MCC photo by Daniel Leonard

Farmers such as Tiruneh Mitiku are benefiting from a soil and water conservation project of an MCC partner organization, Migibare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO). The project allowed Mitiku, a leader active in mobilizing other farmers in the project, to grow higher-value crops such as maize, barley and teff, a native grain.

AKRON, Pa. – Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgis presented a first-place “Green Award” to a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization in a televised ceremony, Feb. 7.

The award, which includes a plaque, certificate and green band saying “green hero,” recognizes Migibare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO) for its outstanding work in restoring exhausted land for agricultural use, by and for impoverished individuals and families.

In 2008, MSCFSO embarked upon a three-year project to rehabilitate the Dejel watershed in the East Gojjam zone of Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The project, supported by MCC, provided income and in-kind assets, such as farm animals, to some of the area’s poorest residents in exchange for work they did to improve the land.

“MSCFSO’s work in East Gojjam has now become a model of sustainable land management in the area,” said Bruce Guenther, MCC director of disaster response.

“Some 1,160 hectares of degraded land have been rehabilitated. Wheat and barley yields have doubled, and soil quality has improved to the point where farmers can plant higher-value crops, including teff, a grain native to the region. A majority of the 645 participating households have increased their incomes.”

Farmers in a neighboring area came to MSCFSO asking for this work to be implemented in their community, Guenther said, and MSCFSO provided them with training and technical assistance.

The Amhara region of Ethiopia, north of Addis Ababa, has not been devastated by the drought that has swept other regions of East Africa. However, it is an area that faces chronic food insecurity because of families’ small land holdings and severe erosion.

By rehabilitating land, farmers are able to plant higher-value crops. The soil and water conservation techniques help the land continue to produce year after year, improving families’ livelihood and access to food.

Program participant Yelfign Walle, 16, worked in MSCFSO’s soil and water conservation activities in eroded gullies – planting fast-growing trees and constructing earthen dikes and dams made of wood and stone. The project reduces erosion by helping to control runoff in the watershed and preserve topsoil.

In exchange for the work, Walle received three goats. Selling some of the goats’ offspring has allowed her to return to school, in addition to buying needed food and clothing. She had been forced to drop out of school earlier because of lack of funds. By the end of 2010, Walle was one of 80 young people who had dropped out and were able return to their studies due to similar in-kind payments.

Lingerew Ayele, a farmer, earned two sheep for his work in dike and dam construction on his land in 2009. He also earned cash for his work in the project’s tree nursery. Instead of working day labor in a nearby town, an unpredictable prospect at best, he can now feed his family with what he cultivates on his rehabilitated land. Ayele is proud that he has been able to move his family from a hut to a house with a sheet-metal roof and that the family has accrued a “bank” of five ewes.

These success stories, typical for the project, led to the Green Award.

“This is a prestigious award given to organizations working at environmental excellence. I can’t overstate how exciting this is for our partner and for MCC Ethiopia,” said Daniel Leonard, MCC Ethiopia representative with his spouse, Karin Kliewer, both of Winnipeg, Man.

But the project is also a strong affirmation of a broader principle for development in Ethiopia – environmental management and restoration is vital to sustainable economic growth. “You couldn’t have one without the other,” Leonard stressed. “Poor soil fertility, erosion and unpredictable climates are key drivers of poverty. Responding to economic needs by encouraging community ownership and environmental restoration reduces vulnerability while contributing to long-term sustainable development.”

MCC supported MSCFSO’s four-year project with $160,000 through MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

The Ethiopian government’s Forum for Environment Association began the award program in 2006. The 21-member selection committee includes the president, elected representatives and government officials, artists, academics, journalists and representatives of various sectors, including youth and community groups and private business.

Emily Will is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md.