Ethiopia: Ato Gebremichael Gidey Berhe, village chief

Ato Gebremichael Gidey Berhe, village chief in Ethiopia

For many years, the northern Ethiopian village of Abraha Atsbeha and its 5,000 inhabitants were affected by droughts and famine. Village Chief Ato Gebremichael Gidey Berhe and his community, however, have successfully cultivated the farmland around his village. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and other donors, GIZ has provided assistance over many years to restore soil fertility here as well as in other highland regions of Ethiopia.

When you look back, what was your village like fifteen years ago?

We lived in extreme poverty. Rainfall had totally eroded the degraded soils, and sand was all that was left. We couldn’t harvest anything anymore and all the people of Abraha Atsbaha village were dependent on food aid, including myself. The situation was shocking and we were ashamed.

What marked the turning point?

The government and the villagers were aware that it was almost impossible to live in the village in dignity. The government gave us an ultimatum: either to be resettled to another region or to develop our land with government assistance. We chose the second option.

How did the farmers tackle the problem?

There were three areas in which we received training: crop production, livestock breeding and management of natural resources. The first step was to close the area to livestock and humans. The second step was to build terraces. We managed to save our soil from erosion and to capture water in an underground water reservoir for irrigation. Then we planted various types of crops on the farmland.

Where does your village stand now?

The living conditions of the villagers have improved a lot. Grasses, shrubs and trees are now growing everywhere. The farmers are producing their own food throughout the year, so their families can consume a balanced diet with fresh vegetables and fruits. The villagers have access to clean water and electricity. They are sending their children to school, they have more clothes and proper beds. I am proud to be part of that change.

What was the biggest obstacle to achieving all this?

It wasn’t always easy to persuade the villagers to participate and convince them to change their behaviour. As a leader, I tried to set a good example and to show them the benefits of the planned measures. Who would have thought that our village would become an example of excellence and a model for others?


        
    
The village of Abraha Atsbeha is situated in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. It only gets two months of rain a year. The sandy soil had dried out and become infertile.
The village of Abraha Atsbeha is situated in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. It only gets two months of rain a year. The sandy soil had dried out and become infertile.

        
    
With the aid of a government-sponsored sustainable land management programme the villagers succeeded in recultivating their farmland – even in the dry season.
With the aid of a government-sponsored sustainable land management programme the villagers succeeded in recultivating their farmland – even in the dry season.

        
    
All the villagers need to pitch in. The men have filled wire boxes with rocks, built terraces on the slopes and dug seepage trenches. Photos: Fabian Schwan-Brandt
All the villagers need to pitch in. The men have filled wire boxes with rocks, built terraces on the slopes and dug seepage trenches. Photos: Fabian Schwan-Brandt

        
    
Under Ato Gebremichael‘s direction the villagers restructured their land use, put an end to the massive erosion and replenished the groundwater.
Under Ato Gebremichael‘s direction the villagers restructured their land use, put an end to the massive erosion and replenished the groundwater.

        
    
In order to convince the sceptics in the village of the necessary measures, the village leader had to set a good example and be among the first to lend a hand.
In order to convince the sceptics in the village of the necessary measures, the village leader had to set a good example and be among the first to lend a hand.

        
    
The groundwater table has risen from 15 metres to three metres in the dry season. Many villagers now have their own aqueducts.
The groundwater table has risen from 15 metres to three metres in the dry season. Many villagers now have their own aqueducts.

        
    
Ato Gebremichael also benefits from the changes. He proudly displays his own aqueduct in the courtyard, which provides him with water for drinking and irrigation.
Ato Gebremichael also benefits from the changes. He proudly displays his own aqueduct in the courtyard, which provides him with water for drinking and irrigation.

        
    
Growing and harvesting crops where once there was barren land. Even fruit trees now thrive in the farmer‘s garden, and surplus fruit is sold on the market.
Growing and harvesting crops where once there was barren land. Even fruit trees now thrive in the farmer‘s garden, and surplus fruit is sold on the market.

        
    
Misery and reliance on food aid donations are now a thing of the past.
Misery and reliance on food aid donations are now a thing of the past.

        
    
Basic needs such as food, water and education are now being met, so consumer goods are next: mobile phones, electrical stoves, better beds, satellite dishes.
Basic needs such as food, water and education are now being met, so consumer goods are next: mobile phones, electrical stoves, better beds, satellite dishes.

        
    
The village of Abraha Atsbeha is now a showcase for sustainable land management in Ethiopia. In 2012 it was awarded the Equator Prize of the United Nations.
The village of Abraha Atsbeha is now a showcase for sustainable land management in Ethiopia. In 2012 it was awarded the Equator Prize of the United Nations.