AGRI-HIST: Agri-system histories and trajectories in Tigray Ethiopia: crops, terraces and heritage

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Department Name: Collections

Abstract

We aim to create a holistic framework to study traditional agri-systems within their local agroecological, cultural, and historical settings, focusing on Tigray in the northern Ethiopian Highlands. Globally, agrobiodiversity has declined markedly since the mid-twentieth century, partly prompted by a focus on developing a narrow range of high-yielding crop varieties, shifts to mechanisation, intensive irrigation and the use of agro-chemicals. Genetic diversity within crops is largely preserved in small holdings, making them important areas for in situ conservation of crop landraces (local varieties). Ethiopia is a key location to study agrobiodiversity and the ways it is created and maintained within cultural systems as the Ethiopian Highlands are one of the centres of crop diversity famously identified by Vavilov, and are characterised by both indigenous crops and secondary diversity in several others. This diversity has been preserved in enclaves of the highlands, alongside traditional food processing and non-mechanised farming. Local crop landraces together with associated traditional practices and knowledge are, however, increasingly endangered due to new agricultural methods, urbanisation, and land use change. Northern Ethiopia is important to study as it is more drought prone, and experiences higher levels of food insecurity than central and southern zones. Droughts are increasing in frequency, and the region is feared to be particularly vulnerable to climate change.

It is not possible to fully understand local agricultural trajectories without studying soils and erosion histories, how land use (especially phases of terracing) influences soil variability over time, and documenting people's perceptions of landscape change. Crop diversification and soil preservation are essential for future resilience in the Tigray region. The project is urgently needed to capture knowledge from elderly farmers to determine any changes in crop/landrace roles and the ecological advantages or use properties of these crops. The relationship between land modification, soils and changing patterns of agrobiodiversity can be especially studied in Tigray due to detailed datasets available to the project on terrace development since the 1970s. These datasets will enable us to distinguish traditional and modern categories of land-use and erosion mitigation, and hence to study the legacy and efficacy of terraces over time. Also, by distinguishing local vs introduced terracing, we will contribute to studies of landscape as local heritage.

The project will establish a new multidisciplinary, international and cross-sector research partnership to study agriculture, crops and food systems within different agro-climatic zones across Tigray. We will undertake fieldwork to design and pilot interdisciplinary research methods to study traditional agri-systems, and will assess and locate a range of suitable case-study areas (e.g. contrasting local environments, preservation of traditions, connecting with local NGOs, or local archaeological projects that provide useful contextual data on long-term environmental histories). Methods development and pilot research will investigate (i) relationships between local crop choices, environments and cultural influences together with the main reasons for change; (ii) the ways in which current farming strategies are influenced by local patterns of soil variation, landscape modification (especially terraces), and erosion histories; and (iii) the ongoing relationship between traditional agricultural systems and cultural heritage (such as items made from crop-processing by-products, material culture connected with food processing, agricultural landscapes, intangible heritage such as songs sung during threshing).

Planned Impact

Local rural communities are direct beneficiaries. In Tigray, climate change and loss of traditional knowledge of agrobiodiversity and land management is a threat to future livelihoods. The project will help protect indigenous knowledge through new data and research tools capable of documenting local knowledge holistically via cross-disciplinary researchers and interdisciplinary approaches. This will create a better understanding of how agrobiodiversity connects to local ecological context (seasonality, soils, terraces), diversity of agricultural practices, cultural preferences, and temporal change. We will also explore local agriculture from a heritage perspective - and the connectivity between biocultural heritage (crops, cultivated landscapes), material culture (e.g. agricultural tools, terracing, thatching, basketry) and intangible heritage (e.g. farmers' knowledge, agricultural cycles, cuisine). We will consult with communities on the nature of locally produced/distributed outputs (leaflets, video, community meetings, school visits); and information crucial for co-designing a larger future project with and for local communities and third-sector partners.

Linking ethnobotanical studies of agrobiodiversity within a cultural and historical context, can contribute towards strategies for coping with climate change, by understanding drivers of change and reasons for landrace loss/preservation/distribution. Cross-sector research impact will be facilitated by communicating methods and results across the academic/agricultural research community and between local and international NGOs from the outset, many of which have a direct presence within Ethiopia and the Tigray region.

We will contribute to a better understanding of landscape change - created by both erosion and measures to contain it which can influence local, national and international policies. This will highlight how understanding past landscapes can inform strategies for future sustainable land-management. Whilst the character and efficacy of indigenous terraces will be explored, this will be compared and contextualised by identifying the locations and intended function of widespread terracing built by international agencies from the 1970s, the latter facilitated by unique archival information made available to the project. These data plus our ethnobotanical, ethnopedological and archaeological data will determine information on terrace efficacy over the last 50yrs of relevance to other regions in Ethiopia and beyond that have had analogous terracing within modern periods. Also, unraveling the complexity of local and introduced terracing will permit reconstructions of longer-term landscape histories related to local farming practices.

Agricultural heritage is a newly emerging category, taking its place alongside archaeological/monumental heritage and is a comparatively new and underdeveloped research area across Africa. The project will directly engage with local heritage preservation strategies. Supporting the development of cross-departmental interdisciplinary research at Mekelle University will also facilitate local capacity building, including through field training, and two-way knowledge exchange.

Hosted by RBG Kew, the project website and Plants of the World Online (POWO) portal will make selected plant-specific data widely available to all interested audiences, including the general public. Public engagement initiatives at Kew (e.g. Science Weekend) will promote and disseminate research results. We will share reports of project findings with local organizations (NGOs) during and at the end of the research project. Results will be communicated to diverse audiences in Ethiopia through AAU project partners and via local agricultural research collaborators in connection with Kew's existing network of stakeholders in Ethiopia - the latter developed through collaborations and projects covering plant diversity, genomics, resilience and conservation.

Publications

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