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Khat cultivation in Ethiopia fuels economy, reduces deforestation

The versatile crop has come to dominate Ethiopian agriculture - perhaps too much.
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Photo reproduite avec la permission d´Alfred Weidinger/flickr.
Photo reproduite avec la permission d´Alfred Weidinger/flickr.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (21 March, 2012)_Khat — a leafy plant used as a natural stimulant in the Horn of Africa — has become the backbone of the region’s economy, providing the main source of income for farmers, as well as jobs for thousands of others employed in the value chain.

“As households earn more income from khat cultivation, they have reduced their dependence on selling fuel wood — a major driver of deforestation in Africa,” said Habtemariam Kassa, CIFOR scientist and co-author of Khat and livelihood dynamics in the harer higlands of Ethiopia: Significance and challenges.

In a region affected by frequent droughts and declining soil fertility, the rise of the farming population in the Harer highlands of Ethiopia over the last 40 years has presented additional challenges to farmers, further limiting arable land and shrinking land holdings for farming households.

“In response to smaller land sizes and stagnant grain yields, farmers shifted to khat (Catha edulis), whose production and price increased markedly over time, and led to improved land management and increases in household income,” the study notes.

Farmers in the Harare highlands have been growing khat for many years. But khat has become their principal crop over the past few decades. Khat has proven to be a versatile plant which can be used in building and construction as well as firewood.  The leftover leaves of the marketable branches are important feed particularly for goats.

Khat also plays a critical role in reducing soil erosion and degradation, as plots where khat has been planted are not used for grazing and are better managed by farmers in terms of terraces and addition of manure.

“Khat cultivation is not only feeding households, it is helping to protect our forests,” said Kassa.

While farmers in the Harer highlands have historically subsisted on a mixed portfolio of crops, khat sales now constitute the major source of farm income. Khat generates the highest return per hectare of cultivated land, compared to other crops grown in the Harer highlands, including coffee, another principal Ethiopian crop.

Since the 1970s, khat production has expanded employment in the region, becoming the fastest-growing and most profitable occupation involving millions of farmers, traders and other service-providers in the in the Harer highlands in particular. Though official figures are not available, hundreds of thousands of farming households are believed to be directly engaged in the production and marketing of khat. Kassa echoes the findings of previous studies that have shown khat production and distribution now support the livelihoods of millions of Ethiopians.

Over the last decade khat cultivation has expanded to other regions of Ethiopia, and has become an integral part of agriculture in the central and western highlands of Ethiopia, as well, says Kassa.

Addressing the concerns of policymakers and development experts who question the long-term sustainability of a khat-dominated agricultural system, the study stresses the need to diversify the regional economy and cautions khat production cannot meet Ethiopia’s growing food demands.

However, in light of public health concerns regarding khat addiction and growing international pressure to ban its distribution, Kassa also stresses the need for effective policies to better manage the production, consumption and trade of khat, and to create an enabling policy and institutional support to encourage saving of the cash from the production and marketing of khat and encourage investment for alternative livelihood options.

The ecological and economic merits need to be weighed with the health and other social downsides.  The need for careful and farsighted thinking is emphasized by all concerned.

“As the khat-based household and regional economy is dependent on the export market, any import ban will have a devastating impact on the livelihoods of many in the Harer highlands,” he said.

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