The vicious cycle of poverty
The analyses also showed vicious cycles in which various factors interact to worsen the health of people and their ecosystem.
Land holdings are so small that farmers can’t afford to let the ground lie fallow, reducing soil fertility. The land has become so degraded that it doesn’t produce adequate fodder for livestock. In turn, livestock produce amounts of milk that are low even by Ethiopian standards. And the community often burns livestock manure as fuel instead of plowing its nutrients back into the land, further weakening crop production.
This low agricultural productivity leads to inadequate income for the farmers and consequently hunger, malnutrition, and disease. Poor farmers are in turn unable to spend money on making their land more productive, improving their housing, or buying medicine. Unhealthy farmers find it difficult to work their land and productivity drops further.
According to agricultural economist Mohammad Jabbar of ILRI, the bottom line is: “If people don’t adopt some improved agricultural technologies, the land will not be able to sustain them.”
Farmers identify their problems
The research team wanted to find out if the people of Yubdo Legabato could identify their own health problems and develop action plans to solve them. Researchers asked community members what criteria they used for assessing their health, what factors caused their problems, and eventually, what they thought should be done about them.
In the initial discussions, the factor that was always top of the list was not having enough to eat. The farmers often attributed all their problems to dhabuu, a word in the Oromiya language that translates loosely as “not owning enough.” The researchers encouraged the farmers to think more broadly about the sources of their problems, and more factors came to light: a shortage of livestock feed; lack of potable water in the dry season; increasing soil erosion; a perceived increase in the incidence of malaria, measles, and water-borne illnesses.
Helping community members to identify connections between their agricultural practices, their use of natural resources, their sanitary practices, and their health was the next step. The researchers had collected so much data on so many households, that they were able to thoroughly analyze which factors were related to which problems. Overall, the results clearly showed that agriculture, environment, human nutrition, and health are inseparably linked, demonstrating the need for a holistic approach to problems of human well-being.
Among the findings:
Households that had already adopted technologies to improve crop production — such as growing cereals together with legumes or a tilling technique to reduce water-logging — tended to have more to eat.
People who fell ill during the study were more likely to come from households considered “food insecure.”
Children who scored poorly on measures of cognitive development were more likely to come from households where fruit and vegetables were less often available and where cooking was done inside the home.
This last measure came from testing such things as shape recognition and motor skills among infants and toddlers ranging from 6 to 42 months. The results suggest that many children receive such poor nutrition that their cognitive development is being impaired. “Dealing with the state of the kids now is absolutely fundamental if you want the next generation to be sustainable,” says Peden.
A 10-fold increase in income
The researchers next turned their attention to the impact of potential solutions. To test whether a combination of improved agricultural technologies could substantially improve the lives of people in Yubdo Legabato, the team created a computer model that took into account the potential positive and negative outcomes of various actions in the ecosystem. The results suggest that the people of Yubdo Legabato can not only break the cycle of poverty, they can smash it to pieces.
The computer model says farming families could, over a 12-year period, have enough to eat and see their incomes increase 10 times. This would require better management of the existing natural resources by adopting agroforestry, applying manure and inorganic fertilizers, improving drainage, and planting high-yield crops.
The huge potential for increased income and better health comes from the cumulative effect of various changes. For instance, the researchers say not cooking indoors with manure as fuel could reduce people’s respiratory problems. Improving household design could make houses warmer, encouraging people not to keep animals indoors. Introducing agroforestry could provide animal fodder and reduce soil erosion. All of this could improve the community’s health and nutrition.
The research team encouraged farmers to think about whether they could begin to make some positive changes on their own rather than wait for assistance from outside. Once people learned that their hygienic practices could cause health problems, they took matters into their own hands. “People built different houses for their livestock, people built a separate room for cooking their food, and also started building raised platforms for sleeping,” says Astatke.
The researchers collaborated with the community to design a simple, affordable means of purifying water to reduce the high incidence of gastrointestinal illnesses. They adapted a slow sand filtration system, using 100-litre clay vessels made by local potters at a cost of about US$4 each.
Encouraging more widespread adoption of the recommended practices is one aim of the project’s next phase. But for the farmers to be willing to adopt some technologies, they must believe their investments will not be wasted. Ethiopian farmers have no formal land tenure. Since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and the end of the long-standing feudal system, the Ethiopian government has owned all land, allocating it to families for their use. But the government offers them no guarantee of long-term land rights. “Animals are seen as a more important measure of wealth than land because land they can’t sell,” says Jabbar.
The policy gives farmers little incentive to invest in immovable improvements such as planting trees or constructing better homes. Even the practice of sleeping on dirt floors can be traced to the insecurity of land tenure — why spend the money to build a bed when you may have to leave it behind at a moment’s notice? Some farmers are unwilling to borrow money for fertilizer at the beginning of the planting season because of the risk they may not hold the land come harvest time.
But senior government officials are more openly than ever before discussing the need for secure land tenure, raising hopes that policy change is on the horizon.
Lessons for Highland communities
The researchers believe the lessons learned in Yubdo Legabato can be applied not only to other parts of the Ethiopian highlands but also to highland communities throughout eastern Africa and around the world. The project team is working on plans to test whether the links and interactions they uncovered in Ethiopia between human health and the ecosystem are applicable in such places as Uganda, Nepal, and Peru.