From New Agriculturist
Uganda’s ‘cattle corridor’, which makes up the northern third of the country, is among the most degraded areas in the upper Nile basin, following years of overgrazing and charcoal production. Repeated attempts have been made to reseed and restore the bare land without success, as grass seedlings are quickly eaten by termites before they can properly establish. But since 2008, livestock keepers in Nakasongola district have adopted a system of cattle management which has had a dramatic impact, re-greening their land and greatly improving their water resources. The starting point was to give the termites something else to eat.
Diversionary tactics for termites
The re-greening strategy was originally observed in Ethiopia, and tried in Uganda by researchers from Makerere University’s Department of Animal Sciences. Eighteen livestock keepers were asked to gather their animals overnight in a single, temporarily fenced area over a two-week period. Thirteen were sceptical, preferring to keep their animals separately, but five went ahead with the plan. Over the two weeks, dung from the animals built up in the fenced area, or corral, and subsequent reseeding with grass proved successful, with the research team observing that the termites preferred to eat the animal dung leaving the grass seedlings to establish themselves.
The success of the scheme soon led to all the originally invited farmers taking part, achieving wider impacts. One notable improvement was to the ‘valley tanks’, small-scale rainwater harvesting reservoirs found in the area. These had, for many years, been suffering from siltation and poor water quality, fed by excessive, soil-rich run-off from the bare land around them. In the re-greened areas, the presence of grasses promoted infiltration of rainwater, greatly reducing surface run-off as well as water loss from evaporation. With tanks now fed largely by groundwater rather than run-off, siltation rates have fallen and water quality improved. As a result, several communities in Nakasongola have passed by-laws to protect the vegetation around their tanks.
Communally-owned pastureland and areas with unrestrictive grazing have the worst levels of desertification in this part of Uganda, drawing criticism of cattle keepers. However, evidence from this project suggests that collectively adopting a simple, technical solution for grass establishment has inspired community members to invest time and resources in protecting their water and rangeland resources.
Seventy five farmers across three sites have now adopted the night corralling system, which they have found to be feasible and affordable, as well as offering real benefits in terms of pasture and water security. The ownership taken by the communities has encouraged other organisations to back the approach, including the NGO, Concern, and Nakasongola District Veterinary Office, which has been supplied with materials (wire, seed, tools and fertiliser) by the Ministry of Agriculture. The district council has employed the original researcher on the project, an MSc student, to scale it up, and further research and development by other Makerere students are being funded by SIDA Sweden and UNEP.
In terms of wider adoption, the research team believe the approach is likely to be suitable in many parts of Africa, whether wetter or drier, where termites are active. This would include Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, as well as parts of West Africa such as northern Ghana and Burkina Faso. Local differences in how termites react to the manure are possible; in Nakasongola, some evidence suggests that once grassland is re-established, this may influence the relative prevalence of termite species, leading to a decline in those that feed on grass seedlings.
Ultimately, the success of the approach lies in the ability of the pastoralists to find ways to manage the shared, overnight corralling of their animals. If this can be achieved, experience in Nakasongola suggests that large areas of rangeland can be restored in a short time, with significant benefits in terms of water productivity, erosion control and community access to good quality water for domestic and farming purposes.