Friday, June 21, 2013

Post-Modernist Conservation Reclaims Ecosystem Services

BY G. Michael G. Michael
  (Originally published by Fortune Content Matters)
The relationship between human welfare and the natural environment is mediated by ecosystem services. Changes to those services as a result of changes in the environment affect livelihood. Overlooking this link, however, human beings jeopardize their survival by disturbing the environment.
Degradation and pollution are major human induced environmental threats across the world. Although the latter is yet an emerging challenge, natural resource degradation remains a concern for least developed countries (LDCs) such as Ethiopia. Loss of land productivity due to erosion, deforestation, depletion of nutrients, and deterioration of soil structure signal the worst state of environmental dilapidation. So are the subsequent problems of food insecurity, displacement of people, loss of biodiversity and frequent failures in ecosystem functions. 

As the environmental problems worsen, the approaches to rehabilitate the depleted natural wealth become sophisticated. Modernization and post-modernist approaches of managing the environment are the most popular approaches. Modernization identifies farmers as the basic cause of resource depletion and commends the exclusion of people from the natural ecosystem as a way out. Yet, it does not account for the complexity of ecological services.

Post-modernism, on the other hand, claims that farmers are not the only factors of environmental degradation and advocates for participatory resource management. With the recent popularity of sustainable development, the latest such strategy, the whole game has changed towards reconciling the economic, social and ecological dimensions of development. But realizing it has never been easy.
Many development actors across the world often fail to address the three objectives at a time in their practices. No different is the case in Ethiopia, wherein piecemeal approaches failed short of enhancing social welfare. All the same, there are pioneers that managed to realize prospective balance of sustainable development.

Sustaining this achievement, however, demands more than project execution; it requires a comprehensive effort and strong coordination of all sector players. Inability to integrate the three components on the same intervention site definitely hampers success. So far as the current trend goes, integrating conservation, healthcare and economic empowerment seems far-off in many regions of Ethiopia. 

As rare as success remains, some development actors are fighting the fight with full understanding of what is at stake. In implementing the population, health and environment (PHE) approach, they wrestle to ensure holistic and participatory development in their project sites. As my recent visit to Tigray Regional State proves, an expanded PHE implementation is resulting in vivid welfare improvements.
As pivotal institution, the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) executes the approach in the region. Capitalizing on its over 30 years of experience in development activities ranging from humanitarian assistance to environmental rehabilitation, the society pushes for inclusive development in the region. Certainly, it has taken its proper place in the success story of the region including the restoration of 30pc of the degraded land between 1975 and 2006. 

The water and soil conservation practices carried out in the region have also enabled to repair the ecosystem services not less agricultural productivity as underground water, soil fertility and land cultivability have improved.

In a locality known as Balla, for example, land cultivability has considerably increased with PHE intervention that over 160 farming households are making a living on 60ha of reclaimed land. Constructing terraces in the hilly landscapes and building small check dams along valleys conserved water for small scale irrigation and protect erosion downstream. All the efforts, however, integrate family planning and healthcare provision components.      
In Wukro area, another locality that I have been to, the society supports soil and water conservation projects. Apparently, the intervention facilitated environmental recovery. It has changed the ecosystem and increased the size of tillable land. It has also enhanced biomass production, groundwater recharge and prevention of flood hazards. 

Accordingly, the health and family planning programs are also bearing fruits. Societal awareness about optimum family size and healthy life is improving albeit slowly. So does the attitude towards balancing resource availability with population size. The use of pit latrines has also improved dramatically. 

Similar stories might exist in other parts of Ethiopia, where PHE projects have been implemented by other development organizations. Anecdotal evidences show that projects in southern Ethiopia have improved gender equality, male involvement in family planning, number of family planning users, and effectiveness of health extension. They have also led to better support for family planning from religious leaders, prevention of early marriage and expanding income generation windows. Arguably, this all would redress diverse social ills and increase local participation in decision making. 

So long as the pace of these developments could be maintained, the road ahead for PHE seems well paved. No doubt that it will compel other actors into the club to realize the comprehensive development agenda that the country has crafted.    
BY G. Michael G. Michael
G. Michael G. Michael is an Editor at the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA). He can be reached at

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