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Conservation practices made worthwhile

©IFAD/Wairimu Mburathi

Abrehan Girmaye shows the onions he has grown on his 0.5 hectare irrigated field in the PASIDP supported irrigation scheme in Hiyana District, Tigray region.

Deep ravines and gullies gutting into hillsides define the rolling valleys within the Lake Tana watershed. Soil erosion is a widespread primary factor degrading fertile lands within Ethiopia, causing an estimated loss of two billion tons of fertile soils, and reducing the agricultural GDP but 2.3% a year1.

To remedy this problem as well as introduce measures to mitigate the effect of Climate Change, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Ethiopian Government have put in place the Community Based Integrated Natural Resources Management Project to combat land degradation. The project is being implemented in 27 woredas, or administrative districts, of the Lake Tana Watershed, the area drained by Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, and connected rivers.  This seven-year Project which started in March 2010, is bringing a total investment of 25.4 million US$ in the region, of which IFAD is contributing 13 million and the Global Environment Facility, 4.4 million.

The Project tackles the root causes of land degradation in the Lake Tana region by introducing sustainable land management practices in watersheds that experience an average soil loss of 30-50 ton per hectare a year2; It is a slow process as it takes years for enough organic matter to build up for soils and plant species to reoccur in severely degraded lands. The conservation efforts under the project focus on convincing communities to allocate and respect no-grazing and no-tillage protected areas, developing their interests in conservation activities through regional learning exchanges and trainings. In addition, cash crops are used to create common Funds to drive conservation practices.

Empowering women to have a stake in conservation

Through learning exchanges with communities that have successfully rehabilitated severely degraded lands in the Tigray region in the North of Ethiopia, communities have been able to view the positive impacts of conservation activities. After the exchange, their perception of conservation activities has changed. Members are enthusiastic to share their newly gained knowledge and mobilize people in their own Kebele (local district) through a Watershed management committee to devise an action plan, and undertake sustainable land management practices.

Three dynamic women, all members of the Mekakoria watershed committee, gave us an account of their amplified engagement in the watershed committee as they strive to empower women and young people to partake in conservation efforts.

Although women were eager to contribute to conservation efforts during community development days, a majority were requested to stay at home to take care of household tasks, thus women's initial involvement in activities was low. Their representation and input to the watershed committee decision-making processes was limited. This was disadvantageous as women drive decisions within the household. For example, they are key stakeholders determining weather they will collect wood from forests to make charcoal for their household energy needs.

When Yeshifana Amhara's husband, himself a committee member, returned from a learning exchange in Tigray, he was convinced of the benefits of integrated watershed management activities. He also witnessed the women's dynamic participation in Tigray and encouraged his wife, Yeshifana, to vie for a position on the Board. She is now amongst the 16 women who are actively participating in the committee of 20 community members.

Yeshifana Amhara shared why she decided to encourage women's participation in the committee's activities: "After attending gender sensitization trainings from the Division for Women and Youth affairs, we became aware of our rights and our entitlement to contribute to the community decision-making process. This inspired us to mobilize women and young people to be more involved in the watershed community," she explained. "We hope to protect the dam in our Kebele from siltation, and to develop the soil fertility and the biodiversity of our watershed in the hope that our children will continue to benefit from our conservation efforts in the future."

Women now almost equally participate in soil and watershed conservation activities as 220 men and 200 women have registered to participate in organized activities. The watershed committee has also provided a platform for farmers to organize themselves to become members of a Savings and Credit Union (SACCO) to access loans to invest in developing their farm. Currently, 80 people in the watershed community are also members of the SACCO. Each member contributes a minimum of 20 Birr (about US$1) a month and with 3,486 registered members, the SACCO is able to mobilize a minimum saving of 836,640 Birr (US$45,223) a year.

Forest Conservation reaping profits

To rehabilitate Bukaya Sheleko a community forest in a Kebelle close to Gondar town, 70 households have been engaged to plant Eucalyptus and preserve 58 hectares of forests within the watershed. The project trained community members to propagate and maintain a Eucalyptus tree nursery, to plant seedlings, reviving the forest, which had virtual become barren grassland as a volume of trees had been cut down for charcoal and firewood.

Harvested Eucalyptus is sold on the market and proceeds are saved in a community Fund. This year a community school is being built with the Fund, and in the future they hope to build a health centre. As there are direct benefits generated from conservation practices, community members are eager to dedicate their labour and time to build the nurseries, plant tress and voluntarily guard the protected forest area; ensuring that no one encroaches the forest to farm, grazes their livestock or collects wood for fire or charcoal in the area

By the end of the seven year project, 1,040 hectares of degraded lands will be revived by planting suitable tree species and1,293 of community forests will be protected to revitalize watersheds in 27 woredas within the Lake Tana Basin.  Engaging people in forest and watershed committee's has created synergies to enhance collective action for conservation efforts. These committees strengthen the community's social capital, creating an opportunity for social network to enable groups to request public services and pool together their resources as a cooperative/SACCO so that they may access financial services to invest in economic opportunities, improving their livelihoods and welfare.