Jilbo, Ethiopia - From their picturesque perch in the fertile Arba Gugu Mountains, Amina Ibro lives a hardscrabble life with her husband, Kalifa Mohammed, and their seven children. Like others in this village of mud-and-straw homes, the family raises crops and animals to eke out a living - if nature cooperates, that is.
"Our survival," says Ahmed Ossman, the chief of their small village, "depends on the rains."
Mercy Corps is helping families here smooth out the vagaries of Ethiopia's notoriously fickle climate. More than 3,700 households are benefiting from drought-resistant fodder trees, propagated in a Mercy Corps nursery, that yield a reliable source of supplementary animal fodder during droughts.
Maintaining a healthy herd of cattle is critical to residents of West Hararge, one of 14 zones in Ethiopia's vast and agriculturally productive Oromiya region. Like most of the zone's 1.9 million people, Kalifa and Amina are considered agro-pastoralists because they make their living by raising livestock - in their case cattle - and by farming. The family tends a small plot of maize, sweet potato and sorghum.
It's not an easy life, primarily because there's not a lot of land to go around. Despite rapid deforestation to make room for more people and more crops - most notably qat, a green-leafed stimulant that fetches a good price in export markets - degraded soils and insufficient water have forced 80 percent of West Hararge's woredas, or townships, to rely on outside food aid.
These strains on the land impact the health of livestock herds, which in rural Ethiopia are the equivalent of bank accounts. They're an asset base for millions of families, who rely on them as a source of nutritious milk and as a commodity that they can sell to buy food, clothing or medicine.
"These are my assets," says Kalifa, standing beside one of his two cows. "I sell them for my income. They're each worth about 800 birr (US$100)."
Sprouting new promise
In less populated areas, livestock owners focus on expanding their herd. But large herds are untenable in West Hararge. "There is no land on which to graze, so agro-pastoralists keep only a handful of animals and must feed them what they grow on their own property," explains Reta Aklilu, a Mercy Corps field officer.
That's a tall order in a region with frequent food crises. So in 2004, with financial backing from USAID, Mercy Corps established the first of three fodder nurseries (ranging in size from 2,000 to 2,400 square feet) and began propagating seeds and starts of four different tree species, as well as cowpeas and a local grass variety. Field staff also began planting community groves and holding multi-day trainings for 30 government extension agents on how to care for the trees.
By the end of last August, Mercy Corps had produced 175,000 fodder seedlings and distributed starts to 3,756 households.
Creating this animal fodder safety net is part of the agency's larger effort to protect household livestock and increase the resiliency of agro-pastoralists and pastoralists in the region. Mercy Corps has vaccinated about 146,000 cattle and 10,000 camels against three drought-related diseases. (Kalifa and Amina lost a heifer two years ago to Blackleg, one of 32 oxen in the village that succumbed to the disease.) The agency has also equipped two remote veterinary posts with forceps, hoof cutters, modern sterilizers and other equipment and supplies.
In early October, the end of the rainy season, residents of Jilbo happily reported that no disease outbreaks had occurred since Mercy Corps began vaccinating their cattle and planting fodder trees several months earlier. Outside Kalifa and Amina's home, a large pile of cuttings from harvested maize and sorghum await their cows' hungry bellies.
"But during dry season, there is a shortage of these crops," Kalifa explained. "Then, I will rely on these walenso (fodder trees) that Mercy Corps has provided."
They'll need them to feed their cows - and to fuel their dreams of a better, more secure life in Ethiopia's majestic mountains.