With a crucifix dangling around her neck and a big smile on her chocolate face, the middle-aged lady from Abrha Weatsbha community in northern Ethiopia clasped a big green mango that she had just plucked from a mango tree in her farm. Her brown eyes gazed across her farm as she shook her head in disbelief. The farm was part of 224,000 acres that had once been barren and unproductive but was now awash with fruit trees, indigenous trees, crops and vegetables.
Less than two decades earlier, a dry carpet covered the landscape, stifling agricultural growth and providing a perfect terrain for flash floods. Ironically, these floods implied an overabundance of water yet ground water reserves were failing to refill, thanks to the dry, dry, dry land. Adding insult to injury, the floods often left giant gullies in their trail and destabilized farmlands even more.
This spelt doom for the little children playing catch-me-if-you-can in the land. Because their parents’ livelihoods were severely compromised, the future was bleak. Hunger often caught up with them, robbing them of their human right to healthy food.
How can you plant anything in such dry land? Any crops that they dared to plant withered, as did their thirsty livestock. As a result, the community became perennial recipients of relief food for many years. By the time those playing children reached their mid and late teens, relief was still the order of the day.
Beneath the dry land, there was no oil to attract a stampede of investors. Even the relief efforts were just a trickle since relief is ultimately unsustainable in the long run. After living in this vulnerable state for years, the local community gradually began to turn the tide.
They wanted to reclaim their land, their dignity, brighter futures for their children, a beautiful landscape, guaranteed food and agricultural revenue. Though many of them may never have heard of her, they began to heed the words of the Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai that, ‘it’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make a difference. My little thing is planting trees.’
The Abrha Weatsbha community planted tree after tree on acre after acre. They turned disaster into a blessing when they transformed the vast gullies into natural storage tanks for water. The gullies became dams that could power irrigation and drive agriculture forward.
Priests from a historic ancient church in the area became enthusiasts of the conservation and reclamation work that was going on. They knew that humans are God-appointed stewards of nature; hence what the people were doing was also spiritual. Such widespread local support ensured full ownership of the greening efforts.
A restored and vibrant ecosystem often has rich rewards. It is like a dormant, penniless account finally becoming active with regular, reliable and incremental revenue.
‘I am even planting coffee on my farm!’ exclaims a middle-aged man happily.
Although Ethiopian coffee is traditionally planted in the western region, some Abrha Weatsbha farmers have joined the coffee party and are now planting coffee, albeit at a much smaller scale.
Irrigated land under vegetable production doubled within three years from 32 to 68 hectares. This resulted in more vegetables on the family table and in the market stalls. By 2010, farmers were making $93,750 from the sale of vegetables and spices. Just four years earlier in 2007, similar farm products were earning them $32,500. This exponential growth was a direct result of the dramatic transition from grey to green.
Green has also resulted in sweet – literally, with honey production gradually taking root. Just like vegetables, honey production grew threefold within three years, from 13 to 31 tons.
This growth of apiculture was a deliberate strategy of revenue diversification. The idea was for local people to earn from vegetables, fruits, coffee, honey and many other products that could thrive in the newly green and fertile land.
However, this change of fortune has not come easy. The resilient people of Abrha Weatsbha have had to sweat it out and toil long hours in the hot sun. Women have been at the centre of it all, working long hours and reaping handsome dividends.
Abrha Weatsbha is relatively close to the Eritrean border, a proximity that hurt it dearly during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998 to 2000. Thousands lost their lives, amongst them husbands of many women in Abrha Weatsbha. For these women, reclaiming farmland and multiplying its productivity through environmentally sound technologies has changed their lives. They are finally controlling the size and frequency of their revenue.
The women proved that they may be victims of war and climate change fuelled land degradation, but they are also victors in their own right. They have faced great adversities and emerged victorious.
The wider Tigray region that Abrha Weatsbha is part of is known for its rich cuisine. Women are the custodians and propagators of this cuisine. Their power and influence in the cuisine arena now goes beyond the kitchen stove to the market place. They are already making culinary products like sugar free biscuits from sorghum.
The incredible efforts of the resilient community won it the prestigious Equator prize in 2012. Such global recognition reminds the world what is possible when people, however disadvantaged, team up with strategic partners to better their lives. At the heart of these partnerships is a replenished environment that can constantly refuel a green economy.
The never-say-die men and women of Abrha Weatsbha have essentially birthed and nurtured their green miracle. With their resilient spirit, the ‘miracle’ can only get stronger with each passing day.
In the words of Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, the Canadian Rock Group, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet!’
The people of Abrha Weatsbha have more green surprises and products in store.