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.


  1. I was a 10 years old kid in Axum during the famine of 1985 that devastated Tigray claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands peasants betrayed by the land and their government. It is a moment in time that will never leave my psyche. However, fast-forward to 2014 and a land that in a not too distant past was lush and 40% virgin forest, and became severely degraded throughout the 20th century to the barren and desolate land of the 1980 is remarkably recovering through the hard work and dedication of the people. It is a testament to what can be achieved through the collective effort human beings. It makes me happy to see my homeland rising and returning to economic and environmental prosperity. Thanks for sharing.

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