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The story of Abraha Atsbeha

In northern Ethiopia, the rainy season lasts little more than two months. Today, where hunger once held sway, sustainable land management is transforming the region into a patchwork of green oases.

In the past, the highlands of northern Ethiopia, including the Tigray region, were among the most drought-prone areas of the country. The rainy season here lasts two to three months at most. The village of Abraha Atsbeha, with its population of around 5,000, was chronically dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme – a not uncommon situation in Tigray.

In 1998, it was decided that the village should be resettled. The government saw few other choices than to evacuate the barren valley permanently, as it no longer appeared suitable for human settlement. ‘It was a disgrace,’ recalls Ato Gebremichael, longstanding chief of the village and otherwise known as Abaháui or ‘Father of the Fire’. He speaks rapidly and with deep sincerity – a man renowned for his persistence and his impatience. ‘Who would want to live permanently as a beggar?’

However, the village residents were offered one alternative: if they took responsibility themselves for a radical restructuring of local land management, the Ministry of Agriculture would support the measures with the help of international donors. ‘We decided to stay – and to intensively apply the new sustainable agricultural methods suggested by the government,’ says Ato Gebremichael of the moment when change took hold.

All villagers were called upon to help: on the mountain slopes, terraces were constructed and percolation trenches were excavated in order to halt the massive erosion and to replenish the groundwater. Trees and grasses were planted to stabilise the soil, wells were dug and new grazing bylaws were agreed. As Ato Gebremichael recalls: ‘At the beginning, there was a lot of opposition to the innovations. I was only able to persuade many sceptical farmers and local political opponents by setting a good example myself – for instance by fencing my cattle, instead of letting them graze freely as before.’

Since the village has taken up the fight against drought and erosion, many things have changed. The groundwater table has risen from 15 meters’ to 3 meters’ depth in the dry season. Today, a green ribbon of irrigated plantations winds through the valley, visible even on satellite pictures. The villagers now cultivate vegetables, fruit and maize even in the dry season – often in such quantities that they can sell the surplus on the local markets.

In 2012, Ato Gebremichael and the people of Abraha Atsbeha were awarded the UN Equator Prize. Today, there are hundreds of other projects comparable to the one in Abraha Atsbeha throughout Ethiopia, and the principles of sustainable agriculture are spreading like wildfire.

German development cooperation has been involved in Abraha Atsbeha for many years, together with the World Food Programme, the World Bank and other international development organisations. Today, together with KfW and working on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, GIZ is supporting the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture in systematically extending the reach of these positive developments across the highland regions of Tigray, Oromia and Amhara.

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