Foreign agricultural investors have been interested in the Gambella region of Ethiopia for a number of years. The area, which is about the size of Belgium, is fertile so they are keen to farm it. The question is: how can the region ensure this economic development does not take place at the expense of the local population and rich natural environment?
‘Local knowledge is worth its weight in gold’
On 27 June 2013, policymakers from Gambella and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa met researchers from Wageningen UR (University & Research centre) to discuss strategies for developing the region sustainably. The biodiversity in Gambella is enormous and the area is thinly populated (around 300,000 people), yet it is also the poorest part of the country,with the highest food insecurity. “It would be most unwise to make any decisions without involving the local land users”, Jolanda van den Berg, a researcher at LEI Wageningen UR, explains. "Relocating the local people to make way for companies with pots of money would be a recipe for conflict”, she emphasises. “But not only that. The locals know the area and how to manage it. That is really useful added value. The government could ask investors how they plan to deploy that local knowledge when making their business case”, she says.
Involving local land users when considering policy
Of course the Ethiopians realise that it is important to involve the public in the changes that are to take place. But how do you tackle something like this? At Wageningen UR the visitors heard about other projects in which such questions played a role: Wageningen researchers working on the European LUPIS project developed impact assessment tools to help policymakers in developing countries make well-considered choices. Also, Wageningen researchers’ acquaintance with participatory land use planning in Burkino Faso could inspire Ethiopian policymakers to improve their own methods of working. “If you involve land users in the choices that have to be made, you get their support”, Jolanda van den Berg explains.
Experience gained in Central Rift Valley
Wageningen UR is already doing a lot in Ethiopia. In 2006-2012, Huib Hengsdijk from Wageningen UR Plant Research International became acquainted with the Central Rift Valley in Ethiopia. Here too, massive investments are being made to intensify agriculture. Hengsdijk shared his first-hand experiences with the people from the Gambella region who visited Wageningen UR. One problem in the Rift Valley is that utilising water on a large scale for irrigating crops has had enormous consequences for the natural environment. Also, the water quality is not being sufficiently monitored and there is inadequate registration of the area of natural vegetation that is being turned into agricultural land. “The most important issues in the Rift Valley are combating poverty and ensuring food security, so the environment is not a priority”, Hengsdijk realises. The expertise he acquired in the Rift Valley could be useful for Gambella.
No collaboration with Gambella yet
It is too early to say whether Wageningen UR will be involved in sustainable development of the very thinly populated Gambella region. Abiy Ashenafi, who works for the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre & Network (HoAREC&N), explains: “We now have a good impression of what Wageningen UR can offer us in terms of land use planning. It was very interesting. The visits to the many other Dutch organisations were worthwhile, too. The working group will be evaluating all the information over the next few weeks. The ultimate aim is to create an integrated masterplan for the Gambella region, considering tourism in addition to agriculture. Economic development has to go hand in hand with nature conservation. And we also want to consider sectors which add value to agricultural raw materials, such as shea butter, made from the fruits of local trees.”
Frequent contact with universities in Ethiopia
The Ethiopian delegation stayed in the Netherlands for ten days; this was an important visit organised by HoAREC&N, a valuable partner for the Dutch Embassy in Ethiopia and part of Addis Ababa University. The Netherlands does a lot in Ethiopia, and Wageningen UR also has good contacts with the country. Since 2009, the research institute has been collaborating officially with the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research and with the universities of Addis Ababa, Haramaya, Hawassa, Jimma and Mekelle.