theguardian-'No one leaves any more': Ethiopia's restored drylands offer new hope
Migration is no longer the only option for many young Ethiopians, as careful restoration revives livelihoods on eroded and deforested land.
Kahsay Gebretsadik was arrested at 5am in Saudi Arabia. As an illegal immigrant with no papers he knew this was the end of his stay.
After 15 days in prison, police placed him on a plane to Addis Ababa, one of 160,000 Ethiopian migrants expelled from Saudi Arabia in recent years. A perilous trek out of Ethiopia followed by two years of back-breaking work for a Bengali building contractor had come to nothing.
Gebretsadik, now 30, is one of nine children. The family has just 0.6 acres of land in the semi-arid state of Tigray, where only 400-800mm of rain falls a year. The land offered no work and Gebretsadik failed to find a job after school – even though his country’s economy had been growing by double digits for a decade – so when he heard “interesting stories” from friends, he opted to migrate.
As is most often the case in Africa, he headed to a nearby region. “I walked through Djibouti and then to Yemen,” he told me. “Because our journey was illegal, we were guided by brokers. We walked day and night for more than a month – 170 males and females. Sometimes the brokers fought. It was not good for me.”
Now home again in Gergera in far north Ethiopia, Gebretsadik is hopeful that land restoration will allow him to stay there. He has joined a group of 15 that includes four other returnees, and they are running a business producing tree seedlings and fodder grass for farmers and to support regreening in their local authority.
“When the kebele – our village government – called for people who have no land, I became a member of this nursery,” he says. He hopes to be given fields recaptured from a gulley 100m wide and 13km long. Short bursts of rain, loss of trees and climate change, have carved the gulley through arable land. “If you work hard in farming, you get good returns,” he says.
Out migration has long been a survival strategy in the Ethiopian highlands where deforestation and erosion are thought to date back 3,000 years. Berhe Hishe, 48, a farmer who leads 350 households in Gergera, migrated himself at one point to survive. “Because of the severity of the drought, I went to the city of Asmara. When we were away, we saw so many challenges. What we know is that if we work hard at home, it will be better than leaving.”
With the help of funding from Irish Aid, Ethiopian researchers from World Agroforestry Centre (Icraf) are guiding terrace design, construction of a rainwater tank on the summit, and which trees and crops to grow. “Restoration activities were already going on, but the donor and the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources requested us to provide robust science-based approaches,” says Dr Kiros Hagdu who heads Icraf in Ethiopia. “They wanted it to be more productive and sustainable.”
The ultimate aim on this hillside and across the landscape is to create cultivable land for landless people. “Before the mountains were bare,” says Hishe. “When there was heavy rain, the flood and big stones damaged houses. Now we are more stable. I’m so happy about these activities. I am hopeful our youth will get more land.”
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