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Conserving ecosystems and boosting livelihoods in the Bale Mountains

07 July 2023

Conserving ecosystems and boosting livelihoods in the Bale Mountains

By Dan Collison, Chief Executive, Farm Africa

I’ve just returned from visiting Farm Africa’s work in the Bale Eco-region – a unique forest and mountain habitat in the Oromia region of southern Ethiopia. The view of the region from the top of Ethiopia’s second highest mountain (Tullu Dimtu, 4377m) is breath-taking (literally, at half the height of Everest the air is rather thin!).

Farm Africa’s work with our partners in Bale has recently been given a rare honour – recognized by the umbrella NGO coordination body in Ethiopia as the Number One Good Practice project in the country. I was very impressed and proud to be able to see some of this work first hand last week.

The long drought that has devastated so much of eastern Africa over the past three years has continued deep into 2023. In some areas however, including in Bale, rains have finally arrived and the May to June rainy season has sparked the beginnings of a recovery.

The drought has underlined the importance of water management in agriculture and pastoralism. Under drier conditions, preserving the water resources that do exist becomes an essential component of climate-smart agriculture, and the Bale Eco-region is a powerful example of this.

An ecological hotspot under pressure

The Harena forest, which stretches across the region and is one of Ethiopia’s last remaining old growth forests, is a crucial watershed and carbon sink for the region.

Around 1.6 million people rely on the grassland, forest and agricultural potential of the region for their livelihoods, and beyond this 30 million people in downstream communities depend on the great river systems that run out from the region into southern Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya for water and irrigation – especially during drought periods.

So the health of the forest, and the surrounding eco zones of grassland, high plateau and farmland, is of critical importance to millions of livelihoods.

But it’s under pressure from farmers, herders and commercial interests who seek new land to expand the agricultural frontier.

This is where the incredible power of integrated landscape management comes into play.

Protecting people and planet

As part of our large landscape management project funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid, Farm Africa and our partners support farmers to increase productivity on their existing land and diversify their livelihoods instead of converting more of the natural environment to farmland.

It’s an “all in” approach to community development that increases household incomes and reinforces communities’ incentives to protect and restore the forest and grassland habitats.

For example, harvesting and selling forest and semi-forest coffee – much of it bound for international markets - generates more income for local cooperatives than clearing trees for agriculture.

Climate-smart agriculture approaches such as vermiculture (using worms to produce rich organic compost), growing improved varieties of banana and potato, and using small-scale irrigation dramatically increase production on existing land.

And improved grass varieties not only regenerate grassland and soil health, they support healthier and more productive cows, reducing the need to graze animals in the fragile forest environment.

I was particularly interested to see the worms at work. Low tech vermi-composting beds are layered with animal manure, green mangos and other vegetation – and within two weeks the thousands of worms in each bed can produce 100 kg of top-quality organic compost that supercharges production.

Access to finance

Alongside this, access to credit and productive assets dramatically increases women’s economic independence and ability to earn money from a variety of small businesses. Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) are a powerful vehicle for increasing women’s access to finance.

I was really struck by the remarkable returns that can result from the smallest of investments. In Melkem village I met a VSLA member called Shamsia. She had borrowed 1,500 Ethiopian Birr (around £20) from the VSLA to pay someone to plough and prepare her land. She planted mung beans, and had a bumper harvest that she sold for 30,000 Birr (around £430).

She used that money to buy a motorbike for her son, which he now uses to transport goods and people around the district, bringing in 5,000 Birr (£72) each week to the family. This incredible return on the original loan again reduces the economic need for the family to expand farmland.

A sustainable future

It all adds up – each component of this multi-layered approach increases farmers’ incomes and resilience, while at the same time reducing pressure on the surrounding natural environment.

And that means reduced deforestation, increased carbon capture, and a healthy biosphere that manages watershed runoff and protects the region’s unique biodiversity.