Jan Svitálek for Ekolist: Czech trees and puddles in Ethiopia

Published: Oct 15, 2023 Reading time: 12 minutes
Jan Svitálek for Ekolist: Czech trees and puddles in Ethiopia
© Photo: Jan Svitálek

It is not easy to bring arid and eroded land back to life, our consultant for natural resources and agriculture has written an article for Ekolist.cz about the challenges in this field.

We must catch every drop of rain so that it does not become a torrent of water rushing through the landscape, stripping away precious soil as it goes. Healthy landscapes are full of puddles and pools; where they have disappeared, they need to be returned. This is also the case in southern Ethiopia, where farmers value every puddle for their cattle or garden and actively increase their number. These are not just ordinary puddles, but also purpose-built pools, ditches, dams and other water-retaining features that suit the complex composition of local soils. Thousands of such 'puddles' are the result of our development projects. What does our cooperation look like in Ethiopia?

In 2003, we rented a small office in Awassa, Ethiopia, for a small team of people to help build wells and schools. Twenty years later, the Ethiopian mission has grown to a team of two hundred. Moreover, it has been fifteen years since we launched our Sustainable Livelihoods and Agriculture Program, which is dedicated mainly to reforestation and sustainable land management in communities in southern Ethiopia. Interestingly, we are bringing our experiences from Africa back to activities in the Czech Republic.

Ethiopia has enjoyed long-standing support within the framework of Czech foreign development cooperation in many sectors, such as water, sanitation, education, health or the decade-old hydrogeological exploration programmes. Food security for the population, i.e., preventing malnutrition and hunger and supporting agriculture, is a significant priority.

One of the main problems Ethiopia faces with its growing population is the overall devastation of the landscape, wrought by inappropriate farming practices.

In densely populated mountain areas of Ethiopia, the original landscape has been largely deforested, reclaimed, and drained in recent decades. The soil in the fields has also been degraded by intensive cultivation. However, it is being carried away from the mountains by the annual monsoon rains with unprecedented erosion rates from farmers to local lakes and onto Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt.

For farmers in Central Europe, this is a striking sight. Erosion furrows and gullies in Ethiopia are not measured in centimetres but in tens and hundreds of metres. And all this in locations that are among the most diverse in Africa, both in terms of landscape and biodiversity and traditional land management.

For more than half of Ethiopians, this directly threatens their livelihoods, as most of the population is still dependent on agriculture, and a large proportion live on the crops they grow.

However, degraded landscapes are also rapidly losing their ability to retain water, so the availability of surface resources is deteriorating, and the volume of water retained in the soil is decreasing. In general, springs are also declining, and water is being lost in wells that, in rural areas, provide water for agriculture, livestock, and household consumption—including drinking water.

Torrential rains, flash floods, and flooding are some of the other negative consequences of the whole situation.

Combating erosion, reforestation, and introducing widespread erosion control measures in the landscape has long been an Ethiopian priority. Tree planting, landscaping, public campaigns to dig gullies, and drainage canals are some tasks undertaken. Furthermore, hundreds of kilometres of water retention ditches and other measures have been constructed.

Any pond that keeps water in the landscape—and this is entirely without exaggeration—is good for people.

Czech aid to the Ethiopian landscape

Therefore, Czech support in this sector is one of the key pillars of cooperation. Several Czech entities, including Mendel University in Brno, Caritas, the Czech University of Agriculture in Prague, and organisations such as All for Soil and Holistic Solutions, have participated in the last ten years through competitive projects funded by the Czech Development Agency at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition to Czech entities, there are also many governmental and academic partners.

One of the main actors in the programme, which focuses on agriculture and natural resources in Ethiopia, is People in Need.

We have been involved in landscape restoration since 2008. Initially, we responded to the Ethiopian government's ongoing intensive efforts to confront deforestation problems around Lake Awassa. This lake lies next to the town of the same name in the south of the country, in the federal state of Sidama. Our support was mainly devoted to improving the availability of suitable seedlings in local forest nurseries, which were then planted in degraded areas in local villages.

Ethiopians reforest

Ethiopians are no strangers to reforestation. The latest wave of attention to the issue was raised in 2019, for example, by the new Prime Minister Ahmed Ali Abiy, whose cabinet has sponsored a nationwide initiative called Green Legacy, which, according to Ethiopian authorities, is now in its fifth year of breaking global records for the number of trees planted—around 6 billion trees planted annually.

This trend originated in the 1990s when many environmental interventions were linked to international humanitarian aid. This linkage meant poorer communities at risk of hunger could engage in public works in return for wages or food.

Many of these programmes have been institutionalised and translated into government strategies. The government has developed the capacity and expert network to support this activity at all levels.

Specialist landscapers and foresters are now at the agricultural offices in all provinces, zones, and districts. Furthermore, the structure also exists at the commune level, where trained technicians organise planting work, landscaping measures and training in new agricultural practices.

The attention given to deforestation by the state and the humanitarian sector in Ethiopia is, therefore, historically unprecedented. However, metrics that report the numbers of beneficiaries paid, trees produced and planted, hectares of farmland protected, or kilometres of erosion control measures constructed tell us little about the quality of the work done or the long-term sustainability of such efforts.

Unsurprisingly, the survival of plantings, for example, or the longevity of many measures and landscape features developed through humanitarian assistance, is not great. The technical execution of the works, the dendrological composition of the plantations, and the planned succession of the measures require high-quality technical supervision.

Therefore, the first opportunity for development cooperation was and still is the sharing and development of technical and especially forestry or landscape know-how. In this respect, the Czech Republic certainly has a lot to offer, and it can offer several interesting technological topics and provide expertise and training capacities.

Czech engineers, or those trained in the Czech Republic, offer their knowledge in building and organising more efficient forest nurseries, in preparing landscape and afforestation plans, in discussing the dendrological composition of forests and utility trees, their planned use, the structure and construction of landscape elements or water retention in the landscape. Czech programmes also help initiate practices in Ethiopia that we consider as options for the Czech Republic, such as agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, and holistic rangeland management.

Read about the Holistic and integrated approach to development of the climate resilient communities.

From awareness to cooperation

In addition to the classical technological know-how, however, an equally important question remains the socio-ecological and economic sustainability of the implemented measures, i.e. whether the people living in the landscape in question change their approach to its use in the long term or whether they maintain those traditional ways that are worthwhile.

While economic sustainability is well established and has long been adopted as a principle of action by development programmes, the environmental sustainability of public goods and the stability of landscapes remains a development challenge both in Ethiopia and at home in the Czech Republic.

All the more so when we consider the need for sustainability and the resilience of the landscape and the communities that live there. Traditionally, the classic prescription and response to these issues have been environmental awareness or environmental education.

People in Need is no stranger to education and outreach. After all, the first activity and project with which our mission in Ethiopia was established in 2003 was the construction of wells and schools, for example, from the "Let's Build a School in Africa" collections, which were followed by community water management activities and the Advanced Teaching Methods programme.

Education with outreach to children and adults has remained one of our core specialities and critical know-how globally. However, it has been consistently shown that while outreach and education is an integral part of the equation in the search for environmental and existential stability, it is also a very inefficient and precarious investment in addressing the actual challenges faced today and every day by people living on the edge of poverty and hunger.

Therefore, with the experience gained, we have focused mainly on securing and communicating expert recommendations to local communities. In doing so, we help communities to understand the dynamics in the landscape and, based on their experience, implement measures that align with their needs and the situation on the ground.

The result was the Participatory Development of Productive Landscapes programme launched in 2017. It is primarily led by an experienced team of local staff who have been working on the topic for a long time and have built a good reputation among the communities in the target area and respect and acceptance among the professional community in the region.

The main focus of this programme is the involvement of people who live in, depend on, own, or otherwise use the landscape in its planning, maintenance, rehabilitation, monitoring and management.

On the one hand, expert studies, expert risk analyses, mapping and training of experts are produced. However, on the other hand, it is the painstaking and systematic work of applying these recommendations in the real context of poor communities and their needs.

Working with local authorities is integral to this, community leaders, landowners, investors and all those who impact the landscape. The actual planting of trees and building of landscape measures is just the icing on the cake and rarely comes close to the declared results of national campaigns.

In this respect, our team can boast round numbers on its anniversary, with approximately 10 million seedlings produced and approximately 10 thousand hectares of landscapes treated.

In the long run, however, it is confirmed that the money spent does not always translate into millions of trees produced, hundreds of hectares rehabilitated, or kilometres of streams dug.

The greatest return on investment is in the people, human potential and skills of all involved. But this is a discipline in its own right, with similarly sophisticated procedures as any other engineering and economics discipline, which can be done well or badly, efficiently or cumbersomely by trial and error.

Lessons for working in the Czech Republic?

The natural role of People in Need has been, is, and will continue to be a timely response to natural disasters, including those that occur in the Czech Republic. The assistance provided at home includes the response to the devastation caused, for example, by the floods in 1997, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013 and most recently, for example, by the tornado damage in South Moravia in 2021.

However, international experience with rehabilitation and development programmes confirms that working on the long-term resilience and preparedness of populations everywhere is essential. Recent years have shown that the needs will grow regarding the resilience of landscapes and their inhabitants, even at home in Central Europe and the Czech Republic.

A wave of increased interest in tree planting, green issues, and demands for quick solutions to environmental problems has arrived here, too. The pain point in this respect is not a lack of technical capacity, engineers or weak administrative frameworks but rather the fragmentation of these rules, knowledge, user and ownership relations and requirements for how the landscape around us should look and function.

Although we think that the situation in our country is complex and unsolvable in this respect because it is impossible to get the main actors of the problem to the table and to agree, it is more straightforward. The people sitting around the table in South Moravia or Central Bohemia may have different opinions and perspectives. However, their actions are not motivated by a pure need to survive and make a living.

However, we need to move away from the campaigning and marketing way of working, pay attention to the hard work of local initiatives in our 'indigenous communities', and find ways to support them and make their work easier.

Poverty reduction in the Global South is a frequently perceived outcome of development cooperation. Others advocate the economic continuity of development cooperation (i.e. another very ineffective form of promoting Czech companies abroad).

Development cooperation is practically rationalised as preventing migration from poor regions to Europe (including environmental migration from sub-Saharan Africa) or as an instrument of diplomacy in emerging competitive regions.

In summary, the simple but essential idea emerges that development cooperation is no longer a euphemistic label for development assistance to poor regions, but that it is the shared experiences of jointly implemented programmes and the capacities acquired in the context of development cooperation that are and will be relevant and applicable to the context in our home country and in Europe.

Firstly, we will have to bring European agricultural systems closer to those of the tropics in perspective, but also because it will not be a bad thing if we apply some of the development know-how that we are prepared to apply everywhere else in the world but at home to our change and development.

Jan Svitálek is a specialist in tropical agriculture and rural development with 15 years of hands-on professional experience in international development programs as well as humanitarian assistance. Since 2013, he provides his expertise to PIN as an Advisor for Agriculture and Natural Resource Management through technical support, program development, capacity building, strategic support or evaluations. As a member of Knowledge and Learning Department he provides a capacity in promotion and mainstreaming the topics of climate smart agriculture, climate adaptation, recovery and resilience, market-based solutions in agriculture development and behavioural change. These had been provided in emergency context (e.g. Syria, Iraq, DRC), development programming (Ethiopia, Angola, Zambia) as well as recovery context (Philippines, Afghanistan, Mali, Yemen).
In his spare time, he uses his skills of agriculture and development expert in a variety of the biodiversity conservation activities, helping to facilitate the dynamics between protected areas, national parks and local communities, with special attention to human-wildlife conflict.
Autor: Jan Svitálek, Advisor for Agriculture and Natural Resource Management

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