Agroecology: possibilities for and threats to social ecological resilience – A reflection by Million Belay

My trip to Ethiopia was to understand how food systems are transforming in different agricultural, forest and agro-pastoral contexts and what the implication of this transformation is for social and ecological resilience. The research also aligns with the focus of AFSA on changing food systems in Africa and also informs MELCA – Ethiopia’s program on agroecology.  The research is being carried out in MELCA’s project areas.

I am sitting and reflecting from my temporary home, Sweden, about my recent trip to Ethiopia. This morning was super cold, a huge contrast from the blazing sun in Ethiopia. You have to take Vitamin D tablets here to compensate for the sun and I was joking that I came back with a reserve. I am here in Sweden as part of the two-year contract with the Stockholm University. 7 months have already gone by. How time flies! I am a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC).

It was the driest time of the year in Ethiopia so the landscapes were not looking that great. More so in Bale, the magnificent Mountains of Bale. There the landscape looked literally burnt.

My trip this time was very painful. In fact, more than that it was deeply troubling. What happened? In a way, study of food systems is really too broad but it’s certainly eye opening. This is mainly because there are no aspects of rural life that you do not look at. The food production landscape, the farm, the harvest and storage, the household and the market are all in the mix. Endless stories and endless insights!

The story from Gambella, Majang, is different and that will come later. First I want to focus on Bale and Telecho, which are almost similar, even though there are some differences. What shocked me was:

  • The farmers that I talked to are very supportive of well-managed eucalyptus woodlots, as a necessity for their energy and cash requirements. They say that the few remaining indigenous patches of forest would have gone a long time ago if it was not for fast-growing trees like eucalyptus. As discussion on farm materials revealed, farmers are also using it for a range of farm materials as the indigenous tree alternatives are largely gone or are protected. There is a fierce debate in Ethiopia among foresters about eucalyptus. Some say it is a necessity if it is well managed and others saying it should be banned as it destroys the ecosystem by draining water, the roots exposing the land for erosion and the leafs and polluting making other growth impossible. What is shocking is the extent of its spread. Increasing areas of farmland are being converted into eucalyptus plantations. It has accelerated significantly in the last 5 years. As more and more people are leaving rural areas and as the remaining population is aging, previous farm lands are being converted to eucalyptus plantations.  The price of eucalyptus timber is increasing every year so it is a very attractive plant. Farmers who own bigger areas of land and are tired of fighting with those who rent it and therefore are increasingly opting for eucalyptus. There are also cases where fathers divide family land amongst the children who are already living in urban areas.  The children then plant eucalyptus on the land given to them by their fathers. The problem is much more serious in Bale. I was working at the Meo Kebele, which is a big area for a Kebele, where over 32 rivers and streams start from the mountains. One of them is a big river used as a source of drinking water for the Robe town, estimated to have a population of around 200,000. What is going to happen to this water source and to the food sovereignty of the people in the Kebele and beyond when the coverage of eucalyptus reaches a point of no return and the eucalyptus sucking the water out of ground and letting it transpire?

Spread of eucalyptus

  • But what shocked me most was the widespread use of agrochemicals, especially pesticides (pesticide is a common name for fungicide, insecticide and herbicide) and the kind of chemicals that they are using. They have even started using Round Up in Telecho, a chemical WHO says may cause cancer and leads to a host of other problems. They also us 2-4D, part of a chemical commonly known as Agent Orange. Agent orange was used by the US Military to kill trees and food crops so that the Vietnamese soldiers would not have a place to hide nor food to eat. Years after the end of the war, there are still people suffering from birth defects, tumors, rashes, psychological illnesses and a host of other diseases. This use of pesticides is changing the relationship of the people with their land. They have now stopped weeding by hand and even those who still weed by hand are beginning to go the chemical route. Well, one could say that so much the better as farming can be a back breaker especially for women. A big part of the problem, though, is that they have little idea about the chemicals that they use. This is not limited to the farmers alone. The extension agents also have limited knowledge about the impact of the pesticides. They have a vague idea that it should only be used when it is necessary. The farmers also use different kind of pesticides. The sad part is, according to farmers, conventional seeds get less productive after the first generation and are more susceptible to pests. So the farmers have to drench their crops with chemicals to get the production that they desire. Someone told me in Bale that this year, they have sprayed their wheat four times. The farmers also told me that even their domestic animals are refusing to eat the remaining straw left after harvest because of the smell coming from the chemicals. Furthermore, the farmers and their families do not wear any protective clothing. So many stories including how a person lost his sight after exposed directly to chemicals and illness increasing. This exacerbates their danger. So my friends, this is becoming the reality and if they continue going in this direction, they will enter into that vicious cycle and trap where they can only produce if they spray more and more chemicals and this affecting both their health and the environment.

 

  • Communal grazing lands are fast disappearing. In Bale, they are being divided amongst landless youth. Even some of the wetlands are being converted to agricultural lands. Bale is quite famous for its cattle and their products. The conversion of grazing land to agricultural land will hugely affect peoples’ nutrition and also survival options. Some groups of youths are planting potatoes on the grazing land that they are given but some are preparing it for the plantation of eucalyptus, further adding to the spread of this tree.

 

  • In the past I have been praising the government for organizing countrywide Soil and Water Conservation campaigns. They seem to be working quite well. I have seen with my own eyes rehabilitated lands and even thriving wild life. What shocked me this time is the extent of damage that I have witnessed to the Soil and Water Conservation structures in Telecho and Meo. Except for those on treated gullies, which are already covered by soil and on which a strip of vegetation can be seen, the majority of the soil and water conservation structures in both Telecho and in Bale have been destroyed. I was devastated to be honest as we, as MELCA, have invested a lot in these operations. The farmers previously looked so enthusiastic about them and told us how, after the structures were built, some of the springs and streams came back and how productivity increased. Well I know that they could have been honest and due to different factors their value might have changed. The reality is quite complex. Apparently an increasing number of farms are managed by those who do not have land but rent it from those who have. They do not feel as obliged or interested to maintain these SWC structures. Even the owners want these pieces of land for production and turn their back when the structures are destroyed. There is no one to enforce the regulations, which were apparently produced to protect these structures. The end result is continuous land degradation. Here, it is not a question of awareness. The farmers will tell you in some detail about what degrades soil and what happens when soil is degraded and what to do to protect it. I still laugh when people talk about teaching farmers the value of building SWC on their land. Why are they apparently not so keen in rehabilitating their land while they know its benefits? What have we missed? There is a pile of literature about this issue of farmers destroying the SWC structures that they have built but how have those litratures informed our actions? Endless campaigns and loss of both human power and other resources and yet we are back to square one. Why? I have no answer my friends.

 

  • Another story is around seeds. The majority of farmers now depend for their next season’s planting on the seeds that they get from seed suppliers, mainly government in our case. The seeds from the suppliers respond to artificial fertilizers so the majority of farmers use these artificial fertilizers – mainly Urea and DAP. Even though the government has plans every year for the application of compost in farmers’ fields, it is poorly implemented. The sad fact is that conventional seeds are substituting farmers’ varieties so much so that farmers tell you that some varieties are already lost. You still find some families keeping their variety but they are being lost at a rapid rate. I had a very revealing discussion at Bale with farmers. I was talking to a group of men and women and I asked them about their seeds. One of the elders said ‘we are now using the seeds that we get from the suppliers. This is partly because our women prefer the new seeds.’ The women in the group exploded in anger in unison and said ‘who said so? You are forcing it on us. When one of you get new seeds, you share them amongst yourselves. You never ask us about what to plant. We prefer our seeds. We know how to cook them and our children and livestock prefer them.’ The men just laughed, that laugh that you do when you have nothing to say. I think it makes huge sense to work with women to conserve farmers’ varieties. What complicates the issue is that every farmer and every government worker agrees with you that it is critical that we keep our seeds. But why then is it not done? The Ethiopian government has both the institution and the expertise and the will to protect the seeds but it is this food production in great quantity taking precedence that is competing with the need to protect our seeds. Do they have to compete? No! There are experiences where you can still increase productivity, based on using farmers’ seed varieties, but the leading narrative of ‘only use of conventional seeds increases productivity’ will not allow it to succeed.

 

  • The situation in Majang is quite different. Culturally, they used to practice shifting cultivation. They would clear a forest, burn it, plant for three years and move to another area. I think experiences and longer time research in other areas have demonstrated that this could be great for biodiversity. What they do now is they clear a forest, burn it, including the trees that they have chopped, plant their maize and, while this farm is being used go to a second area and do the same. They have in effect two agricultural lands. They plant for three years in one of them and go to the other land when the first one gets tired. Then they plant for three years on the new area. After three years, they go back to the old area and burn all the plants that have grown and farm it for three years and switch to the other one after three years. No practice of any kind of inputs, whether organic or inorganic. They plant mainly maize and sorghum. The men doing the clearing and burning and planting while the women doing the harvesting and transporting back home. This is at least the case in the remote part of the Mangashi Wereda, Magang Zone, Gambela Region. There are an increasing number of settler communities who farm mainly coffee. The locals do not have a practice of planting coffee. As the number of settlers has exploded, a bloody conflict has ensued which has claimed a lot of lives. There is less appetite now to accept settlers and the number of Majang populations is exploding. You see hundreds of children when you drive through the villages. The locals also collect honey from their Jang forest. Jang is a special area in the forest where they hang their beehives. Nor all forest areas are suitable for honey production for various reasons and these special areas are highly coveted. There is an intricate way of managing the Jang traditionally. They also hunt and collect wild animals, edible root crops and fruits from the forest. What is particularly fascinating are their household gardens. I counted 18 varieties of fruits trees, root crops and herbs in one household compound. A true agroecological way of managing their garden.  The big threat here is the exploding population and poor governance. I participated in the inauguration of new administrative buildings where a lot of people and government officials were present. According to the speech from the head of the Wereda, the plan by the government is to move in the direction of productivity. The same strategy as promoted in Telecho and Bale. The narrative is the same – more production. Fortunately, the area is going to be registered as a Biosphere Reserve and one obligation by the government is to promote sustainable agriculture in the area. This can serve as a policy directive by the local actors.

On the positive side, farmers in Telecho and Bale told me that they have started saving. They are now much more conscious about how they spend their money. The number of people drinking alcohol in day time has decreased in Telecho. There were some, according to farmers, who come to farmer’s meetings drunk with Araki. That has decreased significantly. Although there are a lot of education to give and policy changes or implementation to be made, the right of women has significantly improved. Women get half of the land when they get divorced and also have tile rights equal to their husband. There are institutions at the government level addressing women issue. But again there is a lot to be done. Infrastructure is improving. Almost all farmers have mobile phones and use less labor in transporting their goods. They have started using solar energy for lighting. Almost all children go to school now, although there is are issues around the quality of education and whether the knowledge of their parents is integrated in to the school system.

When I told them about my concern about the chemicals, the Bale community requested me to come back and tell them more about the effects of the chemicals that they are using. I found also the government agriculture bureaus quite open for discussion and they were actually shocked when they learnt about the impact of some of the chemicals, mainly roundup/ glyphosate. This all tells me the need to involve all actors in finding a solution to what is happening. There is still a possibility of reversing some of the damage that is taking place and also taking a better path. Use of pesticides to this extent is quite new and there are experiences in Ethiopia where it is possible to deal with pesticides through a strategy called Integrated Pest Management.

My friends, this trip made it starkly clear to me that, if you really want to avoid almost all of the disasters that are coming your way and implement the sustainable development goals, you have to address agriculture. High input or industrial agriculture is changing rural landscapes, nutrition, health and culture in a fundamental way. If we have more than 80% of our population engaging in agriculture and managing it in the right way, it will solve so many other social and ecological problems. But it is complex due mainly to the kind of model of development that is being touted as the best by those with interest in getting benefits out it. Moving into using herbicides is a huge market opportunity for the industry. I think the main part of the struggle is to defeat the narrative which puts farm productivity above health, nutritional, environmental and economic interests and which recommends the use of agrochemicals and hybrid seeds and a range of farm management as the ultimate solution. I feel that this is a story across Africa and we need to substitute this narrative with ours based on experiences of farmers and cutting edge science. That is what AFSA, working closely with other allies, has tried to do in November last year at with its meeting called ‘Changing Food Systems in Africa: agroecology, food sovereignty, nutrition and health’. The summary of the agreement of the meeting is ‘we can increase food production while considering nutrition, health, farmers’ rights and environmental sustainability through agroecological means.’ Please find the declaration on and the way forward on http://afsafrica.org/addis-ababa-declaration-on-agroecology-ecological-organic-agriculture-and-food-sovereignty-the-way-forward-for-nutrition-and-health-in-africa/ and http://afsafrica.org/moving-forward-strategically-towards-sustainable-just-and-nutritious-foodsystemsin-africa/

Cheers,

Million

NB

The UN has produced a damning report today about the use of pesticide which basically details its impact and concludes that we do not need them to increase productivity. There are other safe and healthy ways to produce food. Please read this exciting report at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/07/un-experts-denounce-myth-pesticides-are-necessary-to-feed-the-world

2018-07-04T08:42:10+00:00

One Comment

  1. Thomas Macintyre May 31, 2017 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much Million for sharing these thoughts and reflections. It is indeed disturbing what we encounter when we leave the city and experience the realities of how most food in the world is produced. And how complicated the situation is: no easy answers. However, I feel you said it well in that there is a massive need to “defeat the narrative which puts farm productivity above health, nutritional, environmental and economic interests”. This is what (transgressive) learning is all about – changing the story towards one where people live together with nature, understanding her cycles, and finding happiness in the simple things of life. How to do this? One way is through EXAMPLES of people and communities who are doing this – who can act as reference points for the rest of us trying to move in a new direction.

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