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Group discussion of female farmers in Askuna Abo (Ethiopia)

“So, what have you heard about climate change? How would you define it?” Yonas asks the farmers in Askuna Abo. Yonas is my research partner from Gondar, Ethiopia. We are meeting with the farmers for a focus group discussion on climatic variability. We already knew that the guys in Askuna Abo are a well-connected and informed bunch of people, but still we are flabbergasted by their response: “Ah, we know about climate change. Our late Prime Minister Meles told us that if we plant many trees and maintain our forests, we will improve the climate, which has changed because we cut down so many trees in the past. And if we do that, the rich countries have to pay us, because they are also polluting the environment.” Silence. Hm. I am not quite sure what to say now. Another farmer adds, “And that is why we want to participate in carbon compensation. Can you help us with this?”

Today, farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands are facing many new challenges. The changing climate has shortened the growth period in many places. Farmers tell us that rainfall used to start in March and end in October, but nowadays it starts in May or even as late as June and lasts until September. This means that old varieties that have been passed from generation to generation no longer reach maturity and are gradually being replaced by “improved seed varieties”. However, farmers are not happy with this “improvement” as these new seed varieties must be used in a package with costly fertilisers: “These fertilisers, they burn our soil as they burn our money!” exclaims one farmer, an elderly lady, during the same focus group discussion in Askuna Abo. Indeed, I have heard repeatedly from farmers in different parts of the highlands that fertilisers bring dependencies for people – and the soil. Farmers have to take loans to be able to buy the fertilisers. And artificial fertilisers change the structure of the soil – once the soil has changed, it takes time to recover.

Although there are many reasons that fertilizers and other “solutions” have failed to deliver the intended benefits, including a lack of adequate monitoring, poor training and fluctuating accessibility to information and technologies, the core of the problem is that farmers are dependent on a system of (agrarian) politics that leaves them very few choices. To be innovative and to adapt to the ever-changing climatic conditions, farmers need a responsive and flexible enabling environment. They need an environment that allows them to simultaneously make use of their own knowledge and of knowledge from outside, as well as to experiment and learn from the combination of the two. Most importantly, farmers need the right to make the decisions that shape their own destinies rather than having to accept what others tell them to do.

Although this simple request (now) makes a lot of sense to many of us in the developed world, it is far from self-evident to many others. Farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands are still part of a hierarchical and tightly controlled political system. Participation is understood as information and consultation: “We have participated the farmers very well” was a typical answer of scientists when I tried to assess the level of participation in a transdisciplinary research project. From this I understood that the scientists I was working with interpreted participation as consultation or information, a passive form of participation. At the other extreme, participation could be a process of empowerment that gives people the chance to decide themselves what their own lives and futures will look like.

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Sorghum field at the end of a good rainy season

Experiences such as these have motivated partnerships between BOKU University in Austria and ARARI (Amhara Region Agricultural Research Institute) in Ethiopia to try a different approach. For example, in the COPE (Carbon Offset Project Exclosure) project, farmers from two villages were offered the choice of allowing a carbon compensation project to enter their communities. It was made clear to them that this meant establishing exclosed areas for a period of 30 years. Thus, no grazing, no logging and no uses other than those agreed upon by the community are allowed in these areas, which are then controlled by a forest committee nominated by the villagers themselves. It was also made clear to the donor (and to the scientists interested in the project) that a no by the farmers means a definite no. However, the villagers agreed to a carbon compensation project and spent over a year negotiating amongst themselves (with the help of two ARARI facilitators) about how to exclose the land to everyone’s satisfaction. In an area where even the steepest hillsides are still used intensely not only for grazing but also for planting, it is not easy to negotiate land to be put aside. But they did it. In one very socially cohesive village, the negotiations were done with great enthusiasm and a lot of joint effort. In the second village, it was a bit of a bumpy ride, especially as they already had problems maintaining a previously enclosed area of only two hectares.

In the end, however, both villages reached an agreement and are now planting trees in the exclosed areas. The trees they plant are species they have chosen, and the land they plant them on is land they have selected. Oddly enough, no one is asking “where is our share of the money?” By creating an environment in which the villagers had the power to accept or decline a project and then decide on the details themselves, COPE allowed the villagers to take ownership of the project. The potential for transformation that comes from simply respecting a community’s right to make its own decisions is enormous. As long as this right continues to be respected, I believe these two villages will continue to succeed in their carbon compensation efforts.