Enhancing human, animal and environmental health in degraded landscapes of Ethiopia’s Central Highlands

August 26, 2019

A transdisciplinary project involving the Weil (ENST) and Tully (PLSC) Labs at UMD and Debre Birhan University aims to enhance ecosystem health in the central Highlands of Ethiopia. The target landscape is a complex traditional farming system in which of the land has suffered erosion and degradation over the past century of intensive farming and deforestation. Yet this is a region of potentially productive soils and good rainfall (800-1000 mm of rain annually). The current low productivity farming system contributes to the continued degradation of land and water resources. Deforestation is nearly complete and the few trees in the landscape are exotic species that have been planted for fuel wood and construction material (poles). A significant portion of the landscape is devoted to communal grazing and the entire landscape is heavily overgrazed. Forage vegetation is highly degraded, leading to decreased carrying capacity and ever-increasing pressure on the remaining vegetation and soils in a downward spiral of degradation. In addition to cutting firewood, people also use crop residues and dried animal manure as fuel for cooking. Thus organic carbon and nutrient resources that could be returned to build soil health are instead removed from the productive parts of the landscape. Animal production is a major part of the farming system both for meat (and some milk) as well as for traction power. Repeated tillage leads to severe soil degradation and the large numbers of oxen and supporting cattle required for tillage subsequently lead to soils impoverishment because crop residues are removed as feed for these animals. Few outside fertilizer inputs are available or affordable to replace the continuous removal of nutrients from the main crop fields. The results of these interactions include food scarcity and low nutrient content of some foods. This includes low quality of legume protein due to low levels of sulfur in soil, plants and proteins (limiting levels of methionine). We are developing an integrated landscape ecology approach in collaboration with local residents and scientists at Debre Birhan University to include integrated soil, crop, nutrient, animal, biofuel, energy, social and natural resource management across whole communities and landscapes.

To learn more, please watch this video Edwin Remsberg of AGNR publications made about their initial visit in March.