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MERET: Land Regeneration In Ethiopia

A joint venture between the Ethiopian government and WFP, the MERET programme gets chronically food-insecure communities involved in environmental rehabilitation and sustainable income- generating activities that improve livelihoods.

Mohamed Hussein stands on a ridge, looking down on the terraced hillside that he says changed his life "completely”.

The field climbs in terraced steps up a slope in the highlands of Amhara in northern Ethiopia, not far from the border with neighbouring Afar. It has been freshly ploughed and seeded with sorghum, except for a spot halfway up the slope where seven orange trees, heavy with ripening fruit, occupy a single terrace.

“This used to be nothing more than a gully,” says the 45-year-old farmer, gesturing down at the field. “When the rains came, the water would rush down the hill, carrying all the good topsoil with it.”

Sustainable livelihoods

All that began to change five years ago, when Mohamed’s gully was selected as a MERET project. A joint venture between the Ethiopian government and WFP, the programme draws its name from the Amharic word for land, MERET, which is a convenient acronym for the programme—Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to More Sustainable Livelihoods.

Under MERET, chronically food-insecure communities participate in environmental rehabilitation and income generating activities designed to improve livelihoods through the sustainable use of natural resources. Its primary objective is to build resilience to the kind of shocks that struck Ethiopia in 2008.Some of those shocks were economic, such as high food and fuel prices, while others were environmental, like the prolonged drought that was related to climate change, according to experts.

Among the programme’s many activities are measures to build and rehabilitate feeder roads, reforest barren hillsides, restore springs and rainwater ponds, and reconstruct and refurbish agricultural terraces.

Food provided

WFP provides the food for those involved in implementing the projects—3 kg of cereal per workday to each participant for up to three months. 

The organization also supplies tools, construction materials and other utensils as well as expert advice to build local capacity, and teaches farmers the latest techniques.

In Mohamed’s case, the restoration of his gully began with the construction of a 2.5 metre-high wall at the bottom of his hill to hold the rainwater runoff and, most importantly, the topsoil. Every year, Ethiopia loses 1.5 billion tons of topsoil through erosion. It is a major contributor to food insecurity in the country. Once the wall was in place, additional terrace walls were gradually erected at intervals up the steep slope. The terrace walls trapped the rainwater, which could then slowly percolate down into the soil rather than simply wash away.

Seven orange trees

Over time, the terraces filled with soil, deep enough to allow Mohamed to plant his seven orange trees. Five years later, Mohamed now holds a sustainable and increasingly profitable asset. “That field never used to produce more than a quintal-and-a-half (150 kg) of sorghum, ”he says. “Last year, I harvested 100 quintals [1,000 kg]”.

His orange trees supply an added bonus, providing a cash crop worth 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($300).With the proceeds, Mohamed has been able to purchase livestock—seven sheep, two oxen, two donkeys and a cow—to augment his assets. He has also managed to move homes, transporting his wife and four children from the small, thatched-roof mud hut at the bottom of the hill to a new home near the top of the slope with wood-framed windows and a rainproof, corrugated metal roof. “Our life is so much better now,” he says.

Close to 400,000 other Ethiopians might well echo that view, thanks to their participation in MERET projects at 213 sites across Ethiopia during 2008. Among the programme’s many achievements, not least was the reclamation of more than 86,000 hectares of degraded land.