Wetenschap - 15 maart 2001

Ethiopian farmers feel loss of agrobiodiversity

Ethiopian farmers feel loss of agrobiodiversity

The diversity of crops, plants and trees in agricultural areas of northern Ethiopia is diminishing rapidly, says ecological agriculture student Kiros Meles Hagdu. His field study revealed that the loss of agrobiodiversity brings great risks to farmers.

"Farmers near the big cities are increasingly switching to monoculture of cash crops. But these crop varieties are often imported and therefore not adapted to the local environment. The consequence is that they are also more susceptible to pests and drought," says the Ethiopian MSc student who hopes to graduate soon. Growing only one crop is also risky because if market prices drop for this particular crop, the farmer is hit very badly, he says. "If you grow several crops, like tet (Ergrostis tet) a staple food in Ethiopia, sorghum, wheat, millet, chick peas and maize, failure of one crop is not disastrous for the farmer's income. You spread the risk over several crops."

Planting trees

Meles Hagdu believes that farmers are better off if they bear in mind local farming knowledge. This includes a lot of good practices that enhance agrobiodiversity and also production. A good example is the planting of Acacia alpida trees, locally known as momona trees, within grazing areas for livestock. "They offer the necessary shade for the animals, and what's more, they stimulate the growth of high quality grasses: the reason is that the tree roots stop nitrogen, an important nutrient, from draining out of the soil."

Satellite images

Looking at the latest developments in his country, Meles Hagdu is quite worried. According to studies done in the 1960s, Ethiopia used to be one of the eight 'hotspots' of agrobiodiversity in the world. But this is probably no longer the case, as monocultures are replacing traditional agriculture. With the help of satellite images, Meles Hagdu is trying to find out how fast the changes are taking place in Tigray province in northern Ethiopia. "Don't get me wrong: I am not saying farmers should stop growing cash crops. They can generate a lot of production and income. But we also have to realise that decreasing biodiversity is harmful for agriculture in the long term. Soils can degenerate, drought and pest resistant crops disappear and so on."

Meles Hagdu believes an inventory of all local knowledge on traditional farming is necessary. With this information, it might be easier to find ways to increase production while maintaining the natural resources.

Hugo Bouter