March 10, 2015

Learning from experience: Connecting Landscape Leaders in Ethiopia

At first impression, the Amhara region of Ethiopia may seem drab and barren. Knowing of the degradation that happened to these landscapes, I didn’t expect to see much more than scrubland. A recent visit to the Aba Gerima watershed, however, showed me a much greener picture, where a team from the Water and Land Resource Centre (WLRC) invited me to take a walk with them. With only the turn of a corner and a brief hike, I saw slopes bathed in color: a mosaic of green, yellow, tan, and deep brown vegetation checkered with grasslands for livestock.

Ethiopia is home to numerous success stories in sustainable land and water management. The Aba Gerima watershed is a shining example of how researchers, development actors, and farmers can collaboratively restore degraded lands in the larger Amhara region. A few short years ago, this particular watershed was deteriorated, with upstream erosion leading to lost productivity and income. Today it is recovering rapidly thanks to the engagement of farmers from all parts of the watershed.

Rehabilitation through Integrated Watershed Management

I visited this watershed with the Water and Land Resource Centre (WLRC) to learn about community efforts that worked across sectors to restore the landscape. The WLRC is a research and knowledge hub that facilitates participatory watershed development in Ethiopia. Aba Gerima is one of six WLRC learning watersheds, experimental models that the organization is hopeful can up-scale sustainable land and water management practices in Africa. We toured the watershed to examine technical improvements and met with the people making those improvements. Our WLRC guide pointed out pointed out a few of the innovations put in practice in the watershed, such as drainage channels and vegetative catchment bunds constructed by local farmers.

A watershed coordinator describes how the catchment systems improve land and water management.

A watershed coordinator describes how the catchment systems improve land and water management.

Following the watershed tour, we met with some of the watershed’s different stakeholders: farmers, community leaders, local government officials, and researchers. To encourage collaboration across all of these sectors, they host a formal watershed committee, where all actors participate in discussions on natural resource management and agricultural production. The committee pushes the envelope further by addressing social and economic issues. Innovative programs, like the launch of a beekeeping enterprise to generate income for unemployed youth without access to land tenure, show how multi-stakeholder planning can uplift communities within landscapes.

WLRC Researchers engaging Aba Gerima farmers

WLRC researchers engage Aba Gerima farmers in discussion about the successes and challenges of integrated watershed planning and action.

No Landscape is an Island

This visit was part of a landscape scoping process to identify the innovations practiced in some of the most successful landscapes throughout Ethiopia. The people from Aba Gerima represent a fraction of a burgeoning network of landscapes in Ethiopia, each ranging in size from small watersheds to large lake basins. The Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature initiative (LPFN) is working with the Water and Land Resource Centre to establish an Ethiopian Learning Landscape Network in which members from all sectors share their experiences through a landscape representative in a coordinated dialogue process. In this system, the representative can act as both teacher and student of integrated landscape management.

To paraphrase John Donne, no person is an island – he or she needs to connect to other people to thrive. Similarly, no landscape is an island – well, except for island landscapes! But in the metaphorical sense, landscapes and the people living within them need to connect to other landscapes and people to share their experiences and learn from one another.

From Country to Region and Beyond

By connecting landscape leaders to one another from across the country, the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative and WLRC hope people can learn from divergent experiences and adapt these lessons to their own socio-ecological contexts. After all, international organizations do not have all the solutions to the challenges landscape leaders face; they are better off learning from one another.

Some experiences and lessons transcend national boundaries. As the network in Ethiopia develops, its members will also connect to the landscape leaders from Kenya and Tanzania, forming an East African network of landscapes. This regional network will provide case studies, tools, and other resources for an international audience of integrated landscape managers through the LPFN’s Learning Network. Through this platform, the members of Ethiopia’s Learning Landscape Network can connect to people around the world operating in similar or different situations to learn about innovative strategies for achieving landscape management goals.

You can learn more about the Aba Gerima learning watershed through the WLRC.  

Chris Planicka is a project manager at EcoAgriculture Partners. He is currently managing the development of the Ethiopian Learning Landscape Network and the LPFN’s growing Learning Network, among other projects. He enjoys mixing his metaphors.
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