Understanding Farmers: Explaining Soil and Water Conservation in Konso, Wolaita and Wello, Ethiopia

T. Beshah

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    Soil erosion by water is an old problem in Ethiopia. The prevalence of mountainous and undulating landscapes, coupled with the expansion of arable farming on steep areas due to population pressure have aggravated the soil erosion problem in the country. Prompted by one of the great famines in the country in 1973, the international community and the Ethiopian government began to carry out massive conservation measures that covered extensive areas. Since then, the conservation movement has continued. Ethiopia's major research partner in soil and water conservation was the Swiss-financed Soil Conservation Research Project that operated from 1981 to 1998. In spite of this project, farmers' practices have not changed markedly nor have they adopted the introduced conservation practices. This study was initiated to understand farmers' soil and water conservation behaviour in order to improve insights into the land-management problems of the country. For this, farmers' knowledge and attitudes on soil erosion and soil and water conservation were assessed to find out what influenced their soil and water conservation practices. Where applicable, farmers' responses to interventions in soil and water conservation were examined. Finally, the determinants of soil and water conservation behaviours among farmers were identified. Both qualitative and quantitative research methods were used to gather and analyse data. The conceptual framework that guided this study was drawn from perspectives on land degradation and intensification, theories on planned change and development, farming systems, indigenous knowledge, and social learning, and from an attitude-behaviour model. Efforts were made to review empirical studies on determinants of soil and water conservation practices. This study was carried out in three areas, namely, Konso, Wolaita and Wello. The first site provided the case of an indigenous soil and water conservation system, whereas the other two sites were intervention cases in which an intensive soil and water conservation research and extension programme was carried out for nearly two decades. The indigenous system in Konso, into which soil and water conservation methods were integrated is exceptional in Ethiopia and has existed for at least four centuries. It was developed out of societal needs for survival in a rather fragile environment. This community developed institutions that provide labour, control population numbers and protect the stone terrace-based farming system. The strong soil and water conservation elements in this system emerged because of the harsh physical environment and were sustained by the institutions developed in the society. As evidence of the importance of local institutions for developing and maintaining soil and water conservation practices, this system has recently undergone some deterioration due to the abandonment of its population-control system and its local labour organisations, as well as due to climatic factors. The two intervention case studies, though they vary from one another, are markedly different from that of the indigenous system. Their physical resources were much more secure than those of the indigenous system. Therefore, physical conservation practices did not develop in these two sites on their own, but needed to be prompted from outside. One of these systems is characterised by the use of organic sources of fertiliser, whereas the other system mainly depends on long fallow periods and the establishment of staggered structures in the steeper fields. This study found that farmers in these two areas responded differently to the introduced interventions. In Wolaita, farmers refrained from maintaining the introduced bunds, and removed a considerable number that had been installed through a food-for-work programme; whereas in Wello, farmers first removed the stone bunds and later on replaced them with their own modification of the design, introducing innovative bund-management methods. These differences resulted because of variations in the existing physical factors and in the soil fertility management practices. In the former case, the soil is deep and yet organic fertiliser was used together with a supplement of inorganic fertilisers. In the latter case, in which shallow soils dominate, making the situation even worse when the conservation structures were removed, the use of organic fertiliser is limited to garden plots and inorganic fertiliser is not widely used. "Dis-adoption" in Wolaita took place because of negative side effects of the soil bunds, such as mole-rat and weed infestations, and hindrance to ox-ploughing. The underlying problem of the side effects is the fact that there is a shortage of land, which was exacerbated by the introduction of bunds. At the Wolaita site, the technology failed to outweigh the negative side effects perceived by the farmers. In addition, the research and extension systems also failed to be proactive to demonstrate the pros and cons of the alternate practices, other than to collect physical data. The case studies show that there is no lack of knowledge about soil erosion and soil and water conservation among farmers, nor do they have a problematic attitude to these issues. They are very much aware of the problems and solutions. However, farmers and outsiders differ in terms of their perceptions of soil erosion. Unlike outsiders, farmers look at the problem of erosion through its impact on soil fertility rather than through the actual physical process involved, which takes the soil away. This contrast was reflected in farmers¿ prioritisation of crop production problems in which they ranked soil erosion far lower than other physical problems. There was no strong evidence found, of negative effects of state ownership of land in the case study areas with the exception of the non-arable communal lands (grazing, hillsides). The past food-for-work incentive, which allowed for the establishment of conservation structures in the intervention areas, was not found to be a shortcoming in itself. The provision of food was an appropriate method of payment for people who could not produce their own. It can be noted that food produced by these people supports them for only 5-7 months. However, a problem emerged because of a lack of understanding of farmers¿ behaviour regarding soil and water conservation that was aggravated by the absence of a learning process that should complement a technical intervention. In view of this, it is suggested to improve extension agents¿ training to help them understand farmers¿ practices. The study found out that farmers¿ behaviour regarding soil and water conservation is a result of the interplay among social, economic, institutional and technical factors. More specifically, the determinants of soil and water conservation in this study are: physical factors (topography, soils and rainfall), local institutions, labour organisation, land size, family size, livestock ownership, risk perception, food availability, land tenure on non-arable lands and characteristics of technology (e.g., relative advantages, compatibility, etc.). The improvement of Ethiopia's land-management practices requires the promotion of farmer participation, diversification production and income, intensification of production systems, improvement in the training of extension agents, integration of learning processes into conservation incentives and the implementation of a land-tenure system that reflects diversity in the country and that links management and utilisation of natural resources in communal holdings. Finally, the study underlines the need to carry out location-specific research studies on land management using a holistic approach. Wageningen Dissertation Abstracts
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Stroosnijder, Leo, Promotor
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    Award date17 Feb 2003
    Place of Publication[S.l.]
    Print ISBNs9789058087959
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


    • soil conservation
    • water conservation
    • farmers
    • farming systems

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