The yellow wheat fields billowed in the wind to the horizon. At first glance, the gentle hilly area looks fertile and productive. Clouds of dust reveal the outlines of horse carts and hordes of donkeys on the bumpy roads around the Ethiopian city of Eteya. There are few cars. Packed with straw and wooden packages, the four-legged friends and their owners are on their way to the market. They will travel three hours for a yield of 50-100 Birr, the equivalent of around two dollars. Many people here are poor. Every birr is earned with hard work.
The large arable land is deceptive because every family only has a small corner to cultivate. For many years, crop yields in this arid area have been decreasing due to erosion and drought. Farmers here are not familiar with modern irrigation systems.
“I see how much the farmers suffer,” says local school principal, Kedir Abdo Ketebo. “The depleted soil brings less and less income, and the families are becoming increasingly impoverished.”
Deforestation and monocultures – the growing of single crops – are part of the problem, explains Kedir. But he does not want to blame the families. “They just don't know any better,” he says.
Since almost all schoolchildren come from farming families, Kadir believes educating young people about climate change and new agricultural technique is key to helping the community adapt.
For this reason, Kadir decided to initiate a climate protection project, run by SOS Children's Villages, with his students. Fifteen young people are standing in the dry grass in the schoolyard. In front of them are tender tree saplings that they recently planted and are now watering.
Tadesse Abebe, the project manager at SOS Children's Villages, asked the students if they know what is meant by climate change. The students answered with awkward silence. But suddenly, a 16-year-old girl in a pink T-shirt utters a simple sentence in a low voice: “If the climate is good, we are fine too. If the climate is bad, the plants die, and we will starve.”
As simple as her formulation may be, she clearly sees the connection. The young woman wants to be a role model and educate others. Even if that only works to a limited extent, the 16-year-old has exactly the right attitude. What she and other students learn about cultivation methods and irrigation techniques, they will pass on to their parents and the village community.
Three community members stand in the shade of the trees near the newly cemented irrigation channels. They are all fathers and farmers. “Would you take your children’s advice when it comes to cultivation methods and irrigation?” asks project leader Tadesse. The three men in their worn clothes nod. "We have been dependent on emergency support from the government for 13 years because of the constant drought," says Taha, a hollow-cheeked man with a Palestinian scarf on his head. He says he is open to learn.
Planting 20 billion trees
Ethiopia is severely affected by the consequences of climate change and deforestation. Only about 16 percent of the land area is currently forested according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Severe soil erosion, dwindling water sources and a lack of rain makes living conditions extremely difficult for people. Time and time again, periods of drought cause crops to fail. For numerous Ethiopian families who live on the yield from their small fields, the effects of the climate crisis are threatening their very existence.
A few years ago, however, the government started planting trees here and growing a variety of plants. "We are slowly seeing changes in crop yields and a decrease in erosion," says Taha, the farmer. You can see the hard life of the 42-year-old in the deep furrows that mark his face. His big, rough hands hold a hoe with which he goes straight to work, loosening the ground around the young trees.
“When I was a kid, this area was full of acacia trees. Now all the trees are gone and we need help. Of course, we're doing everything we can to change that,” says Taha as the other fathers nod in agreement.
This area in southeast Ethiopia is the focus of a national afforestation initiative called ‘green heritage’ in which Ethiopia will plant 20 billion trees over five years to counteract climate change. SOS Children’s Villages is participating by planting 17,000 trees in six schoolyards. Additionally, children and young people learn techniques to achieve higher yields through drip irrigation and agroforestry methods.
School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project, but the plans are for the tree planting and training programs to ramp up this year, involving some 3,000 children and their parents. A second phase of the project will focus on employment opportunities.
“Our aim is to create an awareness that everyone is responsible for the environment, and thus, for their future and that of future generations,” says SOS project manager Tadesse. Agroforestry is a special form of agriculture in which elements from agriculture and forestry are used to increase the fertility of the soil and counteract erosion in a sustainable manner.
“In Ethiopia, environmental and climate protection is closely linked to food security. So, if we manage to contain the effects of climate change and exploitative agriculture, we will also fight hunger and rural exodus at the same time,” Tadesse adds. “The corona pandemic has once again shown us how vulnerable we are and what happens if we don't finally respond to nature's warnings. How many droughts, plagues of locusts, floods and viruses do we need before we understand? No, now is the time to act for the well-being of our children.”
The fact that children understand that their well-being is closely related to that of the planet shows that the work of Tadesse and the project team at SOS Children's Villages in Ethiopia is bearing fruit.