By Joel Cooper
If Adem Harum needs a reminder of the problems caused by overgrazing, he simply has to look at his cattle.
'Their bodies are emaciated,' he says. 'They are very weak because they do not have enough to eat.'
In a land where cattle are both a status symbol and a vital source of food and income, the dried up pasture and failing health of his herd are stark illustrations of his own declining fortunes.
'Years ago we had enough grass. But now the human and animal population has increased and there’s not enough pasture here.'
Adem, 41, is a herdsman living in Bale, a part of Ethiopia blessed with great natural beauty but vulnerable to damage caused by over-farming – a situation which could potentially get worse as the climate continues to change in response to excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
He remembers a time when there was plentiful food for his livestock in the rangeland surrounding his village, but now he reflects: “I can say the rangeland resources here are completely depleted.”
The once-verdant pasture is now dusty and brown. Deep gulleys tear through the cracked earth.
As the dry season starts in December every year, Adem's 17-year-old son Ahmed has to round up the family's livestock and set off on a 30km trek into the forest in the Bale highlands in search of fresh pastures.
'It takes me and my friends three days to reach the highland,' says Ahmed. 'Usually we are tired when we arrive and fall asleep. Our cattle will go to the very inside part of the forest to get their food and will sometimes be eaten by wild animals like lions and hyenas.'
Camping for three months in the damp woodland, with no doctor for miles, Ahmed is at constant risk of falling ill. And the long periods away from home meant he had to give up his education at the age of just 14.
'I feel sad when Ahmed goes to the forest,' says his mother Sadia. 'I want to see him in school.'
To make things worse, by relying on the lush mountain forests to feed their cattle, goats and camels, the family risks contributing to deforestation, which also fuels the soil erosion that is slowly reducing the flow of water down to their grassland in the lowlands.
'Before, there was enough grass and even trees that the camels could eat,' says Sadia. 'But now it’s all gone. We used to have enough milk for the family but now we only get a little from our cows. Sometimes we have problems fulfilling our food requirements.'
What families like Sadia's need is to find ways to manage their land so it is not destroyed by grazing and they do not have to constantly uproot themselves to the mountains.
This is where Farm Africa comes in. With support from the European Union’s Supporting Horn of Africa Resilience (SHARE) initiative, we’re working with farmers in Bale to test new ways to boost their incomes from farming, while protecting their local environment.
In the lowlands this can involve promoting techniques such as rotational grazing, which gives the land a chance to recover so there is always fresh grass – meaning healthier cattle – and introducing more productive breeds of cattle so pastoralists can reduce the size of their herd while still increasing their earnings.
By staying in the lowlands all year round, rather than relocating to the highlands, farmers have more opportunities to grow crops and further improve their earnings. Most importantly, their children can stay in education.
For Sadia, who did not go to school herself, this is a burning ambition. 'If my income grew, I would like to move to the town and live there with my children so they can get a better education,' she says. 'I want my children to have more opportunities than I did.'