICAP is generating knowledge of climate change impacts on natural resources, ecosystem services and the communities that depend on them, contributing to policy and practice for enhanced adaptation.”

Read also: Gendered Responses to Drought in Yunnan Province, China

Based on surveys undertaken during a record-breaking drought in 2012, the study explores how women and men in Haitang, a village in Yunnan’s Baoshan Prefecture, perceive and respond to drought and how the changing roles of women and men in the home and the community are influencing water management at the village level.

A woman and child cross a river, in an area where poverty is often caused by physical inaccessibility for mountain people. Photo by ICRAF

In Haitang, off-farm wage labor outside the community has for some years been an important income-generating strategy. As the drought continued, increasing numbers of men as well as some younger women migrated, and the remaining women assumed more responsibility for agricultural production. However, traditional social norms continue to limit women’s decision-making power in household farming enterprises and in community resource management.

Water management and gender

One of the important findings from the study was that men and women use strikingly different approaches when faced with water shortages and their consequences on agriculture. Less than half of the men in the village reported simply waiting for the rain, while less than a fifth reported transporting water to their crops.

The preferences for women, however, were reversed, with just under half reporting that they transported water to their crops, and less than one fifth claiming to simply wait for rain. In addition, the women actively pursued more immediate responses to drought than men by, for example, decreasing the cultivated area or adjusting the timing of planting. And as the drought continued, men and women showed further differences, with women being more likely to consider shifting into forestry and animal husbandry after successive low yields.

Another interesting finding related to the definition of “collecting water”. Men understood gathering water as looking for new sources of water when old sources dried up, which is their main responsibility, but the actual carrying was primarily women’s responsibility. But while the men believed they were responsible for coping with the water shortage in the household, it was actually women’s daily workload that was more significantly increased.

A Tibetan girl holds a baby yak, a animal that helps to provide energy for heating and cooking in rural areas. Photo by ICRAF

At the community level the study observed that although technically possible, no woman has ever been appointed as a water manager. The managers are selected by the village committee and approved by a meeting of the villagers’ representatives. They are responsible for water tank and pipe maintenance and for domestic water allocation at the village level.

Both men and women said that this was due to the skills and physical strength needed to repair pipes and water infrastructure, as well as a perception that it fell outside women’s traditional domestic roles. However, as water scarcity continued, conflicts over water allocation became more frequent, and both men and women acknowledged that women have become increasingly active in monitoring water allocation along with water managers in order to reduce the risk of fights among the men. Women are seen as able to solve these conflicts and ensure equal distribution through negotiation rather than physical fighting.

Read also: Update on gender research projects

A socioeconomic focus for China’s climate change adaptation policies

As the effects of climate change become more tangible, national and provincial governments have announced new policies and governance mechanisms for drought response and climate change adaptation, but none of these policies address gender issues.

The case for more attention to the gender dimensions and impacts of climate change becomes critical as agricultural production becomes increasingly feminized and women take on multiple and non-traditional roles. The study’s findings indicate that women are taking on an increasingly active role in managing water during droughts but they are still excluded from formal decision-making about water management at the community level.

Based on these findings, the study recommends the adoption of new climate change policies that:

  • Consider gendered differences in vulnerability and value women’s traditional knowledge and practical experience.
  • Provide local communities, and particularly women, with climate change information and technologies to improve their adaptive capacity.
  • Ensure women’s participation in the planning and construction of drinking water and irrigation facilities to ensure these facilities meet women’s needs.
  • Support women’s participation in community-based water management bodies, and promote the development of women’s organizations.

The lack of information and meaningful engagement with gender issues could lead to unfit government-supported adaptation responses that may not address the different priorities and needs of rural women, further marginalizing them, and will hinder the opportunity to benefit from women’s active contribution to water management.

By Ana Maria Paez-Valencia and Manon Koningstein, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World

This research is part of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP), which is supported by the governments of Norway and Sweden and jointly implemented by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research at Oslo (CICERO) and GRID-Arendal in collaboration with local partners. Additional funding was provided by the gender cross-cutting component of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

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  • Measuring the effectiveness of subnational REDD+ initiatives

Measuring the effectiveness of subnational REDD+ initiatives

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Forest rangers patrol part of the Tripa peat swamp forest in Nagan Raya, Aceh province, Indonesia. Photo by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR
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Forest rangers patrol part of the Tripa peat swamp forest in Nagan Raya, Aceh province, Indonesia. Photo by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR

Study gives new insights into carbon monitoring methods at the local level.

Forests play a central role in climate change mitigation, as recognized by the Paris Agreement. Over the last decade, hundreds of subnational initiatives to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) have flourished worldwide, and numerous countries mention either forests or REDD+ as part of their mitigation strategies.

Yet, very little is known about the carbon effectiveness of these initiatives.

“There is a lot of attention on how to implement REDD+ at the national and international level, especially with respect to designing financial frameworks and measuring the global tree cover change,” explains Astrid Bos. “What is not so clear is how to measure the impact of specific initiatives on the ground.”

This prompted Bos — who is the lead author of a new study, alongside senior scientist Amy Duchelle and other researchers and partners of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) — to explore the comparative potential of two methods for assessing the effectiveness of subnational REDD+ initiatives.

The ‘BA approach’ analyzes tree cover in a given area before and after a REDD+ intervention. The ‘BACI approach’ is a more complex, costly method that includes control areas — very similar to initiative areas, but not subjected to interventions.­ Both were tested at the village and at the site level — encompassing districts, regions and even biomes.

The assessment methods were put to the test on 23 subnational initiatives from CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study (GCS) on REDD+ in Brazil, Peru, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Vietnam. The results were revealing.

Read also: Smallholder farmers in REDD+ sites: The cost of missed opportunities

Logs are pictured after being illegally harvested from a natural forest in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Sofi Mardiah/CIFOR


The before-after method seems straightforward enough: increases in tree cover loss mean failure of the REDD+ intervention. Or do they? What the BA approach fails to take into account is the background noise affecting tree cover.

This may range from periods of extreme drought and spontaneous fires, to newly constructed roads and global commodity prices — factors beyond the scope of REDD+ initiatives.

“With the before-after approach, these background dynamics can be very misleading,” notes Bos, who is a PhD candidate at the Wageningen University Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing. “This is why we argue you have to put the observed changes in tree cover into context, so that you are comparing apples with apples.” This is precisely the strength of BACI.

Because, in theory, both the control and the intervention areas are subject to the same time-varying factors — including socioeconomic ones — any difference in tree cover between them should be able to be attributed to REDD+ interventions.

Read also: Estimating smallholder opportunity costs of REDD+: A pantropical analysis from households to carbon and back

However, BACI comes with its own set of challenges, the main one being the fact that results are only as good as the choice of control areas. “The bigger the surface, the more difficult it is to find a control area that has the same characteristics as the intervention one,” says Bos. And the area in question may be as big as a Brazilian state.

Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) staff walk through a healthy part of the Tripa peat swamp forest. Photo by Dita Alangkara/CIFOR

The first conclusion of the study is that the BACI approach is more relevant the more local the scale of the assessment is. “Using BACI at village rather than at initiative level, besides being much easier, is more accurate,” sums up the researcher. “Comparing areas at higher levels turned out to be more difficult than we expected.”

At the onset of the GCS REDD+, control areas were selected based on reported forest cover loss from cost- and labor-intensive field studies. Now, new global forest datasets based on satellite data allow for improved control area selection. “This is a very good moment to start implementing the BACI approach at the local scale,” concludes Bos.


A second conclusion is that the before-after approach, which focuses on the direction of change, is also useful under certain conditions. In some cases, the BA scores flag poor and BACI scores good performance of a particular REDD+ initiative. So, which one is right?

When increases in deforestation are higher in control areas than in intervention ones, the BA score makes clear that deforestation is still increasing, just less rapidly than would have occurred without REDD+.

“Conversely, in situations of generalized positive changes, BA scores alone risk painting a rosier picture than could be reasonably attributed to the REDD+ intervention,” adds the paper.

Independent of approach, the study found a slightly better performance at the village level that at the initiative one. According to Bos, one of the reasons could be related to the so-called ‘treatment density’, meaning that “REDD+ initiatives, especially if the proponent is an NGO, may not be targeting all the villages inside the initiative boundary.”

Although the study focused on analyzing monitoring approaches, it notes the “overall minimal impact of REDD+ in reducing deforestation so far,” regardless of the method used to assess the effectiveness of the initiatives.

“This could be the subject of another study,” says Bos, but she offers some possible explanations: slow implementation of interventions, and proponents that target smallholders instead of the main drivers of deforestation at their sites are two of them.

Other reasons may have to do with the design of the research project itself. The study focuses on deforestation, without analyzing degradation or reforestation, and it does not examine specific REDD+ intervention strategies used at different sites.


A next research step is to link performance assessment results to intervention mixes, and to monitor effectiveness of REDD+ initiatives over a longer timeframe, which Duchelle notes is now in progress as part of the third phase of GCS REDD+. Interventions may include varying combinations of incentives, such as livelihood improvements; disincentives, such as fees; and enabling measures, such as tenure clarification.

“It is crucial to link tree cover change to particular REDD+ strategies; what works in one area might not be the solution in another one,” stresses Bos. Better understanding what works in which contexts may also provide valuable pointers for upscaling options to national REDD+ policies.

Countries, the study argues, should find ways to incorporate results from local level monitoring into their national reporting systems. “After all, overall REDD+ impact depends on land-use decisions on the ground.”

By Gloria Pallares, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Duchelle at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Enviroment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), the UK Department for International Development (UKAID), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the European Union.

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  • Gendered Responses to Drought in Yunnan Province, China

Gendered Responses to Drought in Yunnan Province, China

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Vulnerability to and perceptions of climate change may be significantly affected by gender. However, in China, gender is rarely addressed in climate adaption or resource management strategies. This paper demonstrates the relevance of gender in responses to climate change in the mountainous province of Yunnan in southwest China.

Based on surveys undertaken during a record-breaking drought, the paper explores how women and men in a village in Baoshan Prefecture differ in their perceptions of and responses to drought, and how the changing roles of women and men in the home and the community are influencing water management at the village level.

Our results show that despite the increasingly active role of women in managing water during the drought, they are excluded from community-level decision-making about water. The paper argues that given the importance of gender differences in perceptions of and responses to drought, the lack of a gender perspective in Chinese policy may undermine efforts to support local resource management and climate adaptation.

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  • Landscape restoration in Ethiopia brings watershed to life

Landscape restoration in Ethiopia brings watershed to life

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Water is now abundant in Gergera after “treatment” of the catchment with gabions, planting of trees and elephant grass, and natural regeneration of vegetation. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF
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Water is now abundant in Gergera after “treatment” of the catchment with gabions, planting of trees and elephant grass, and natural regeneration of vegetation. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

Ethiopia is suffering from severe drought. But there is water in Gergera. Twenty years of restoring its hills and valley has brought life back to this area in the state of Tigray.

The work has been painstaking, complex and multidimensional and continues to this day. But its hard-won results offer up two key lessons. First, landscape restoration in drylands hinges on water management. Second, restoration can create a base for better livelihoods and jobs for youth who formerly left in droves.

Ministers visited the watershed on May 31, 2017 after a meeting at which the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), as part of work supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), signed a memo of understanding to establish a National Agroforestry Platform to support climate-resilient green growth and transformation.

Over 40 prominent figures attended, including Ministers of State Dr. K Urgesa and Dr. G Gebreyohannes, Dr. W Tadesse of the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute, Dr. F Kebede, advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, and Dr. E Gabre Madhin, founder of Ethiopia’s commodity exchange. Also present were the ambassadors of Australia and Ireland, M Sawyers and P McManus, representatives of the Finnish, US, Dutch, German and Norwegian embassies and development agencies, and leaders from civil society groups such as OXFAM, Farm Africa, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Packard.

Ministers Eyasu Abraha and Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes listen to the community. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

In Gergera, the visit began at the head of the valley where community leaders had gathered. Alighting and looking around, Ethiopia’s minister of agriculture and natural resources was visibly moved. “I know this place. It was abandoned and untouched. This is very incredible to me,” said Dr. Eyasu Abraha.

The group stood under tall trees, bathed by bird song, with luscious grasses and pools of clean water at their feet. So that it can regenerate, this part of Gergera has long been closed to cattle. “The first thing you notice is the change of vegetation,” said ICRAF’s Director General Dr. Tony Simons, pointing out a Sclerocarya birrea, a tree with a nutritious plum-like fruit with an oil-rich kernel.

With the consent of the community, only cutting and carrying grass to livestock and beekeeping are permissible in this upper catchment. Indeed, the wooded hillsides are rife with carefully placed hives. Gabions built by members of the community slow the rainwater when it courses down the chasm, which, formerly too deep to cross, is gradually filling as earth builds up behind the structures.

Critically, this earth now retains rainwater, which seeps into the ground and emerges as groundwater in the valley where 1000 hectares of land are now under small-scale irrigation. It was not always like this.

“During the period of the Emperor and the Derg, degradation was so severe,” an elder said, referring to the regime that was in place from 1974 for 17 years. “Once we were forced to dismantle a church at risk of being swept away!”

Read more:

Preventing gulley expansion is key to restoration. The gulley in Gergera is over 40 km long. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

But the fall of the Derg brought a groundswell of activity to address agricultural productivity in an area once struck by famine.

“The people took the initiative to rehabilitate the environment,” explained administrator Habtom Woreta. “That is when Irish Aid came in and we became a model watershed for the region and the world. You can see how the area is transformed! Biodiversity has increased and we have hand-dug wells at 1 meter deep because of recharge. And none of this is in vain. Now we have TVs in the houses. Before we slept on mats, now we have beds.”

Once a hot spot for the perilous out-migration of youth, even that has changed. When Irish Aid representative Aileen O’Donovan asked “about job creation for the youth, who are motivated but restless”, Kebele village leader Tsuruy proudly said: “We have 1070 youngsters, of whom 506 are employed due to restoration.”

“This is music to my ears,” said the minister of agriculture, whose government recently completed a Rural Job Opportunity Strategy.

Down in the valley, young men were building gabions to deflect a gulley away from the fields that would be destroyed if the water went unchecked in the rains. They are paid under the Poverty Safety Net Programme, Ethiopia’s cash transfer scheme. But they also donate 40 free days of their time, both as a social obligation and in anticipation of receiving reclaimed land from the state.

ICRAF Director General Tony Simons is seen in Gergera’s upper catchment. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

Asked why they were doing this, they shouted, “To earn daily bread and stop the loss of land. The land was going!” Placing a boulder into a square of wire mesh, the ICRAF director general told the group that if good tree cover was kept in the watershed, the water would also come with less velocity.

There were more young men as well as women at the rural resource center, a former government nursery now supported by ICRAF, which technically guides the entire restoration. They earn their living selling trees, particularly avocado, and 13 fodder grass species. They currently have tree seedlings and vegetable plantlets worth $11,523 and $10,000 in the bank.

“Our vision is how these youngsters can eventually be extension workers,” said Professor Mitiku Hailu of Mekelle University.

Read also: ‘No one leaves any more’: Ethiopia’s restored drylands offer new hope

As the trip wrapped up, the community served bread and honey from the recovering hills. State Minister for Livestock and Fisheries Dr. Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes said “what has been seen today is job creation” and “cash transfers improving the lives of the poor”.

Dr. Kiros Hagdu, who leads ICRAF in Ethiopia, said his center was committed to evidence-based restoration of farms and landscapes with the government and communities and that now was “the time to scale-up the successes nationally.”

The minister of agriculture had the last word. “Agroforestry is becoming the heart and the mind of the government,” said Dr. Eyasu Abraha. “What we see here is really the beginning of transformation. All those youngsters who wanted to migrate will have productive land.”

By Cathy Watson, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World

This work has been supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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