April 21, 2004 | General

Healing The Earth With Compost

Million Belay and Sue Edwards
BioCycle April 2004, Vol. 45, No. 4, p. 73

Land degradation is one of the most serious problems facing Ethiopia today. Population pressure and low yields are forcing farmers to abandon fallowing and crop rotations – the system they have used for millennia to maintain their livelihoods. In Tigray, the most northern region of Ethiopia, over 85 percent of the population are farmers who struggle to feed their families from soils in poor condition that only produce low yields of staple crops.
To improve crop yields in the region, the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Tigray (BoANR) adopted the Sasakawa Global (SG) 2000 package, which is based on high input demanding varieties and chemical fertilizers. However, the cost of these inputs is beyond the purchasing power of mostfarmers in the region, and some of those who have used these inputs have fallen into the debt trap.
The challenge is to find mechanisms that help poor rural communities to improve the environment and their capacity to produce crops without becoming dependent on external inputs. In 1996, the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) in collaboration with BoANR started a project in four selected rural farming communities in Tigray. The overall aim of the project was to help establish productive agricultural systems based on ecological principles that effectively managed and used local natural resources. The main components of the project included soil and water conservation practices, compost making, and the reestablishment of vegetation.
The four communities selected for the project were Zeban Sas and Gu’emse in the Eastern Zone of Tigray, Adibo Mossa in the Southern Zone and Adi Nefas in the Central Zone. Each area has its own specific characteristics. Depending on the specific needs of each of the communities, different practices were employed. These included construction of check dams and ponds; making and use of compost; use of manure; planting of trees, forage and grass species.
The performance of the organic production system developed in each of the four communities was compared with the performance of a production system based on the Sasakawa Global (SG) 2000 package in a neighboring village. This was done in order to compare the two strategies for sustainability.


Because compost making is a new practice in Ethiopia, some efforts were required to convince the farmers to try it. At the start of the project, only a small number of farmers made compost. But after observing how production increased when compost was used, many farmers started to prepare and use it. Farmers also observed that the straw from crops grown with compost was more palatable to livestock and that composting had a dramatic effect on weeds.
In 1996/97, the project started in Adibo Mossa with 45 farmers making and using compost. However, by 1998, this figure had more than doubled. In Adi Nefas, farmers not included in the project started making compost on their own personal initiative without any encouragement from the project personnel.
In every project location, farmer-managed trials were established in the fields. Yields obtained from composted fields were compared with those obtained with Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) + Urea at 100 kg/ha and 50 kg/ha, respectively. The amount of compost applied was different in each site (according to availability) and varied between 5,000 kg/ha in Zeban Sas and 15,000 kg/ha in Adibo Mossa. The yields of finger millet, barley and wheat on composted fields were comparable with those where chemical fertilizers had been applied. Tef, however, gave higher yields when grown on composted plots. The effect of compost on maize yields was variable when compared to the results achieved with chemical fertilizer. There were much higher straw yields from the composted plots in comparison to the chemically fertilized ones. The farmers welcomed this because their animals often have to subsist on crop residues during the dry season. The increased straw yields also enable the farmers to prepare more compost because there was more animal manure and increased plant material.
Impressive results in soil and water conservation have been observed in three of the four project sites since 1997. The spread of gullies had been halted and soil has been retained that would otherwise have been washed away. Water retention and infiltration has also been improved.
Adi Nefas had been losing fertile land through a gully that started at the base of the neighboring hillside. The farmers built a series of check dams up the gully, and in one year enough soil was captured to allow for the planting of grass and trees. The construction of check dams has been effective in Zeban Sas as well, although soil accumulation has been slower.
Water is very scarce during the dry season in Adi Nefas, Zeban Sas and Gu’emse and the farmers, with financial support from ISD, have now constructed ponds to collect water so that it is available in the dry season. The program was expanded to 21 villages in 1999, and construction of trench bunds on farmlands and check dams in gullies was carried out in 14 out of the 21 new sites.
All four communities have now drawn up their own statutes to control the use of their land and renewable natural resources. These statutes set out rules and regulations that community members agree to and penalties for anyone who infringes on them. The communities themselves developed the statutes, and the respective local governments have recognized these statutes and uphold them.
The regional government of Tigray has also adopted this project. This means that, if the ISD has to pull out, the program will still continue. The regional government has spread the project to more than 2,000 households in more than 83 villages. A very recent development is even more significant: The project has been taken up by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) of Ethiopia with support from UNDP and will now be upscaled to the national level.
The secret of the success of this project lies in the involvement at the planning stage of almost all of the stakeholders. Ensuring the active involvement of farmers requires providing a range of choices and alternatives for them to consider, rather than making prescriptions for improving one part of the farming system.
The project offers a range of choices and farmers adopt those that suit their ecological and social setting. Experience has shown that each village has a preference for one or two of the different components of the project. At Zeban Sas, the emphasis has been on soil and water conservation, because the area was badly affected by soil degradation. At Gu’emse and Adibo Mossa farmers adopted composting rapidly, because there was already sufficient plant material and animal manure for making this natural fertilizer.
At Gu’emse, check dams were not very effective in halting gullying and halting the spread of gullies is now the community’s top priority. The farmers at Adi Nefas are actively participating in all components of the project, much more noticeably than at the other sites. This is probably because of the rapid positive outcomes of making check dams and preparing and using compost. These early successes, coupled with the high population density, have given farmers a strong motivation for intensifying the use of their land in a sustainable way.
Million Belay is a team leader with the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Sue Edwards is director of ISD in Addis Ababa. They can be e-mailed at This article is based on their report in LEISA, the magazine on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture.

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