Volli, a WFP agronomist who has worked for 15 years in Ethiopia and Uganda, helped develop a philosophy that melds environmental protection with humanitarian aid. It delivers villages and communities in Africa from poverty, malnutrition and land degradation. The system is called MERET (Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transition) which also happens to be the Amharic word for “land.”
Volli joined WFP in 1992 in Ethiopia where he began pioneering the basic principles that some 10 years later would blossom into MERET. As a WFP officer, Volli and his colleagues took time-honoured food-for-work activities and integrated them with improved farming practices and better use of land and water resources.
When the WFP-government team hit the field, they spent the first few days in a village, observing how the people grew their crops, where they got their water, what their fuel sources were and how they reared their livestock. After learning the best and worst of the community’s methods of survival, the staff from WFP and the government, together with the villagers, found ways to achieve higher agricultural productivity while conserving land and water.
MERET has since been applied to many of the country’s degraded watersheds. A watershed is an area of land where rainwater drains into a common outlet, like a river. Under MERET, communities established in a watershed are organised to protect the topsoil of the slopes, thereby keeping more water in the soil available for crops and vegetation and preventing water runoff from destroying fertile fields downstream.
If, as sometimes happens, the community’s water table rises, the people can draw from communal springs for their households, livestock and crops. With everybody in the watershed working along the same principles, the villagers make major progress in preserving the “sponge effect” of the upper slopes – thereby helping prevent destructive floods that have often followed severe drought and deforestation.
The MERET experience informed the writing of national guidelines on participatory watershed development published by the government in three national languages. Lessons from MERET, combined with support from donors and international institutions including the World Bank, have enabled the Government of Ethiopia to produce a “Sustainable Land Management” framework for the country’s permanent recovery from environmental and social decline.
MERET has also been incorporated as one of the “best practices” in the UN blueprint for food security for this troubled region.
As MERET’s tireless and impassioned advocate, Volli now works out of the WFP Regional Bureau in Kampala as a Programme Advisor. He welcomes the current obsession with climate change, because it creates a receptive audience for the simple, subtle but important concepts of land management and the relationship it has with hunger in the developing world.