We should be in the middle of the rainy season by now, but it remains predominantly dry. People are talking of this year as a drought year, and prices of staple crops have risen in the Karat market. Konso farmers save enough grain - mainly sorghum - each harvest to plant their fields twice over. They planted the first batch in late February, but the rains didn’t arrive on time, meaning most of these seeds became unviable. I saw farmers planting their reserve batch in mid to late April. Recent showers will have caused the seeds to germinate, but the rains need to increase in frequency and intensity if these plants are to survive. Intermittent rain is the worst scenario for grains as a dry spell following germination causes the seed to ferment. Depending on the species and variety, grains need 90 to 140 days to reach maturity, with flowering (around 70-120 days after germination) a particularly crucial developmental stage.
Konso farmers have 27 different varieties of sorghum each with different characteristics: some are high-yielding but require rich soils, some are low-yield but birds don’t eat them, some are particularly drought-tolerant (generally by germinating and maturing quickly). Farmers, noting the poor rains, will have switched to a drought-tolerant species for their second planting, but if this doesn’t mature before the rains recede then the harvest will fail. What would happen if the harvest were to fail? 95% of the local economy is based on agriculture, so poor rains will affect the incomes of almost every household. In development speak, one talks of household or community “safety nets” – maybe savings or family networks that people can call on in times of need. Livestock is one safety net most households have: if they don’t produce enough grain to last until the next harvest, cattle, goats and sheep can be sold and grain bought from another region where there is surplus. The rains are very localised, so nearby regions should have healthy harvests even if the Konso area has below-average rain. In addition, the indigenous Konso agriculture is well-adapted to unpredictable rains.
As I wrote before, the common practice is mixed cropping. Cassava and pigeon peas are found dotted around the fields, both more drought resistant than sorghum (itself the most drought-resistant of the major grains). I noted on a recent walk in the hills that cassava is mostly planted near the edge of each terrace. Each terrace is slightly sloped downhill, meaning that soil moisture will concentrate where the cassava are planted. As well as indigenous systems and regional trading, bags of grain and tins of vegetable oil from USAID are filling distribution centres – but this is unrelated to the poor rains. Even in good harvest years, international food aid is a staple. The food hand-outs quickly find their way into the local markets where they are sold on for profit, damaging business for local farmers. That is not to say that all food aid is damaging and unnecessary: the matter is much more complex.
Food aid has been a political hot potato in Ethiopia ever since the famine of 1985 in which 1 million people died. Three successive droughts hit northern and eastern parts of the country. Western aid agencies initially refused to send food aid to a socialist country, but even when this hurdle was cleared, Mengistu, the leader of the Derg, was unwilling to allow it to reach the Tigrai province, home to the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a rebel group that later helped depose the Derg in 1991. The TPLF were also refusing to cooperate with distribution. Food aid is sometimes needed to avert starvation following acute shortfalls in food production. In such cases, it needs to arrive quickly and to be fairly distributed. Long-term strategies require investment to increase productivity or diversify household incomes. Now, with the TPLF in (joint) power, the government would not risk bringing back memories of the 1985 famine by restricting food aid even if it was in communities’ long term interests. Work at Strawberry continues in hope that the rains will arrive late.
We have dug four big swales on one slope which has particularly poor soil and currently no vegetation. This means digging out trenches along the contours and piling the soil into a bund downhill. The idea is that heavy rains will collect in the trenches and have time to infiltrate the soil rather than running off the surface. We have planted local grass species into the bunds to help hold them. Another technique we are using on the slope is seed pelleting. Tree seeds such as acacia can take years to germinate because of a tough seed coating. In the wild, the seed casing might be broken by the chewing and digestion of an animal, ending up in its manure, or the casing might be cracked by a stone in a flowing stream. Both these examples would mean the seeds germinate in a favourable environment. To replicate this, seed pelleting first involves 'scarifying' the seed (i.e. nicking a small hole in the seed casing). This allows water straight into the cotyledon, giving rapid germination. Second, the seed is rolled into a ball of clay and compost, providing the necessary nutrients and immediate soil stability to aid root growth. Leaf litter and soil from underneath a mature tree of the same species is also incorporated as this will ‘infect’ the seed pellet with rhizobia bacteria – their role is explained below. We have planted over 1000 seed pellets on the slope which should sit there happily until rains stimulate growth.
We have chosen to pellet mainly leguminous trees. Legumes are a family of plants that include beans, peas and clover, and have the advantage of being able to 'fix' nitrogen, meaning they can convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. In fact, the nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes is due to the evolution of a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria which live in the roots of legume plants. An individual legume plant can trade as much as 20% of the carbohydrate it produces through photosynthesis in return for nitrogen supplied by the rhizobia. Because of this relationship, legumes can establish themselves in nitrogen-poor soils where other plant families struggle. Farmers value legumes for this, and because they raise soil nitrogen levels thus benefitting other crops. Some fixed nitrogen is released into the soil in usable organic forms from decomposed leaf litter and plant material.
I read recently in David Wolfe's excellent Tales from the Underground that nitrogen can actually flow from a legume to a neighbouring plant through mycorrhizal fungi. Like the rhizobia bacteria, this class of fungi evolved in symbiosis with plants. The fungi grow thread-like around plant roots, and being around 10-fold thinner than the roots, can extract soil moisture and nutrients including phosphorous, potassium, copper and zinc, from smaller spaces in the soil than the plant roots are able. Plants devote 20-30% of their carbon and energy to support these fungi. Using radioactive labelling, researchers have shown that nutrients, including calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen and carbon, can move between plants by mycorrhizal conduit. Intercropping with a legume such as soybean can give a direct nitrogen boost to nearby plants such as maize (whose growth is generally limited by nitrogen availability). Mycorrhizal fungi also secrete enzymes that break down wood and other organic materials before immediately absorbing the nutrients. This helps to short-circuit cycling, preventing nutrients from being leached or washed below the root zone, particularly useful in tropical areas where there is heavy rain.
Evolution has produced intricate and complex systems of nutrient cycling. If agriculture wants to maximise the functioning of these systems, a good place to start is to replicate the natural environment. This might include having a diversity of plants in each field, integrating cropping and livestock and agroforestry. Tree cover makes particular sense for vegetable growing as vegetables evolved to grow in forest clearings: they like the shelter of a canopy cover and dappled shade. We use tremendous amounts of energy artificially fixing nitrogen through the Haber process despite the fact that biological systems can provide this service for free and without the negative environmental impact. Farmers around the world, including in Konso, have known for centuries the benefits of integrating legumes into their cropping systems.
I was asked by a UK farmer before I left for Ethiopia: ‘What can you teach people who are clearly so expert in farming and managing their land?’ The answer is that you can’t, and the project doesn’t aim to. Rather, the challenge is to promote their techniques (closely aligned as they are to Permaculture principles) as a counter balance to ‘conventional practices’ being pushed by industry and government. The regional agricultural office has been trying for the past few years to encourage farmers to use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Fertiliser sacks are provided by the government extension workers on loan, the cost to be repaid after harvest. I learnt from an agricultural expert who has worked in Konso for a number of years that the farmers don’t use the fertiliser because they recognise that it can degrade soils and they don’t know how to safely apply it. In fact, they hide the unused sacks because there have been cases in which farmers were summoned to the police station and threatened with beatings for not using their allocated allowance.
I sat next to a university lecturer in agricultural technology on a recent bus journey. He said the main problem with agricultural productivity in Ethiopia is that farmers mix different crops in their fields. This paradigm, that monocropping is more efficient, needs to be critically challenged, and alternatives, including Permaculture, fully explored. There is a strong tendency for policy-makers in developing countries to try to replicate Western methods of high-input, monoculture farming despite the fact that scientific research increasingly points towards the unsustainability of such methods and the vital role that natural and biological systems play in nutrient cycling and soil conservation.