Thursday, 10 April 2014

Regreening in Tigray, Ethiopia - ARI Update 1 - 2014

Picture 1 An agroforestry parkland in Tigray on the road between Abr’ha Weatsbeha and Hawzen. It is dominated by a mix of Faidherbia albida and Acacia nilotica

This re-greening update has a focus on the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia. I had the pleasure to re-visit the Region after an absence of four years. It allowed me to look with a fresh mind at what has been achieved in Tigray in restoring degraded land to production.  Many people outside Ethiopia somehow continue to associate Ethiopia in general and possibly Tigray in particular, with the shocking pictures which were made in a famine relief camp in Korem in 1984/85. These pictures  triggered Bob Geldof into organizing his Live Aid concerts for Ethiopia in July 1985.  If one would now ask someone in Europe or the USA how he or she perceives Ethiopia, there’s a fair chance that the answer will be something like “a poor country where many people are starving”. It is true that life for many smallholder farmers continues to be precarious, but it is also true that Ethiopia is an economic tiger with high growth rates.  Ethiopia has invested significantly in restoring degraded lands to production and Tigray has set an example.  
The restoration/re-greening achievements of Tigray (Ethiopia)
Let me start with presenting some conclusions and then show some images.
The scale of restoration of degraded land in Tigray is unique in Africa and possibly even unmatched by anything achieved elsewhere in the world. I’ve visited 27 countries in Africa and several on other continents, but I’ve never seen recent restoration at the scale at which this has been done in Tigray.
   To put it in other words….the people of Tigray may have moved more earth and stone during the last 20 years to reshape the surface of their land than the Egyptians during thousands of years to build the pyramids.  In the early 1990s every able-bodied villager in Tigray had to contribute three months of voluntary labor to dig infiltration pits or to construct terraces, bunds and other conservation works. This was reduced later to 40 days/year and currently it is 20 days/year.
   The large-scale restoration on China’s Loess Plateau is a well-known success story. However, the Loess Plateau has deep and very fertile soils, which are relatively easy to shape.  The conditions for restoration in Tigray are much more difficult than on the Loess Plateau. In particular on the steep slopes, the soils are often shallow and poor in fertility.  This puts what Tigray has achieved in a different perspective.
  The scale of restoration activities is not well known. There are estimates, but they are probably overlapping for different techniques. Nevertheless, about 80% of all cultivated land in East and Central Tigray is treated with one or more soil and water conservation techniques.  Several hundred thousand hectares are under so-called exclosures. These are degraded areas in which no cutting and grazing is permitted. This allows the natural regeneration of vegetation. Besides this tens of thousands of kilometers of rock bunds and terraces have been constructed along (often on steep) slopes.
  The policy of the Government of Ethiopia is to plant 100 million Faidherbia albida trees to improve soil fertility.  In several parts of Tigray, Faidherbia albida is found on cultivated land and in some places it is regenerating. Considering the rainfall, soils, land use and other characteristics of the landscapes in Tigray, this Region alone may be able to add 100 million Faidherbia trees through the protection and management of natural regeneration of this species.     
   Because rainfall now infiltrates on the slopes, groundwater in the valleys is recharged. Hundreds of shallow wells have been dug, which allow farm families to irrigate vegetables during the dry season and to grow fruit trees. This means that if crops fail due to bad rainfall, a growing number of families can fall back on irrigation during the dry season.  This option did not exist before they began to conserve soil and water.
   Because of the large-scale investments by local communities and their development partners  in restoration of degraded land, many smallholder farm families are now more food secure than they used to be.
    All the investments in landscape restoration have helped farmers adapt to climate change. They are better able to cope with extreme weather conditions than was the case in the past.
   Much has been achieved, but is everything perfect? The answer is simple…no, it is not. The vegetation which regenerates in area closures is protected, but not sustainably managed and exploited by the village communities. It seems that protection still prevails, even though most policy makers are aware of the need to increase benefits for communities. If natural regeneration would be thinned and pruned, the environmental and economic benefits local communities would increase. This is vital for the longer-term sustainability of what has been achieved during the last 20 years. 
   Further improving the Tigray model of restoration of important, because another key target of the Government of Ethiopia is to restore 15 million ha of degraded land in the country. This is a hugely ambitious target, which will not be easy to achieve. It will require more knowledge of restoration practices in other Regions of Ethiopia. What works where and why and what is the potential for scaling these practices? It will also require significant capacity building as well as additional funding.  

Some images  illustrating restoration achievements in Tigray
Mark Dodd, UK documentary maker, (known for the production of “The man who stopped the desert”  ) joined the visit to Tigray to explore opportunities for making a documentary about the transformation of environment and livelihoods during the last 20 years. Below you’ll find a link to a 90 second trailer, which he put on you tube within  48 hours upon his return in the UK.  I know the region, joined the filming and was surprised and moved by this trailer.


Picture 2 shows the road between Wukro and Abr’ha Weatsbaha.  This land was barren about 15 years ago.

Picture 3  shows a mountain region just outside Adwa on the road to Adigrat.  It’s not clearly visible on this picture, but infiltration pits have been dug systematically along the contours on the steep slopes.

Picture 4 is a typical image taken in the area between Hawzen and Zongi.
Picture 5   is taken in Mugulat on the road between Adwa and Hawzen.  It shows terracing constructed on less steep slopes.  It does not show well the re-greening of the slopes in the distance and the fact that we are standing with our back to a significant stand of young Juniper trees.
Picture 6 shows a valley with dry season cultivation of maize.  Look at the re-vegetated slopes.

Picture 7 below shows in more detail that conservation works have been constructed on all slopes.

Picture 8 shows that farmers prune Acacia etbaica on their cultivated fields. This species dominates natural regeneration in area closures where it is not managed and usually develops into a low bush.
The 90 second trailer and the 8 pictures reveal just some of the Tigray experience with restoration of degraded land.  What has been achieved in Tigray during the last 20 years is an under-reported success story that should be shared with a wider audience.

For more information about VOICES and W4RA (see ARI update 2013 no. 4), you can contact:
Anna Bon ( or Wendelien Tuijp (
Useful websites to monitor are: This is the website of World Vision Australia. It’s a great website which keeps you up-to-date about the re-greening work of Tony Rinaudo and his team. is the website of the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi that most readers will know. It is a very useful source of information.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


This was barren land in Central Niger less than 15 years ago. The use of simple water harvesting techniques restored the land to productivity.  

It has taken much longer to produce this update than predicted in update no.3, but the advantage is that we have a lot of good news to report.  There is a growing interest in restoring degraded land using a mix of proven practices, including farmer-managed re-greening.

Two major new projects with re-greening components
The Netherlands development cooperation decided in July to approve a 50 million US dollar regional project for Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Kenya and Ethiopia. This regional project wants to enhance food and water security for economic growth.  The World Agroforestry Center formulated the proposal and is responsible for its implementation. The on-the-ground work will be done mainly by non-governmental organisations.
Until now a number of proven practices have often been applied in isolation, but this project will as much as possible integrate re-greening, water harvesting and the use of small quantities of chemical fertilizers (micro dosing).

A first planning workshop was already held in Ouagadougou in August. Start-up workshops will be held in October and it is expected that activities will start soon.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is funding the REGIS-ER  project in Burkina Faso and Niger.  REGIS-ER stands for Resilience and Economic Growth in the Sahel-Enhanced Resilience. It is a 5 year and 70 million $ project, which will be implemented in Burkina Faso and in Niger. 
These two major new projects mark the beginning of increased investment in the drylands across the Sahel.  The costs of emergency aid are high. In 2012 alone the costs of humanitarian aid amounted to one billion US $.   It is less expensive to support dryland communities to build resilience to drought, which makes people less dependent on emergency aid and can significantly lower its costs. As mentioned in previous updates, during drought years the rural poor literally survive on on-farm trees. When crops fail, trees continue to produce fruit, fodder, firewood, medicines.
Follow-up to study visit by Nigerian delegation to Niger in May 2012
In May 2012, a delegation from Nigeria visited farmer-managed re-greening in Southern Niger to draw lessons for policy and practice in Northern Nigeria.  One of the participants in this study visit was a key staff member of the European Commission in Abuja and it is no coincidence that the Commission is now funding a new agroforestry project in one of the northern states. A follow up can include a visit by Dennis Garrity (World Agroforestry Centre) to the Federal Minister of Agriculture as well as a visit by farmers from Niger to Northern Nigeria to explore with their peers the major reasons behind the low on-farm tree densities in parts of that region. 

Positive developments in other regions
At the Conference of Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Windhoek (Namibia) in September Dennis Garrity mentioned that the Government of India has decided to invest hundreds of millions of US$ /year in agroforestry through the states.   
Sri Lanka is creating an Asia-Pacific Institute for Evergreen Agriculture, which will be launched in November during the Conference of Commonwealth Heads of State.
World Vision Australia has launched an excellent website on farmer-managed natural regeneration. The website provides information about re-greening activities by World Vision and it offers opportunities to download relevant publications.


Land for Life Award and Global Dryland Champions 2013
During the recent Conference of Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Windhoek (Namibia), Tony Rinaudo of World Vision Australia received a Land for Life Award for his dedication to re-greening in drylands. Tony helped catalyze the re-greening process in Niger’s Maradi region in the middle of the 1980s. Tony and World Vision Australia are now promoting re-greening in 14 countries !!
Yacouba Sawadogo and Chris Reij were both honoured with a Global Drylands Championship Award. Yacouba’s life, work and impacts feature in the documentary “The Man who stopped the desert”. His innovations in water harvesting allowed the restoration of tens of thousands of hectares of severely degraded land across parts of the West African Sahel. Besides this he has created a very diverse 23 ha forest with more than 60 species of trees and bushes on land that used to be completely barren.

The documentary will soon be shown on Kenya Airways flights.
Chris received the award for his relentless promotion of African Re-greening Initiatives.
Both Yacouba and Chris were given an opportunity to make a key note presentation at the High-Level Summit of the Conference, which was attended by about 200 people (delegation leaders of the countries represented at the Conference of Parties, Ministers of Environment, representatives of NGOs). 

From left to right: Tony Rinaudo (World Vision Australia), Mathieu Ouedraogo (Reseau MARP, Burkina Faso); Yacouba Sawadogo (“The Man Who Stopped The Desert”, Burkina Faso); Chris Reij (World Resources Institute, Washington DC) and Mahamane Larwanou (African Forest Forum, Nairobi).
Scaling up re-greening and restoration of degraded land by building on successes
Every year millions of hectares of productive land are lost due to deforestation, urbanization, overgrazing,  degradation of agricultural land and drought.   One thing is certain, we lose productive land at a rate which is much faster than the rate at which degraded land is restored to productivity.  Increasing the rate of restoration of  degraded land  will be vital for feeding  9 to 10 billion people in 2050 and for rural economic growth.    

Improving land and water management
The World Resources Institute has just published a working paper on Improving Land and Water Management. The accent in this report is on the drylands in Africa. It analyzes the impact of a number of promising land and water management practices and how they contribute to improving food security for a growing population. The techniques discussed in this paper include agroforestry, conservation agriculture, rainwater harvesting and integrated soil fertility management.  Below you’ll find a link to this paper.

For earlier updates  go to:
For more information about African Re-greening Initiatives,  you can contact:
Chris Reij (
Senior Fellow World Resources Institute
For more information about VOICES, you can contact:
Anna Bon ( or Wendelien Tuijp (