March 23, 2012, Ziway, Ethiopia – A staff member for Counterpart partner agency the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) looks over a chart denoting the land closure areas in the village of Beshera Chefa. By closing this land to grazing and wood cutting, Counterpart is helping to being the soil back to productivity in this heavily deforested area.

This first-person account is part of a regular series of how Counterpart works in the field. This story is by Abe Henry, Program Assistant.

Eleven Ethiopian men and women surrounded me, talking excitedly and gesturing, my interpreter struggling to keep up. They were trying to explain to me their feelings at seeing their land – hillsides they called home and relied on for grazing and farming – come back from the brink of destruction.

Near the town of Arsi Negele in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia, deforestation had removed so much of the plant cover that in some areas, vegetation had been worn away to bedrock. The soil had lost its nutrients, animals had literally left for greener pastures, and no plant life remained to soak up the rains that now flooded the fields of crops below.

When I visited Arsi Negele, things were starting to turn around. Counterpart had intervened with a large-scale watershed management project that planted seedlings and constructed check dams- low-budget rock structures that direct manageable amounts of water to corn and teff fields while preventing flooding and erosion.

Community members noticed small patches of grass growing back at the start of the rainy season. More shrubs and plants were returning. Then, suddenly, a highly useful bush that could be ground to make anti-diarrheal medicines for humans and goats began making its comeback as well. Without this herbal medicine, people had suffered longer illnesses, and goats had become malnourished and thin.

I could see for myself the transformation of the landscape. Now, members of a Resource User Group who had come to welcome me to their community sat in a circle, lobbing adjectives around in an attempt to convey their feelings.

As the group crowded around me, expressing how they felt when they saw their vital plants return, my interpreter struggled to find the words to explain how much this meant to the people who live here.

“It’s the feeling of surprise, as if the wind knocks you back a step,” he tried to explain, laboring to find an English equivalent for what these people were so animatedly saying.

“Blown away.” This was the phrase he was searching for.

Soon, the group members were repeating the simple phrase in English, “blown away, blown away.”

The people of Arsi Negele were overwhelmed by the impacts of their own hard work and the results that could be achieved with an effective partnership.

The project in Arsi Negele and a similar project in nearby Lake Ziway are part of Counterpart’s Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) program, focused on strengthening local communities while promoting biodiversity conservation and environmental stewardship.

A resource user group like the one that welcomed me to Arsi Negele was also created in Lake Ziway, where together we demarcated a Community Conservation Area and identified water drainage issues that were causing similarly harmful erosion.

After two months of digging and arranging land materials, the group had completed the check dam system along the north face of the hill.  Just like in Arsi Ngele, results were almost immediate.

The Government of Ethiopia was so impressed by the effects and the ease of construction that it wasted no time in inquiring about Counterpart and local partners’ techniques. The government decided to take action on its own and replicated the entire check dam system on the opposite side of the hillside.

That community participation translated so directly into visible environmental gains and even government support, well, it blew me away.