In the arid highlands of northern Ethiopia
is the town of Lalibela, world famous for its subterranean churches built
800 years ago. The churches, which are still used as places of worship,
plunge more than 90 feet into the ground, with finely chiselled interiors
and a maze of underground passages connecting one building to the next.
An hour's drive from Lalibela an experiment is taking place to make the high, rocky land more promising for the area's farmers. For the past two years the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), a Christian Aid partner, has worked with local farmers. An area of 100 hectares, which previously was not cultivated, has been laid out into fields, each protected by a series of stone enclosures, known as bunds. The bunds keep the soil from washing into the valley when the rains come.
The 703 farmers involved in this water and soil conservation scheme took one month to build the bunds.
Aymiro Gedamu, 45, one of the farmers involved is enthusiastic about the project: 'Before, in the heavy rain, there was always great flooding, taking away all the soil. All the water would go into the gullies without any use.'
All the farmers have benefited from this scheme. 'Before I was harvesting five loads of pack animals,' says Aymiro. 'Now I harvest seven or eight loads of pack animals. I use feed my family of five children; I can sustain myself.'
This simple construction is essential for the future of farming in Ethiopia; heavy rains result in soil degradation. The farmers say there is now better water holding and better soil depth. They also contribute free labour days to inspect and repair broken walls.
One hundred kilometres west of the capital Addis Ababa another conservation project is going on. In Ginchi farmers have been using cereal banks for the past three years. Storage of grain is just as important as conserving soil and water. In the past these farmers had nowhere to store their grain and were obliged to sell it at the going rate or see it ruined by rain or pest. The lack of a properly functioning marketing board also keeps the farmers from benefiting from their labours.
With the help of Christian Aid, HUNDEE, an Ethiopian organisation, has funded a cereal bank project. The local peasant association made up of 68 farmers uses its capital to buy and store the grain. If there is a surplus on the market, it is held back until there is a need otherwise it is sold to the highest bidder.
Sori Badada is a member of the peasant association and for him the benefits are more than just financial. 'Just coming together and talking is a benefit, ' he says. 'Now we have the confidence to discuss with the government and to find solutions together.'
Mulisa Bayisa agrees: 'Before I had debts to pay and I had to sell my grain at low prices. The cereal bank is important because it brings a change in attitude, we learn when to sell, to understand markets and it increases our bargaining power. It is also better to keep it here because it protects it from fire, rain and pest.'
The problems facing Ethiopia are colossal. Sporadic rains spark immediate emergencies, but over population and intensive farming are resulting in long-term environmental degradation, which if not checked, will cause even more hardship. Small-scale projects such as soil and water conservation and cereal banks can make a big difference.