TRAID has funded Pesticide Action Network’s (PAN UK) work since 2009 to support cotton farmers to reduce and stop using pesticides on their crops. Sam Claydon, Communications Officer at PAN UK, visited Ethiopia in September to find out more about how smallholder farmers are reducing their reliance on dangerous pesticides.

Ethiopia is a vibrant country full of colour, history and culture. It has a fast-growing population and the capital is overloaded, chaotic and undergoing colossal development. Travel out into the countryside, however, and the picture quickly changes. There is little mechanisation, donkey carts are abundant and fields are generally ploughed using oxen. Farm work is back-breaking, and it’s no wonder that rural communities have been easily convinced to use pesticides as a quick and easy fix to rid crops of pests.

A village in rural Ethiopia ©Sam Claydon / PAN UK
A village in rural Ethiopia ©Sam Claydon / PAN UK

Travelling to Addis Ababa in the southern region of Ethiopia near Arba Minch, I naively expected to see vast expanses of impenetrable bush. In fact, nearly every inch of the land was farmed and the scale of pesticide use was immediately clear.

I saw many farmers spraying pesticides by hand with old equipment and no protective clothing. Corporations are making billions of dollars selling pesticides, trapping smallholder farmers in a downward spiral of crop mismanagement, depression and financial ruin. I felt despondent and angry about the impact on farmers’ health, the local wildlife and the environment. These farmers need alternatives and solutions to pesticides, and our partners and colleagues in southern Ethiopia are providing them.

Weekly sessions for farmers on how to control pests naturally in local cotton fields
Weekly sessions for farmers on how to control pests naturally in local cotton fields

The project, led by PAN and funded by TRAID and the JJ Charitable Trust, has set up Farmer Field Schools in the region. Weekly teaching takes place in local cotton fields throughout the growing season where farmers learn how to reduce pesticide use on their crops – it’s known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). I visited a few of these field schools and filmed the proceedings and interviewed the participants. Many of these farmers are extremely proud of their achievements, and rightly so.

During my visits, I heard calls of “IPM”, “IPM” all around the field and it took me a while to realise that farmers had turned the acronym for Integrated Pest Management into an endearing way of greeting each other as they arrived for training each morning. I was also surprised to see a number of female farmers participating. I had wrongly assumed it would be mostly men in attendance.

We spent the first hour examining the cotton crop and identifying and counting the pests and natural pest predators present. The farmers then came together as a group under a large tree with trained facilitators to discuss their findings. They also talked about soil and water health, and a number of other management practices. The joy of working and training together as a team was clearly apparent and farmers returned to their own fields inspired to put their learning into practice.

Farmers Field Schools train farmers on how to manage pests without relying on pesticides
Farmers Field Schools train farmers on how to manage pests without relying on pesticides

A number of farmers told me that they had previously considered all insects in their fields to be pests and were quick to spray pesticides. They had really enjoyed learning about the difference between pests and predators and how to keep a natural balance of these in their crops. I was excitedly shown buzzing bees in the fields a number of times as they are now only starting to return after years of pesticide use. The bees provide an extra income as farmers are now able to keep hives and sell honey. We often assume that people living off the land in rural communities have an inherent understanding of ecological principles and I was surprised to find out how much of this natural knowledge has been lost.

Bees are returning to cotton fields ©Sam Claydon / PAN UK
Bees are returning to cotton fields ©Sam Claydon / PAN UK

Agroecological cotton farming requires problem solving skills and years of experience and now, over 2000 farmers in the region have benefited from training and can support each other in dealing with issues that arise. In addition, highly trained facilitators are on hand for advice and mentoring. All farmers taking part in the project are seeing a doubling of cotton yields and increased incomes compared to when they were farming conventionally using dangerous and expensive pesticides.

I also visited a thriving organic cotton co-operative which has been set up in one village, and there’s more to follow. It sells organic cotton seeds and women are earning an additional income from spinning and weaving. This additional income will be used by villagers to improve their communities like investing money into schools for example, or buying a lorry for farmers to transport cotton to the Ethiopian capital.

Women sell seed, spin and weave as part of a local co-operative
Women sell seed, spin and weave as part of a local co-operative

Feedback from farmers conveyed their overwhelming enthusiasm for this project. Reducing pesticide use is strengthening communities and the bonds between farmers as they work together to improve their health, income and natural environment.

Hearing about a project of this kind can be inspiring, but visiting one yourself can be life-changing. Seeing the benefits to the local community first-hand and hearing their stories makes me even more passionate about the gains to be had in farming without pesticides. I’m proud to be a very small part of the struggle to remove these harmful chemicals from our future.

  • Find out more about PAN UK’s work here
  • Read this update from Tadesse Amera, the Director of PAN Ethiopia on how pesticide free cotton is changing lives