opinionBy Worku Belachew
At the Durban Climate Change Convention in December 2011, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that Faidherbia programme--a government initiative will establish hundred million Faidherbia albida trees on smallholder cereal croplands across the country within the next three years in order to improve the food production and livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
This programme will run until 2014. The government also plans to reforest fifteen million hectares of land, including the regeneration of tree cover on croplands.
Recent research findings in the area of agriculture are well hammering the use of farming strategies that help boost agricultural product and productivity and as the same time serve other related purposes as the saying goes 'kill two birds with one stone'. In fact, in this case it is killing many birds with one stone. Farmers in many drought prone regions will better improve their lives through growing their crops under a canopy of trees that provide cover, nutrients, fodder for animals, firewood and other indirect benefits like carbon sequestration. This is a strategy employed by mixing agriculture and forestay and is called Agroforesty- Agroforestry involves raising trees in combination with other agricultural enterprises, including livestock. Different species of trees can be planted with many types of crops in a variety of patterns. For example, fast-growing trees can be planted when the land is fallow or they can be grown at the same time as agricultural crops- Agroforestry trees are, therefore, selected based on the merits of their multipurpose advantages and some of them include, fertilizing the cropland ,availability of adequate seeds, needs of farmers and the plant's environmental adaptation.
Why Faidherbia albida is chosen for agroforestry in Ethiopia?
Professor Ensermu Kelbessa is Head of Department of Life Sciences at Addis Ababa University College of Natural Sciences. He explains the multifaceted advantages over using Faidherbia albida (also called acasia albida) species for agroforestry purposes. "Acacia is a genus of leguminous subfamily, nitrogen-fixing plants, we have over seven hundred leguminous species in Ethiopia. Globally there are one thousand and hundred species of Acacia. Of which around one hundred thirty of them make Africa their home. Amazingly, over half of Africa's acacia are found in Ethiopia, that is sixty of them. In fact, ten of the species were brought from Australia with Eucalyptus tree. Surprisingly, all the species in Africa are spiny. Faidherbia albida is enlisted in the 'Ethiopian flora' as one species.
Prof. Ensermu also explains the agroforestry advantages of Faidherbia albida "It regains its leaves in dry season, during the period most trees drop their leaves. To the contrary, its leaves falls off the tree in rainy seasons. For this reason, crops cultivated under the trees can easily get sunshine- which is rare during the rainy season- without competition. The leaves littering the land under the trees also easily get decomposed and increase the organic content of the croplands. More importantly, birds could not spoil crops taking a shield on such trees as other carnivore birds can easily see and attack them, due to the absence of its leaves. According to the professor's explanation, legumes are notable plants for their ability in nitrogen fixation. "We can easily see the purplish nods, in which nitrogen fixing bacteria are found at the roots of such plants- pea and chickpea for instance-and these bacteria brings nitrogen from air into the soil which is very important for plants growth.
Faidherbia albida has also unusual adapting quality to various climatic zones, says Ensermu, "this tree can grow up to 270 metre below sea level like in Palestine to 2700 metre above sea level like in some areas of Sudan, he added. "This means it can grow between Afar depression and Entoto Mountain in Ethiopia." This tree also grows in wet areas. Therefore, Faidherbia albida is of great importance for countries like ours. There are plant species famous for seed banking, plants that keep their seed in the soil for long period, researches have shown that the tree species in context can save its seeds for over thirty years, if places in the rift valley region of Ethiopia can be free from human and animals interaction this agroforestry can have a chance to grow on its own, Prof. Ensermu has made it clear.
Farmers can also use this tree to produce animal's fodder. Pods usually falls during dry season when fodder is scarce. Available data has shown that average pod production ranges from 6 to 135 kilogram per year per tree, as has been witnessed in one of Sudan's zones. Obviously, this figure varies from country to country for various reasons. If farmers have fifteen to twenty of this trees, they can produce significant amount of fodder for their animals, says Prof. Ensermu. "In most places in the rift region like in Adama you can see goats around the trees searching for the thick protein rich pod to eat, as a result they also put their dungs on the fields which in turn serves as fertilizer." He added, there are indicators as farmers in the rift region of Ethiopia are well aware about the advantageous of the agroforestry tree. They never clears it from their farmlands, in case they face with fuel-wood shortage, they only cut some of the branches. Many research findings have also shown that Faidherbia can be greatly used for bee farming as the trees flowering period is following the rainy season while other local plants lose flowers. In addition to the aforementioned advantages, Faidherbia plays a great role for water and soil conservation works. What is more, as the roots of Faidherbia stretches up to forty metres deep, it does not compete water with the crop plants
Mesfin Gebre-Yohanis is natural resources expert with Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) explains; Some efforts have undergone and the late premier's efforts has been translated into practice. He said the efforts are not only planting the tree species, it also includes caring the trees which are already available in most farmers croplands around the rift states in Ethiopia. In fact, the major plan is to grow twenty five million Faidherbia trees in four states of the country; Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and South Nations, Nationalities and Peoples states. To get the full potential of the trees, hundred trees need to be planted per hectare of land, that means in a ten by ten area. By doing so, two hundred fifty kilogrames of lime and around three hundred kilograms of complete fertilizer, contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, can be replaced. That means it reduces cost of fertilizer and the chemical fertilizer's prolonged effects on the croplands. "Farmers clearly knows such advantageous of the forest, we have seen some farmers spreading the soil which is found under Faidherbia trees to other parts of their cropland," says Mesfin.
Understanding these significance of the trees, the late PM Meles Zenawi made the remark mentioned earlier at the Durban climate conference. And after that two hundred quintals of Faidherbia tree seeds have been distributed at a federal level to the four states, that is fifty kilogrames each. And there was also a direct follow up from MoA. But, nowadays it is the states that carry out the task based on Faidherbia Albida based Agroforestry Technology Package. In fact, there are some mismanagement of this trees witnessed so far, that is cutting the canopy, branch of the tree that extends to the sides, and this decrease the potential of the trees in yielding the desired outcomes. For this reason, repeated trainings need to be given for the farmers, hence, produce surplus crops than ever before through implementing this strategy.
The package shows that Faidherbia can be planted mixing with, maize, sorghum, teff ... the package can also be implemented with pastoralist lands. This obviously ensures the production of animals' fodder in the pastoralist regions of the country. The package also shows, on one hand, that the Faidherbia tree seedling preparation should start six months in advance before transplanting the young trees. On the other hand, it states transplanting of Faidherbia tree seedlings will bring best results if it is done in the rainy season, that is starting from mid February on. In fact, this can go until mid July based on the climatic variation of the places. Meanwhile, from the above argument, it can be concluded the time for the preparation of the seedlings is already at hand. Therefore, the premier's aspirations to improve the livelihoods of the smallholder farmers should come true.