The Tigray Region was once widely considered to be the most degraded area of Ethiopia, contributing to low agricultural production and exacerbating rural poverty. By 1975, the dryland forest and woodland vegetation in the region suffered from overgrazing, demand for fuel wood, and increased cultivation. Tigray also experienced record low rainfalls in the mid-1980s, one of the triggers for the devastating famine from 1983-1985 that led to more than 400,000 deaths.
Originally named ‘Sustainable Development and Ecological Land Management with Farming Communities in Tigray,’ The Tigray Project was founded by the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) in 1996. It is a broad-based, open-ended experiment by farmers and local experts that began in just 4 communities. By 2011, the majority of communities in Tigray were participating in the project with benefits accruing to 6 million of the 12 million smallholder farming households in Ethiopia.
The project is farmer-led and builds on local technologies and knowledge, supported by the Tigray Agricultural Development Bureau which deploys more than 3,000 extension officers to provide support. Their main activities include soil conservation through terracing and agroforestry consisting of compost making, restricting free-range grazing, water conservation, bee keeping and the use of bio-pesticides developed with local knowledge. Each adult community member offers 40 days of free labour to help with soil and water conservation, gully rehabilitation, and improving community infrastructure. Women-headed and elderly families have benefitted particularly from receiving seeds to grow spice plants and training in how to raise fruit trees and sell the saplings. Girls are also supported by the project to complete their formal schooling.
More than 6 million formerly degraded hectares are now considered rehabilitated. Water table levels and permanent springs have improved and soil fertility and biodiversity have increased. Furthermore, data collected in 2002, 2003 and 2004 showed that on average, composted fields produced higher yields, sometimes double, than those treated with chemical fertilisers. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) continues to support more than 32 different farmers organisations in the Tigray region to implement a wide range of fruit nurseries.
The FAO now considers Tigray to be approaching household and regional food security, although there is still progress to be made. A 2009 World Food Programme report on food security in Tigray in found that 14.5% of households had poor food consumption, 28.3% had borderline food consumption and 57% acceptable food consumption.