Ficus thonningii silvopastures is an initiative where F. thonningii, an ever green, drought resistant indigenous fodder tree is planted on family farms, backyards, wastelands, exclosures etc., to provide multiple uses and services including water and soil conservation, soil fertility improvement, wasteland reclamation and enhancement and maintenance of biodiversity.
Ficus thonningii is a succulent plant that survives on aggressive absorption of erratically falling scarce rain. It also serve in provision of specific ecosystem services including wood, timber, ethnomedicine etc.
Ficus thonningii can grow on soils of diverse fertility status, thus can be used to rehabilitate and reclaim degraded wastelands, low fertility farmlands and overgrazed pastures. It also has other positive attributes which further contribute to its socio-ecological merits including easiness for propagation, being benign to other crops (absence of allelopathic effects), shallow rooted, thus does not deplete ground water, high biomass production, higher nutritive value of foliage, fast growth rate, and possible significant contribution to carbon sequestration (based on preliminary data from an ongoing study on the estimation of carbon sequestration potential of F. thonningii silvopastures).
Through meticulous seven year (and counting) scientific research, which involved initial innovator farmers who tried to utilize the merits of F. thonninnign, We, a team of researchers at Mekelle University, Ethiopia, developed easy to use protocols and procedures for propagation and utilization of F. thoningii for different purposes (Water and soil conservation, timber, soil fertility, soil and livestock fodder).
We also evaluated the impact of Ficus thonningii silvoapstures on livelihoods and environments. Ficus thonningii silvopastures help farmers in the dry land areas of northern Ethiopia to adapt to recurrent droughts through year round provision of nutritious green fodder, conservation and efficient use of water, and other multiple benefits.
After scientifically proving its positive livelihood and environmental merits, we use farmer-to-farmer training and experience sharing visits to disseminate it to other agro-ecologically similar districts.
So far we have reached about 15,000 households in the drylands of northern Ethiopia, but we intend to reach more communities with in Ethiopia and 33 other sub-Saharan AFrican countries where the species is indigenous and similar silvopastoral practice can be replicated.
This initiative has already been presented the 2015 Livelihood Camp which took place from February 23 to February 26 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Our initiative has been awarded as the most promising initiative
The scientific concepts and background to this initiative have been published in peer-reviewed international journals.
Moreover, the initiative has also been presented in a number of international and national scientific conferences . Currently it has been invited for presentation at the XII World Forestry Congress to be held in Durban, South Africa on 7-11 September, 2015.
Objectives and beneficiaries
Objective: To disseminate climate resilient silvopastural systems based on F. thonnignii as a key species for climate change adaptation, livelihoods improvement and environmental rehabilitation in dryland areas.
Beneficiaries: Although we intend to reach more communities with in Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan African countries, so far, our beneficiaries have been 15,000 households in the dry lands of northern Ethiopia including districts in Tigray (Afherom, Qola-Tembien, Degua Tembien and Hawzien)
Strong points of the practice
The following are the important strong points or innovative aspects of our initiative:
1. Water smart - Ficus thonningii, is a succulent plant which is capable aggressively absorbing rare rain drops and air moisture. As a result, there is no need for irrigation or watering for obtaining any product from the species. Moreover, unlike common deep rooted dryland tree species such as Eucalyptus, which are blamed for exhausting ground water, F. thonningii is shallow rooted and does not tap into ground water. Planted with physical soil and water conservation structures such as earthen trenches, terraces etc, it helps also in the trapping of rain water, thus contributes to ground water recharge and over all water conservation. Having leaves with high moisture content, during the dry season, F. thonnigii foliage serves as the sole source of water to livestock.
2. Comprehensive- Unlike common agro-forestry practices where trees are planted to provide one or two ecosystem services, F. thonningii, being a drought resistant, easy to propagate, fast growing tree with very large productivity nutritious foliage, and diverse multipurpose benefits, addresses not just a single challenge, but uniquely contributes to the alleviation of poverty, climate change vulnerability and environmental degradation simultaneously.
3. Low cost and input- Ficus thonningii is an indigenous tree in Ethiopia (as it is in 33 other African countries). Therefore, planting material is locally available and affordable by small scale farming families. Being adaptable to diverse ranges of soil fertility, the propagation does not require additional agronomic inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides etc. Moreover, it is drought tolerant and can grow to maturity on water naturally stored on the stem cuttings, thus there is no need for watering or irrigation.
4. No technical skills or knowledge required- The protocols and procedures we developed for plant selection, preparation of cuttings, planting, nursing, fodder treatment, feeding etc (see attached brochure) require no prior technical knowledge or skills and could be understood and performed by the millions of illiterate farmers in sub-Saharan that we intend to benefit.
5. Synergy between livelihood improvement, climate change adaptation, mitigation and environmental rehabilitation- The practice of F. thonnigii silvopastures does not just result in improved productivity of livestock and farmlands, but in doing so, it also contributes to drought adaptation, as the plant is drought tolerant and provides a unique option for maintaining productivity during dry years, and seasons. Its fodder productivity is also not affected by changing climate thus provides steady resource, despite higher variability in climate. Finally our preliminary findings from an ongoing research indicate that it can also contribute considerably to sequestration of higher amount of carbon, enhancing the contribution of local communities in northern Ethiopia to global efforts to mitigate climate change.
Expected results and benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation
We have already undertaken scientific evaluation and impact assessment studies to understand the impact on livelihoods, environment and climate change adaptation, through quantification of effect of F. thonningii silvopastures on animal and crop productivity and farmland fertility both in its traditional setting and as a newly established system.
Some of the inspiring findings include:
1) Being drought resistant, Ficus thonningii reduced the water requirement for producing fodder by 95% compared to that required by other common fodder species (eg (Cystisus proliferus, Leucaena leucocephala, and Sesbania sesban). This has resulted in a general increase in water use efficiency by livestock by 83%.
2) Ficus thonnigii leaf meal can be used to replace costly commercial concentrates up to 50% while improving the productivity and quality of livestock meat.
3). Ficus thonningii produces higher amount (500 fold) of nutritious fodder year round compared to commonly introduced exotic fodder plants eg (Cystisus proliferus, Leucaena leucocephala, and Sesbania sesban). This has enabled small scale livestock owners to produce enough fodder to feed their animals throughout the year.
4). Planting F. thonningii around and inside farmlands has improved the physical, chemical and fertility indicators of soils, also accompanied by improved crop growth and yield under F. thonningii canopy or shade compared to outside canopy. All these improvements have resulted in improved livelihoods among rural farming families where our initiative has been introduced.
Besides to improving livelihoods, F. thonningii silvopastures have also improved the overall ecological resilience of hitherto degraded and highly fragile landscapes through contribution to biological soil and water conservation or planting of cutting on terraces, hillsides, gullies etc,.
General improvement in environmental integrity has re-attracted locally extinct wildlife including small mammals, resident and migratory birds, the most significant being the endangered White Billed Starling, a bird species which has obtained refuge in the newly flourishing silvopastures. In the districts in northern Ethiopia where we have introduced or popularized the practice, all households are not planting the tree in mass.
In Ahferom district, where it was also traditionally practiced by very few innovative farmers, the practice of F. thonningii silvopastures has created a green island amidst the degraded dry mountainous landscapes of northern Ethiopia. A decade long data on the increasing number of F. thonningii cutting planted (see attached scientific publications) is a telling evidence of the value of F. thonningii and its appreciation by local drought stricken communities.
Moreover, preliminary data from an ongoing study on the carbon sequestration potential of the emerging F. thonningii silvopastures indicate a possible significant contribution to carbon sequestration, making our initiative attractive in future carbon based economies.
Replicability potential of the practice
Our initiative started with documenting the knowledge and practice of local farmers in Ahferom district, central Tigray, northern Ethiopia. The developed knowledge can be used by communities in 33 other sub-Saharan African countries where F. thonningii is indigenous and where there are similar climatic and environmental challenges.
Moreover, the practice can also be replicated in other Asian countries such as India, China and etc., where F. thonnignii is native and rainfall variability is a common challenge.
Currently, we are disseminating the practice through farmer to farmer trainings, and experience sharing visits. Such activities always elicit genuine interests and enthusiasm from the visiting farmers, who always buy the in-expensive planting cuttings on their way back home.
The fact that it is easy to propagate with fast maturing cuttings, the need for little or no inputs makes the practice to be easily replicable in resource poor communities like that of northern Ethiopia.
[Editor's Note: All information published as submitted by the author(s). Minor edits may have been made to increase readability and understanding.]