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Ethiopia: Khat farming threatens food security, biodiversity, women, and agroforestry

Khat farmer in Wondo, Ethiopia. Image by Tesfa-Alem Tekle for Mongabay

  • Southern Ethiopia has long been a stronghold of an ecologically sound version of agriculture, agroforestry, which yields food and medicine crops year round while benefiting a diversity of wild species.
  • In recent decades farmers have moved toward growing only khat, a drug banned in most countries but still legal in Ethiopia and neighboring countries, on their small farms.
  • The transition has led to greater farmer incomes but also declines in food security, biodiversity, soil health, and women’s empowerment.
  • Researchers and activists are advocating for returning such farms at least to modified agroforestry systems of khat intercropped with food crops in the event of a massive crop failure or outright ban of the drug.

WONDO GENET, Ethiopia – Agroforestry has been the major agricultural farming system in southern Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regional state for millennia, passed on from generation to generation.

For centuries, diverse ‘home gardens’ of trees, shrubs, and vegetables like enset and coffee grown in close combination have enabled millions of smallholder farmers to maintain household food security while benefiting environmental conservation and sustainable rural development.

However, this traditional land use is facing a huge challenge in the region as a new cash crop farming economy has grown: farmers who previously practiced agroforestry are increasingly converting to monocultures of a semi-legal, somewhat narcotic drug called khat.

The dawn of khat monoculture

In the 1960s and 70s, khat (Catha edulis) cultivation was widely practiced in the eastern part of the country because of high consumption in the area and for export to neighboring Djibouti and Somalia. An article published in 1973 clearly showed that khat was replacing the high quality harrar coffee there, but its expansion in southern Ethiopia as well as northern and western parts of the country is a recent development, where it is expanding at a high rate.

A monoculture of khat in Wondo Genet. Image by Tesfa Alem-Tekle for Mongabay.

“Khat cultivation in SNNP region has a recent history, although it varies from place to place,” says Dr. Beyene Teklu, a researcher at Hawassa University. Farmers used to grow it in very small plots in the southern SNNP zone of Sidama, but since the 1990s, most of the farming communities in the mid-highlands of the area are growing khat extensively as a cash crop, as demand has grown tremendously domestically as well as for export.

However, in the Sidama district of Wondo Genet, there is one farmer who began khat cultivation nearly a decade earlier. Seventy-eight-year old Gujun Aramu started growing khat in 1981, he claims. “I have remained [a] khat grower because income returns [are] a lot higher than incomes I used to earn from cultivating other food crops combined [in agroforestry],” Aramu told Mongabay.

Mr. Aramu used to cultivate coffee, enset, maize, wheat, cereals, cabbage, potato, teff and fruits. But at present, his 1.5 hectare farm is covered with khat, with a little bit of maize and enset for household consumption. Assisted by irrigation during the dry season, he now harvests four times a year and earns up to 70,000 Birr (roughly $2,500) per harvest.

Aramu’s experience growing only khat persuaded other farmers, too. Now 37 years later, the area has witnessed a near complete transition to a monoculture of the drug. “When my living conditions continued to improve from its trade, other farmers here [were] convinced,” he said. He readily agrees with the concerns of agriculture scholars that the traditional home garden agroforestry practices could be headed toward extinction here.

“To my knowledge, presently there [are] no such home gardening practices. Every farmer here is a khat grower. There are no farmers who cultivate annual food crops for market,” Aramu said.

For his PhD, Dr. Teklu studied why farmers in this particular area began intensive khat culitvation years earlier than elsewhere in Sidama. “Wondo area is proximate to the SNNP regional capital city, Hawassa, and there is high market availability and access to transport, so khat was introduced in this area earlier,” he said.

According to him, aggressive agricultural system change in Sidama has led to near complete local loss of crop species, including arabica coffee. Other previously dominant fruit trees such as Cordia africana and ‘birbira’ (Millettia ferruginea) are also on the verge.

System shift

Dr. Teklu blames two major factors for the transition: increasing population pressure resulting in farmland fragmentation, and access to markets.

Aerial view of a typical farm planted largely to khat. Image courtesy of Dr. Beyene Teklu, Hawassa University

Since the mid-1970s, the Ethiopian government hasn’t distributed land in the region, so individual farm sizes continue to decline, as parents divide their land to their sons. So the new generation is inheriting smaller farms at the same time khat’s more lucrative monocultures have become popular.

For young farmers like Mengustu Mele, farming here is all about khat. “I don’t have much knowledge about the traditional home garden agroforestry practices. There is no such a practice here. Every farmer here is dependent only on khat,” he said.

“In the past, agricultural agents have tried to teach us about this traditional home garden farming systems, but no one has shown the interest to return,” Mele added, citing the greater financial income khat brings.

Increasing infrastructure such as roads and telecommunications are also among the driving factors. Over the past two decades, road density in the SNNP region has increased three or fourfold, allowing farmers greater access to markets. This is key because khat is perishable and has to be transported to market a few hours after harvest.

Eyuel Werba, 39, is a farmer in Wondo area who started growing khat seven years ago. “I used to make an average income of 40,000 Birr ($1,500) annually from production of food crops, but now I earn up to 200,000 Birr ($7,200) from khat I cultivate on that same plot of land,” he claimed. “Khat is easily harvestable with a small amount of rainfall. I harvest four times a year,” he added.

Farmers here aren’t even interested to cultivate food crops during the dry season, as they have increasing access to irrigation, so they grow khat instead.

Wife of a khat grower collecting dried maize for livestock feed. Women here have very little to do on khat farms, unlike in the agroforestry-dominated past, thereby shrinking their traditional role in agriculture. Image by Tesfa-Alem Tekle for Mongabay.

Government policy and ultimate implications

The question of what sort of measures should be taken to control the spread of khat has become a critical question in the region. This is mainly because the Ethiopian government insists that food security of small farmers be attained by any means, disregarding the long-term socioeconomic and ecological impacts of systems like khat monoculture.

“The policy of the Ethiopian government toward the expansion of khat monoculture is neither encouraging nor discouraging,” said Dr. Teklu. “They are even afraid of talking about it because households are getting higher financial income and are changing their lives,” he added.

But according to the scientist, the conversion to khat has negative implications for the future, and not just ecologically. Currently, SNNP has over 200,000 farmers who depend on khat, but, Dr. Teklu says, “My fear is, if something happened to the production of khat in the future, these people will then be completely food-aid dependent, because they won’t have any alternative food source from other kinds of crops.”

Khat’s negative effect on land and water resources, plus detrimental effects upon crop diversity and natural biodiversity, could be consequential. Observers say there could be a loss of production due to pests or unfavorable climatic conditions, or khat could be declared illegal in more places than where it is banned already.

While it is difficult for the Ethiopian government to take decisions against khat since every farmer has the right to grow the types of crops he wants, this neutrality is also despite the drug being said to have negative social, psychological, economic, and some say moral impacts on citizens, particularly young people. While its cultivation and consumption is legal in Ethiopia, concerned scientists and scholars have begun to caution the government to take steps in a bid to avert a catastrophic situation.

A good example is the mostly Orthodox Christian region of Amhara in the northern part of the country, which has recently moved to ban khat. As a result, farmers have begun to reduce the amount of the drug on their farms.

Decline in women’s role

The shift from subsistence food crops to khat monoculture in SNNP has also affected the division of labor in households, altering the traditional role of women. Home garden agroforestry produces food for household consumption, and less so for market, so in Wondo the shift has noticeably decreased women’s participation in agriculture.

In a mature, traditional agroforestry home garden in the neighboring area of Gedeo, women are seen collecting different food products. Image by Tesfa-Alem Tekle for Mongabay.

Kefele Roba, a 32-year old mother of six, says women like her are no longer responsible of cultivating, managing and processing subsistence food crops such as the major household food enset, but rather purchase food from the market.

“Since my husband started cultivating khat, I don’t actively participate in the agricultural practices, nor do I sell surplus food crops like I used to [like] enset, vegetables, fruits or other food crops,” said Roba.

This has implications for food access, family nutrition, and diet, but also results in a decrease in women’s agricultural knowledge, leaving a sizable portion of the population without the tools to grow food.

Is agroforestry on the brink of extinction?

According to recent research at Hawassa University, every year six to seven percent of enset and coffee-based home garden agroforestry in southern Ethiopia is replaced by khat. Based on this, some have warned that in two to three decades, the whole region will be drug dependent.

In a pilot study, researchers are approaching farmers to create awareness of khat’s problems, rather than forcing them to stop its cultivation. They’ve started teaching farmers to intercrop it with food crops in a bid to increase food production and slowly return more farms to traditional home garden practices.

However, most farmers had been refusing to do so because intercropping khat with food crops is seen as taboo, and other farmers believe such practices won’t yield well. Nevertheless, some farmers in Wondo are trying to intercrop maize and legumes with it.

“In the short term, attempts are made by our researchers to develop appropriate intercropping practices of cereals, pulses, vegetables and enset in monoculture khat plots,” Dr. Tesfaye Abebe, Associate Professor of Agroforestry and Vice President of Hawassa University, told Mongabay. “Promising results are obtained that could increase the overall productivity of land by producing additional food crops [that] improve food security of households, without affecting yield of khat,” he added.

“In the long term, research and policy interventions are required to reverse the expansion of khat by focusing on improving the productivity of the traditional agroforestry systems that [traditionally supported a] very large population while maintaining ecological sustainability,” Dr. Abebe added.

Dr. Teshome Tesema, Director of Plantation and Agroforestry Research Directorate at Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute (EEFRI) agreed, saying, “Khat as a crop is not a basic necessity like food, fuelwood, or construction wood. It is just a stimulant which rather negatively affects the wellbeing of society. Khat is being cultivated only for short term economic benefits, replacing the sustainable and economical and ecologically viable multi-strata agroforestry systems. Converting such resilient systems [to a] monocultural system by itself is devastating.”

Khat farm with some enset and maize partially intercropped. Image by Tesfa-Alem Tekle for Mongabay.

However, he has seen some benefits from khat being intercropped with maize and coffee. “Of course, when farmers plant khat on contour bunds (as in nearby West Hararge), it has the effect of anchoring the soil against erosion, but as it is not a leguminous species, it has no soil amelioration effect,” he stated.

“Moreover, as it is susceptible [to] pests and diseases, farmers [must] apply pesticides and insecticides which will have an adverse effect on the health of the human being and on apiculture,” since pesticides applied to khat kill bees, Dr. Tesema continued. “Short term economic benefits that could be gained from khat can’t be comparable with long term advantages of sustainable production gained from the practice of agroforestry,” he stressed.

And according to experts like him, communities like those in nearby Gedeo continue to benefit from the ancient agroforestry traditions, at the same time that research and extension activities being carried out by institutions like his are spreading new agroforestry models for improving farmers’ futures, including those who may be tempted by khat.

This article is part of Mongabay’s ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide.

Banner image: Gujun Aramu, the farmer who introduced khat in Wondo. Image by Tesfa-Alem Tekle for Mongabay.

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