Not so dirt cheap

7 December, 2015 by (comments)

The coffee on your desk might never have arrived this morning. Deforestation rates in Ethiopia – one of the world’s top coffee exporters – are so high, records show, that forest is slashed from 40 to less than 3 percent of the country.

As well as surviving deforestation, those most prized coffee beans would also have fought for every nutrient and drop of water among the most degraded and barren soils in sub-Saharan Africa.

Soil loss in Ethiopia is an expensive problem, adding up to more than US$100 million every year. The country is locked in a cycle of land degradation and poverty, costing it soil, money and not just coffee – but other crops as well.

Lulseged Tamene likes his coffee. But not as much as he likes the idea of breaking that cycle of soil degradation and poverty. “It may not mean much for a farmer that soil erosion in Ethiopia’s highlands reaches over 130 tons per hectare every year,” said Tamene.

“Partners understand better if they can see interventions in the landscape, what erosion means in terms of yield loss, what challenges are and how to solve them.”

 Rising above the challenges

While farmers realized they were losing soil, they did not know how much, nor what to do about it. At the same time, researchers had identified top drivers of soil loss including  planting crops on steep slopes, combined with intense rainfall, bare sloped land and poor land management.

Together with key partners including ILRI, ICRAF, IWMI, ICRISAT and Mekelle University, Tamene is part of the Africa RISING research team in Ethiopia, which is working together with communities to tackle soil loss. Led by ILRI, CIAT’s component in the research involves collecting and analyzing soil data to advise communities about better land and water management practices, to protect the whole landscape.

Sustainable intensification, the team argued, can best be done through Integrated Natural Resources Management: tackling soil erosion at the whole landscape level – rather than at farm plot level – to transform dust bowls into healthier landscapes, better able to withstand climate shocks.

Research teams worked together with the local community to pin-point major areas of soil erosion, like landslide areas, to identify options for how best to manage them. To show farmers that land degradation is reversible if managed well, an exchange visit was arranged to Tigray region, where watersheds have been transformed from desert-like conditions.

The Chairman of Adisghe County, near Debre Birhan city, recorded the visit on his mobile phone and showed the footage to his community, inspiring them to transform their eroded landscape. “I knew that if we did one tenth of the work they did, we could bring our land back,” he said.

Africa Rising the climate-smart way

Communities identify soil degradation hotspots on digital maps.

Communities identify soil degradation hotspots.

Through high resolution satellite imagery, the community has helped researchers identify soil erosion hotspots. Together, they have mapped gulley erosion by looking at satellite images and walking and tracking coordinates, then digitally plotted on maps, and discussed to decide what action to take.

Two years later, the proof is literally in the landscape. Trial data shows doubled yields in some areas following good agronomic practices and appropriate fertilizer application. After hands-on training in the field, the community has built check dams, ditches and ponds, and water has percolated through to the lower part of the landscape.

This not only improves the structure of the soil – it also improves the retention capacity of the landscape. Especially valuable during drought, more water is now available for farming and other income-earning activities.

Research is still ongoing to collect, analyze and map soil data to build a more complete picture. Challenges remain, among them the need for more communities to start using the approaches that have already worked.

Africa RISING’s coordinator Kindu Mekonnen, said: “We have introduced these new technologies, created good partnerships with communities and demonstrated how different technologies are useful. Now we need to take this to the wider scale – we’re in the process of working with partners to do that.”

Download brief: Bringing soils to life

Picture credits: Georgina Smith / CIAT

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Filed Under: Africa @en, Regions, Soils, Soils website