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A gulch in the sandy soil of Shello Ilancho plunges to a bed of rocks that boil up from the eroded earth. Deeper still, in cracks just wide enough for a boy to squeeze, pools of water catch the light. They’re glassy on this hot and sunny afternoon, but when the skies open and rainwater streams from the highlands to the east, they’ll churn with the precious topsoil washed from above.
The gulch yawns wide—100 yards across, maybe—and winds out of sight, carving this farming and herding community in the Siraro District of Ethiopia’s West Arsi Zone in two and reminding all who peer over its edge of the consequences of deforestation and unchecked land use.
Balancing the needs of the people of Siraro with the need to protect the fragile environment on which they depend is at the heart of an emergency program that was underway in August in this impoverished region of the country. Watch a video about the project.
Drought has plagued West Arsi, bringing hardship and hunger to farmers trying to grow crops and to herders searching for pasture for their animals. And conflict between two local ethnic groups—the Guji and the Sidama--compounded the trouble, forcing more than 40,000 people from their homes last year and the year before. Many of them are still living in makeshift huts of grass and leaves covered with fraying blue tarps.
Together with its local partner, Center for Development Initiatives, or CDI, Oxfam has been helping 1,645 families with a three-month cash-for-work program that’s not only allowing them to buy the food they need now, but initiating some environmental restoration that may improve their resilience in the future. The project includes planting 200,000 tree seedlings—among them fruit trees for backyards--digging four traditional ponds for livestock, the construction of 30 acres of terracing on degraded lands, and maintenance of 80 kilometers of rural roads.
In exchange for their work on these initiatives, families receive 250 birr a month—about $15.30—which they can put toward food or invest in other essentials, such as rebuilding homes lost to conflict or expanding herds that have shrunk as a consequence of a lack of veterinary care and recurring drought. Along with the cash-for-work, the CDI-Oxfam emergency response in West Arsi includes the training of 50 animal health workers for the area and the treatment of 125,000 heads of livestock belonging to 31,000 families.
As serious as conflict is, the degradation of the environment may pose a challenge of even greater severity for Siraro and solving the problems it triggers could take many years—as many, perhaps, as it took for them to mount.
From cow path to gulch
Ganute Kampiso stands in a sliver of shade cast by the wall of a building near the gulch in Shello Ilancho. Shade has become harder to find in the 90 years he has lived here. The trees that once crowded the landscape are nearly all gone—save for a few beauties with broad canopies and fat trunks that punctuate the distance.
When he was a boy, Kampiso says, forests and grazing land stretched across this region, providing a hospitable environment for the many elephants that lived here also. No one had to worry about tumbling into gulches: There were none then.
But as a young man, he began to notice changes. The population started to grow. People were cutting trees to clear land for small farms. They needed the wood for houses and fences. Sometimes, during extended dry periods, they would hack whole branches from the trees to feed the leaves to their livestock. And along the path the cattle took to a nearby river, water started to rush when it rained, widening the route.
That route is now the gulch that carves up Shello Ilancho, many times wider and deeper than the cow path of decades ago. Along with the erosion, says Kampiso, has come another worrying change: the rainy season doesn’t arrive when expected, and it’s shorter than it used to be.
“The natural endowment of the past was better than it is now,” Kampiso says. “As you see, there is no forest, the fertility of the soil is decreased—we are in a problem.”
The answer, he says, is in working to restore what’s been lost by planting trees, by closing off degraded areas to give them a chance to recover, by digging terraces to prevent the water from rushing away and taking topsoil with it—all steps Oxfam and CDI are now promoting among villagers through the cash-for-work program.
A hillside in Shello Abore
Men, women, kids—it looks like an entire village of people—stream toward a hillside in Shello Abore carrying hoes and saplings. In the distance, more hills, as steep and almost as barren, march toward the horizon.
Amid shouts and laughter, a sea of saplings—eucalyptus, acacia, cypress-- soon stand straight, each one planted in a small pit that can pool and hold whatever rain may fall. Shooting up between the pits are sturdy grasses. They weren’t here a year ago, says Tamrat Belay, a CDI program officer working on this project. But since the community started prohibiting animals from grazing here, the grass has had a chance to come back—and he has high hopes for the seedlings, too.
“You will see the changes in a few years. For sure in three to four years you will forget this was barren,” says Belay. “Sometimes, in the middle of having nothing, hope breaks through and that keeps you going. That is true for the environment.”
Part of the plan is to organize the village women into groups that will be responsible for caring for the seedlings and will benefit, along with their families, from their use in the future when they have matured into trees that can be selectively harvested.
“Women are experts in household management,” says Belay, explaining why they will be the beneficiaries of the trees. “If they have access to economic resources, the children will grow better.”
As Abarash Dongoro hikes the dirt road back to her village, she pauses for a moment to scan the hillside of seedlings and think about what’s ahead. She’s a mother of a three-year-old child with a second one on the way.
What does she see?
A plantation, she says, full of trees that will help not only her children but the whole community.