development environment sustainability

Re-greening Ethiopia

Sustainability can be a bit theoretical sometimes, especially once it gets down to technical limits and the chemistry of ecological boundaries. At its heart it’s about living in a place as if we want to stay there – making ourselves at home in the landscape rather than passing through and taking what we want.

Here’s a practical example from Ethiopia, where overgrazing had led to erosion, to desertification and the risk of famine. But the damage could be repaired with sustainable land management techniques. Swales are dug to catch rainwater rather than let it run off. A mulch is added to start building soil. Pioneer plants are added to break up the hard ground and provide shade, which preserves more water. Animals are fenced out so that plants can get established. Slowly the soil begins to recover, and greenery can return.

Here’s a video that shows what it can look like. It’s worth noting that along with sustainable land management, there is also social reform running alongside in the form of land rights. There’s also a real effort to work with, rather than for, local people.

It’s also interesting how directly Britain could learn from this in restoring some of our more barren landscapes. We’ve forgotten because they’ve been that way for so long, but they’re not meant to be barren. As George Monbiot explains in Feral, just keep the sheep off and the land will show you what it wants to be.

Here’s the video, and if you’re curious how this fits with the ecomodernist approach I was writing about yesterday, some thoughts below.

What this video demonstrates so well is people living in harmony with nature, which is what ecomodernism cautions against – so how does this fit together? The ecomodernists have a point, in that while the restoration that the video shows is a really hopeful story, it still ends with people in subsistence farming. That’s a whole lot better than having no livelihoods at all, but if we want more for Ethiopia, we need to look at more advanced technology, cash crops, markets. We’re on the road towards substitution and intensification.

Conversely, what we have here is community land restoration, where local people are acting together to heal the land and lay the groundwork for future prosperity. It’s slow and labour-intensive, and totally site-specific. There are no technological, off-the-shelf shortcuts really, although a digger and bulldozer would help. It’s hard to imagine a corporation being able to take on fixer-upper land, or even being able to raise the funds to try it. It’s just too risky. You’d only put the work in if you live there and love that place.

Ecomodernism can’t help a place like the Ethiopian highlands, as far as I can see – not yet. The land can’t be left to itself and agriculture focused more intensively elsewhere, because it won’t recover without intervention. It needs the hands-on approach of people living in harmony with nature, not decoupled from it. That’s one of the reasons why ecomodernism needs to be seen as building on current understandings of sustainability, and not replacing them with something shinier and better. There are plenty of contexts where we still need to get our hands dirty. Sparing the land is one thing. Acting to heal it, to redeem it where it’s damaged – that’s quite another.

Those are my first thoughts on the matter, but I’d be interested to hear more on what ecomodernism might have to say in this kind of context.


  1. Luckily, the increasing Global CO2 levels will help towards plant growth there, as they have in the Sahel.
    Doubtless you’ll be very pleased with this beneficial effect.
    A reliable source of energy for them to cook with, something like coal, will mean trees don’t need to be cut down for fuel & animal dung can be used as fertiliser rather than as a source of fuel too.

    1. I’m not sure you’ve grasped the economics of using coal as an energy source in the rural areas of a landlocked country.

      Maybe rising CO2 will help plant growth in the Sahel, that would be great. But can it help enough to offset the damage from rising heat levels, extreme weather, or changing rainfall patterns? Unlikely, and it would very foolish to look at the occasional isolated upside and suggest that climate change is a good thing.

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