The degradation of soils poses a major threat to crop production in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In order to improve integrated nutrient-management practices, researchers need access to farmers’ knowledge and to understand their perceptions of soil fertility. A participatory survey was carried out in the semi-arid highlands of northern Ethiopia to identify and analyse local knowledge regarding soil fertility and local practices for managing it.

Farmers were found to classify their soils in three categories (fertile, moderately fertile, and poor). This classification is not limited to the soils’ perceived nutrient status. It is closely related to topography, and takes into account the soils’ depth and water-holding capacity. Soil fertility is also seen as dynamic, since a particular unit of land can become more or less fertile.

Land shortage and land fragmentation have forced farmers to abandon soil fertility management practices, such as fallowing, manuring, terracing, and using crop residues. The study found that experimentation with new practices (mineral fertilizer in combination with manure, for example) is an important type of site-specific learning that enables farmers to adapt new practices to the conditions in which they live and work.

(This article also has a summary in French.)


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