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Vegetation and Soil Erosion in Dega Tembien (Tigray, Ethiopia)

Author(s): J. Nyssen
Source: Bulletin du Jardin botanique national de Belgique / Bulletin van de National Plantentuin
van België, Vol. 66, No. 1/2 (Jul. 15, 1997), pp. 39-62
Published by: National Botanic Garden of Belgium
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Bull. Jard. Bot. Nat. Belg.
Bull. Nat. Plantentuin Belg.
66: 39-62 (15-07-1997)

Vegetation and soil erosion in Dega Tembien


J. Nyssen (*)

Resume - L'impact de la vegetation sur l'erosion des sols a ete etudie en Dega Tem-
bien, sur les Hauts-Plateaux semi-arides du nord de l'Ethiopie. La v6g6tation semi-
naturelle d6grad6e y est compos6e de fourres sempervirents (parfois surpatures) sur les
pentes fortes et quelques restes de savane de montagne en des endroits moins pentus
(entre les champs et dans des paturages communautaires).
La d6forestation, induite par l'appauvrissement de la population et la recherche du
rendement agricole maximal imm6diat, a entraine une diminution de l'infiltration, une
augmentation du ruissellement et l'6rosion des sols, tant en nappe que ravinante.
Apres un apernu global de l'importance de la vegetation pour la conservation des
sols, le role particulier de certaines especes est decrit.
Une bande de v6egtation semi-naturelle (armo)6tait (et est parfois encore) respectee
a la limite inf6rieure des champs, resultant en des talus colluviaux ou rideaux, qui con-
tribuent a conserver l'eau et le sol. Actuellement, la communaute protege de nom-
breuses pentes fortes par le reboisement et par la mise en d6fens, permettant la reg6nera-
tion spontanee.
Une classification du couvert v6egtal en fonction du risque d'6rosion correspondant
aux differents types de vegetation est proposee.


Accelerated erosion on the Ethiopian Highlands is explained by

the addition of its quick tectonic uplift during Pliocene and Pleis-
tocene, the climate and the impact of human society (Grove 1980,
Hurni 1988).
The impact of raindrops, subsequent spurt of water and miner-
al particles ('splash')and runoff cause soil to be eroded. Most spec-
tacular are the gullies eroded by concentrated runoff, but, gener-
ally, more soil is lost through 'sheet erosion', due to runoff 'over
the whole field' (as said in Tigray).

(*) Department of Physical Geography, University of Liege, B 11, Sart Tilman,

B - 4000 Liege (Belgium). - Manuscript received October 21, 1996.

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The limiting effect of vegetation on soil erosion is well known:

in the study area, certain slopes are overgrazedand have many ero-
sion gullies and often important alluvial cones when the slope
becomes less steep. Not far away, the same slope, closed for cattle
for only a few years, presents the same badlands, recolonised how-
ever by vegetation, and with no more visible erosion activity
(fig. 1). Here, the vegetation curbed runoff and erosion, favoured
rainwater infiltration and thus contributed to the raising of the
water table.
Vegetation in its relationship to soil erosion was studied within
the frameworkof a Geography dissertation researchin Dega Tem-
bien woreda(district) (Nyssen 1995b). Hagere Selam, the district's
chief place is situated at an altitude of 2650 m, about 50 km to
the west of Makalle, Tigray's regional capital.
Geological formations outcropping in the Hagere Selam region
are of Mesozoic age (among which the 700 m thick Antalo lime-
stone), or tertiary basaltic flows ('trapps'). One also finds some qua-
ternaryformations, made up of alluvium, colluvium and travertine
(Merla & Minucci 1938, Mohr 1963, Beyth 1972). As the geo-

Fig. 1. - Degraded slope, recolonised by vegetation after 3 years closure for cattle.

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0 1
Fig. 2.- Location map.

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logical layers are subhorizontal (including the different superposed

lava flows), the relief consists of an alternation of flats and escarp-
ments, expressing the unequal resistance of the rocks subjected to
the weathering. The summits of these scarps follow more or less
horizontal lines, underlining the tabular structure. This relief
determines partially the soils, the vegetation and the land use.
On steep slopes exists a very active mass wasting, which has par-
ticular interest if the basaltic material has been carried over sand-
stone and (further downslope) over limestone. This colluvium and
other hillside waste, a few metres to more than ten metres thick,
forms in such places a pedologic parent-rock which is very differ-
ent from the concealed formations.

Emphasis in agriculture is on seed production and broadcastsow-

ing. Westphal (1975) defines the agricultural system as 'grain-
plough complex'. Seedtime corresponds to the beginning of the
period of intensive rainfall:the soil which has, by then, undergone
at least three ploughings, is very bare and offers little resistance to
splash and runoff. In Dega Tembien, the greater part of the soil
erosion is caused by the 40 % of the total rainfall erosivity occur-
ring during seedtime (June and July). After harvesting, the vil-
lage's herd (mainly cattle, necessary for breeding oxen) is lead to
the fields. This stubble grazing explains the near absence of woody
vegetation between the fields.
Soil bunds/grass strips, or armosserve(d)as an anti-erosive struc-
ture on field boundaries. An armoconsists of a steep incline, about
1 m heigh, and a never ploughed two meter wide grass strip behind
it. Infiltration of runoff water and sedimentation of upslope erod-
ed soil is favoured. This raises the height of the structure year by
year and results in cultivation terraces.Since the 1970's, the farm-
ers ploughed most of the armos'grass strip, particularlyin order to
increaseimmediate agricultural production. Often, the incline was
even levelled. At present, stone bunds are constructed in catch-
ment-wide terracing programmes, and may be built on the edge
of the subsisting armos' incline, raising it artificially.
In this paper, the semi-natural and artificial vegetation of Dega
Tembien will be approached, and this principally with regard to
the interaction of this vegetation with soil erosion phenomena.

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Climax and semi-natural vegetation of the Ethiopian high-


Pichi-Sermolli (1957) published the first general geobotanic

study of the Horn of Africa. The studies which have followed are
all based on his work and respect the general frameworkof his clas-
With regardto the climax vegetation, Hunting (1974) notes that
very little is known about it, because it has undergone the action
of man for centuries. The small forests which subsist around
churches and which are true biodiversity reserves, served as a base
for several studies, but they are 'a secondary growth with some
components of the primary forest'.
Between 700 and about 1500 m, deciduous woodland occupies
the western footslopes of the Highlands and 'enters' the valleys of
Takazze'stributaries which incise the western edge of Dega Tem-
bien (fig. 3, 3).
Dry evergreen forest probably formed the climax vegetation of
the Highlands, between 1500 and 3000 m. The upper stratum (30-
50 m) is dominated by Podocarpus graciliorandJuniperusprocera.Due
to less rainfall, this last species dominates the formation in Tigray.
This forest subsists partially on the western slopes of the Simen
mountains and on the escarpment of the western Rift margin. The
species, which are present in the lower strata of the dry evergreen
forest, are now dominant in the semi-natural vegetation, the 'mon-
tane forests and grasslands' (Amare Getahun 1978), subdivided
into two types by Pichi-Sermolli:
- The montane evergreen thicket and scrub is composed of shrubs
with leathery, thorny or succulent leaves: Carissa edulis, Euclea
schimperi,Maytenussenegalensis,Dodonaeaangustifolia,Rhus natalen-
sis... There exist some scattered trees; the largest are: Oleaeuropaea
subsp. africana(fig. 6),Juniperusproceraand the candelabraEuphor-
- The montane savannais fundamentally composed of a grass stra-
tum, dominated by Andropogon and Pennisetum.All the intermedi-
aries between grass savannaand sparseforest exist. Particularly,the
following trees are to be found: Acacia abyssinica,Maytenus,Junipe-
rus procera. It is a vegetation type 'due to the intense and prolun-
gated action of man' (Pichi-Sermolli 1957: 67).
This author gives two ecological criteria to explain the existence

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of two different types of secondaryvegetation:

a. Thicket grows on the slopes: the changing of one type of veg-
etation to another at slope breaks is clear;
b. The altitude: the lower and upper limits of the montane savan-
na are around 1800 and 2800 m, those of evergreen thicket 1000
and 2400 m.

Vegetation types of Central Tigrayl

On the map of vegetation types made by Hunting (1976) the

Dega Tembien heights appear clearly, surrounded by woody for-
mations (fig. 3): to the west, more rainy, deciduous woodland (3);
to the east, montane evergreen thicket and scrub (1) also occupies
the gorges of the Geba and Agula rivers. Here too, this formation
occupies the steepest slopes.
Dega Tembien presents alternating flats and steep slopes: rather
than a uniform montane savanna (2), I would suggest, changing
scales, to respect here too the subdivision in montane evergreen
thicket and montane savanna.
The dominant herbaceousspecies, observed in and around arable
land (at the pathsides, on lynchettes) close to Hagere Selam, on
basalt-derived soils are represented in table 1. Most of the species
of this list also appear in the more extensive list realised by Wil-
son (1977) on arable land in several places in Central Tigray.

Table 1. - Herbaceous species commonly encountered in arable land on basalt-

derived soils

Amaranthushybridus Rumex nervosus

Bidens sp. Scorpiurusmuricatus
Bromussp. Tagetesminuta
Cynodondactylon Trifoliumcampestre
Galinsoga parviflora Trifoliumpolystachium
Rumex bequaertii Verbascum sinaiticum

'Outlines of Central Tigray's species can be found in Wilson (1977), Amare Getahun
(1978) and Feoli et al. (1994).

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The trees, excepting reforestation species, encountered in the

fields (table 2), are probably remnants of montane savanna. Older
inhabitants describe the region around Hagere Selam before 1945
as 'rich grazing land with many scattered large acacia trees'.

Table 2. - Trees encountered in Dega Tembien's fields

Acacia etbaica Ficus sur

Acacia sp. Ficus sycomorus
Cordia africana Ficus vasta
Euphorbiasp. (candelabra type) Olea europaeasubsp. africana

The dominant woody species have also been listed on two slopes,
situated on limestone (table 3): in the protected Habdi Luqmuts
forest, close to Hechi, on a steep slope (fig. 7) corresponding to a
resistant formation of Antalo limestone, as well as on very degrad-
ed pasture lands, along the road from Hagere Selam to Makalle,
one km west of the Geba river, at an altitude of about 2100 m. All
these species, which dominate also in quantitative observations
realised by Wilson (1977) in a similar place, are very common in
the 'Montane evergreen thicket and scrub' (Pichi-Sermolli 1957).
One notes the strong presence in these lists of calciphile species
(Euclearacemosa,Acacia etbaica,Carissaedulis)and the existence, in
the Habdi Luqmuts forest, of some large acacias, a species of the
lower tree stratum of the climax dry evergreen forest.

Table 3. - Dominant woody species on slopes on limestone

A. Habdi Luqmuts forest B. West of Geba bridge

1. Carissa edulis Rhiss natalensis
2. Acacia etbaica Acacia etbaica
3. Euclea racemosa Dodonaeaangustifolia
Rhus natalensis

I would thus suggest the following qualification of the semi-nat-

ural vegetation of Dega Tembien:
- Evergreen thicket on steep slopes, as well as on some very degrad-
ed gentle slopes, generally on limestone. In such places, erosion
and sedimentation create an 'ecological threshold' which prevents
the installation of climax soil and vegetation. The natural vegeta-
tion on the rendzinas on sloping limestone is a calcicole thicket;
lithosols on steep slopes on sandstone and basalt only support

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species with superficial roots and/or xerophile species, such as the

candelabraEuphorbia.The explanation of the regional distribution
of evergreen thicket and savanna is before all a pedological one.
The thicket may be, according to the location, very degraded by
overgrazing and woodcutting;
- Montane savanna on more level places, presently occupied by
agriculture. This formation only subsists under a degraded form in
some communal pasture lands.
Artificial vegetation, plant associations due to man working the
soil and planting exogenous species, are principally:
- Fields. Main crops are wheat, barley and tef (Eragrostistef- fig. 5),
a cereal which is endemic in Ethiopia, and also leguminous crops;
- Eucalyptusplantations (since 1970), for reforestation on steep
slopes, or as a cash crop instead of agricultural production.


When Merla & Minucci (1938) analysed, for the first time by
(non stereoscopic) aerial photo interpretation, the geomorphology
and the geology of Tigray, the principal criterion allowing the
recognition of steeper slopes, corresponding to resistant strata, was
the alignment of small woods along these strata. Older inhabitants
of Hagere Selam also remember that there were much more trees
on the flatter areas,up until the fifties. Before 1940, there was suf-
ficient firewood and it was thereforenot necessaryto burn manure.
Forests and thickets are reported still to have occupied 9 % of
Tigray in 1979 (Mann 1988), though in these forests, many trees
were taken away (Hunting 1976). The situation continued to
degrade until the end of the eighties.
Today, there are only very few trees and shrubs in the fields.
There subsist, especially, small, protected forests around churches,
rare, isolated trees in the fields (Acacia,Ficus, Olea),and often very
overgrazedthickets on the slopes.
The causes of this pressure of human society on (semi-)natural
vegetation might be summarised as follows:
For centuries, the agricultural techniques of the peasants on the
Ethiopian highlands have been stagnating. When, in spite of bud-
get priorities in favour of bureaucracyand army, investment was

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made in agriculture, it was especially oriented towards export
crops. There was, therefore, limited agricultural investment in
these regions where subsistence production and production for the
local market dominates: the Highlands. Moreover,feudality, share-
cropping (up to 1978), taxes and the often imposed wars induced
impoverishment and incited the farmers to prefer immediate
returns, even if it meant aggravating erosion. As a consequence,
during this 20thcentury, most of the trees and shrubs in between
the fields and on steep slopes have been cleared, increasing runoff,
sheet erosion and gullying (Stahl 1974, Girma Kebbede & Jacob
1988, Tekeste Tekie & Smith 1989, Stahl 1990).

Important species for soil conservation

Vegetation is important for soil conservation in several ways

(according to Wischmeier & Smith 1978, Wiersum 1984, Hurni
1986, Young 1988):
- vegetation, both trees and grasses, breaksthe energy of raindrops
impact and annihilates/reduces the splash effect;
- vegetation, especially grasses, reduces the speed of runoff. This
brings about particle sedimentation and an increase of infiltration;
- the accumulation of organic fragments at the surface increases
also the perviousness;
- under the trees, shrubs and grassesaregrowing, and there is spon-
taneous regeneration. This vegetation keeps soil particles in place;
- thus, the installation of vegetation strips of a certain width in
the fields, which are parallel to contour lines, reduces the length
of the slope on which water can accumulate, and so reduces the
detachment and transport capacities of runoff;
- stabilisation/maintenance/reinforcementof physical structuresby
roots and stems, and by evapotranspirationof water from the pores
of the material composing the lynchettes (armos)during the rainy
- roots stabilise the soil; this action can also counter creep and land-
- soil fertilisation, by the retention of organic matter particles
which otherwise are more easily eroded, by recycling biogene ele-
ments and through nitrogen fixation, in the case of leguminous

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Fig. 4. - Acacia etbaica; the fields are limited by Aloe sp.

- finally, restoration of the natural equilibrium, which has an

impact on soil erosion (see example underneath).
All vegetation is important for soil conservation. A general out-
line of reforestationspecies in use in the semi-arid areasof Ethiopia,
including the ecological conditions, is to be found in a paper by
Mitiku Haile & Kidane Georgis (1991). The particularrole of some
species (non exhaustive list) described underneath, is based on my
observations in Dega Tembien and has been completed by scien-
tific literature and the consultation of the collection of African flo-
ra conserved at the herbarium of the Jardin Botanique National de
Belgique in Meise.

a. Acacia
The particularity of all leguminous species, and among them of
acacias, is the fixation of nitrogen in root nodules. Acacia etbaica
(serawin Tigrinya language - fig. 4), with curved thorns, is calci-
phile and very present in the thicket, but also as shrubs between
the fields, on the (rare)fallows and on closured pasture land (Asef-
fa Abreha et al. 1992: 19; Wilson 1977: 247; 256, 258 & 261;
Troll 1970: 261).

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For a certain number of other Acacia species, like A. seyal, with

white and straight thorns, the common name chaa is used: these
trees were dominant in the 'montane savanna' and appear nowa-
days around houses and between the fields (Amare Getahun 1978:
86; Hurni 1986: 90; Westphal 1975: 204; Wilson 1977: 266).
Acacia saligna is an introduced reforestationspecies with super-
ficial roots, whose leaves are easily decomposed. It is suited to shal-
low soils and is much used in Dega Tembien. Wilson estimates
that, among the introduced species, it 'is most suited for the local
environment' (1977: 261).
Acaciacyanophylla,introduced, is presently used for reforestation,
particularly on the Makalle fault escarpment. It can be recognised
by its phyllodes, in contrast with other acacias with bipinnate
leaves. This species is convenient for reforestationon very degrad-
ed areas on steep slopes; it produces a lot of organic matter (great
quantity of leaves) and is susceptible to spontaneous regeneration
(Harrison 1987: 128; Mitiku Haile 1994, personal communica-

b. Aloe and Sanseviera

Sansevieraguineensis,with white flowers, and Aloesp. (fig. 4), with
orange flowers, have a similar physiognomy. They are resistant to
drought and browsing cattle, and are used to delimit plots of agri-
cultural land. In the beginning the so formed limit is rather sym-
bolical (however very well respected by the young cattle caretak-
ers), but it grows quickly. It is also used to reinforce the anti-ero-
sive structures (fig. 5) (Edwards 1976: iii & 13; Wilson 1977).

c. Euphorbia(fig. 5)
Euphorbias-of the candelabratype- are widely used on plot lim-
its in and close to the villages, especially where the soil is shallow,
on gentle to steep slopes and on limestone. Its straight wood is
used as timber. It is also the only tree on rock pediments, without
regard to lithology (Aseffa Abreha et al. 1992: 19; Edwards 1976:
21; Pichi-Sermolli 1957: 53; Troll 1970: 261; Wilson 1977: 243
& 257).

d. Eucalyptus
Eucalyptuscamaldulensiswas for a long time the preferredrefor-
estation species, because of its rapid growth and its straight trunk,

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Fig. 5. - Tef field in Adi Kalkwal (Sept. 1994); the silky aspect of the field is charac-
teristic; stone walls are reinforced by Aloe sp.; at the back: candelabra Euphorbia.

often used as timber. This tree presents however many disadvan-

tages: its roots require a deep soil, it is not convenient on steep
slopes; it has a high water consumption, allows only few grasses
under it and no shrub stratum. I observed clearings of Eucalyptus
trees which were planted in 1970, where there are no shrubs or
small trees growing randomly inbetween the stumps. Wilson
(1977: 260) also points out that eucalyptus is not convenient for
limestone-derived soils and that its roots are often infected by the
root fungus Ganodermalucida.
This species has now been abandoned for reforestation, but
remains widely used as a cash tree. A trunk of a tree, some years
old, can be sold in Hagere Selam for 20 Birr, a large tree for 120
Birr>.Particularly Dingilet village has specialised itself as a tim-
ber supplier for Hagere Selam. Like reforestationspecies, eucalyp-
tus sprouts can now be obtained for free at the tree nurseries, and
some farmers therefore transform one of their fields into a euca-
lyptus plantation; Dingilet clergy has planted 400 eucalyptus trees

Prices in September 1994. Rather than converting these prices, they might be
compared to the loan of a daily labourer: 5 to 6 Birr per day in Hagere Selam.

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beside the little forest surrounding the church. The extension of

these natural woodlands is important for the restorationof vegeta-
tion (AseffaAbrahaet al. 1992), and it may be fearedthat the pres-
ence of eucalyptus plantations will in the future prevent any exten-
sion of this cluster of indigenous trees, situated around Dingilet

e. Opuntiaficus-indica
This introduced cactus (which produces 'prickly pears') is used
as a species of last resort on very degraded soils (fig. 6) (Westphal
1975: 149; Wilson 1977: 266). Its large leaves cover and protect
the soil, allow shrubs to grow, but some years later smother these
same shrubs, if it is not regularly pruned (the leaves, rid of their
thorns, can be used as cattle food). 'Once established, this plant is
almost impossible to remove or kill' (Edwards 1976: 21).

f. Poaceae
Cynodondactylonhas trailers and rhizome-like roots. Named t'hag
(very strong), it is very frequent on field borders and contributes
to the maintenance of the lynchettes between the fields (Amare
Getahun 1978: 86; Piovano 1957: 311; Wilson 1977: 244, 246 &
248). I did however not come across a general outline of the role
of different Gramineaespecies in soil conservation in Ethiopia.

g. Shrubsand largeherbs
Shrubs and large herbs grow on plot limits, as well as on anti-
erosive structureswhich they reinforce.Some of them also have the
advantage of not being appreciated by cattle roaming the fields
after harvesting.
Rumexnervosus(woody and ubiquist), is present in most armos
(lynchette and anti-erosive structure), 'forming clumps because of
its spreading underground stems' (Edwards 1976: 30; Wilson
1977: 244).
Rumexbequaertii(anti-parasite) and Verbascum sinaiticumare also
very present on plot limits (Edwards 1976: 33; Wilson 1977: 245;
Feoli et al. 1994: 35).
Finally, there is the particular case of Nicotianaglauca. This lit-
tle tree grows like a weed in the fields; its local name manhatteto
means: 'Who invited you here?'. It originates from Latin America
and was introduced as an ornamental species in North American

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gardens, from where it probably came to Ethiopia. The specimens

conserved at the herbariumof the BelgianJardin BotaniqueNation-
al come from a garden in Addis Ababa (1960) and from Alemaya
University campus (close to Dire Dawa, 1975). Its wood is used
for roofs and plot fences in the villages. As its toxic foliage is not
eaten by goats, it is found on plot limits and on anti-erosive struc-
tures, but also inside the fields (Parodi 1959: 762; Bailey 1977:
766; Wilson 1977: 263).

h. Climbers
Different climbing species with tendrils exist; they are desig-
nated by the generic name of harek,and reinforce particularly the
stone walls, like Cyphostemmaniveum(Hedberg et al. 1989: 415).

Euphorbiaand Eucalyptus:timber as indicator species

As alreadypointed out above, these two species are used as tim-

ber and are planted around and in the villages. Eucalyptusis large-
ly preferred,because it has a nice trunk and grows quickly, but it
needs a deep soil and is calcifuge. In villages situated on slopes,
and more generally, in villages on limestone, only Euphorbiacan be
used, the rare Eucalyptusbeing underdeveloped. Timber trees thus
give an indication about the soil type and the pedologic parent-
rock of the concerned region. In Harena, according to geological
knowledge, limestone is expected to be found; however, Eucalyptus
are numerous; this is due to the presence of a thick layer of collu-
vium recovering limestone. This indication has a value in the field,
but might also be useful in photo-interpretation, when working
with a high resolution.

Restoration of the vegetation

The restoration of vegetation and organised tree management

allow a more efficient struggle against soil erosion and the supply
of firewood to the inhabitants. The restorationof the natural equi-
librium is also favourable to soil conservation. This can be illus-
trated by the following example:
Rats and mice, which are large cereal consumers, live in stone-

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built anti-erosive constructions. The destruction that they cause,

particularly during years of abundance, can be so substantial that
farmers wonder if losses due to these little rodents do not exceed
productivity gains due to erosion control, hence, particularly,their
desire to increase the space between newly built stone bunds, in
order to decrease these losses (see also Stahl 1990, Herweg 1993).
In fact, because of deforestation, the predatorsof these rodents, like
wild cats, snakes, and especially nocturnal birds of prey have great-
ly regressed. Mr. Tesfay Abuye, officer of the Ministry of Natural
Resources in Hagere Selam, points out the presence of owls (guga
in Tigrinya, Tytoalba or Bubosp.; see Chapin 1939: 383 & 403).
Their habitat is mainly trees with well developed branches, like
Oleaeuropaeasubsp. africanaand Ficusdiv. sp. The expansion of the
owls' territorycould (temporarily)be facilitated by the installation
of nest cages (Libois 1994, personalcommunication), but for a rein-
troduction to succeed it is evident that the state of the ecosystem
must be close to the one existing before regression (Bouvier 1973).
The above named trees, and particularlythe wild olive tree (fig. 6)
are, however, remnants of climax vegetation. Nowadays, the water
table has lowered too much and young shoots die3. Hope for the
owls (and despair for rodents!) resides in a restoration of the vege-
tation which will increase water infiltration. The rise of the water
table would allow Oleaand Ficus sprouts to be planted.
Steep slopes are very sensitive to soil erosion and the best pro-
tection is reforestation. Some protected forests subsist, around
churches, and also on slopes. The most effective measure to allow
the regeneration of vegetation is area closure for cattle, which can
be complete or with allowance for manual removal of grasses, once
or several times a year (cut & carry).
Even in the case of a reforested slope (by exotic species, at that
time), Wilson (1977: 261), having noted a vigorous regeneration
of the indigenous vegetation, estimates that 'in the long term, the
effects of exclosure will be more significant than the actual plant-
ing'. Area closure is now practised on many steep slopes. It allows
a rapid regeneration of grasses and shrubs (fig. 1 and 7). It must
be noted that the absence of bush fires in the traditional agricul-

Sprouts of Olea europaeasubsp. africana are however dug out and cultivated in tree

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L. ?C.?: lz(-

-;? .u. ?r4i 1-


Fig. 6. - Oleaeuropaeasubsp. africana without regeneration (lowering of the water table);

colonisation by Opuntiaficus-indica.

Fig. 7. - Habdi Luqmuts forest, protected for 15 years (in the middle). The adjacent
slope (left) has been closed to cattle for 2 ans. The fields appear in plain light tone.

tural system gives some guarantees for the success of this conser-
vation technique (Chadhokar 1992). Feoli et al. (1994) studied very
thoroughly this regeneration in the Adwa region (about 80 km
NW of Dega Tembien). Environmental data of 26 squares of
400 m' each, situated at altitudes from 1500 to 2030 m, indicate
that after an area closure of one year, grass cover reaches on aver-

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age 79 % (o = 24; n = 9). Grazed slopes on the other hand have
only a grass cover of 16 % (o = 12; n = 8)4.
The setting up of 'green belts' on these steep slopes, integrating
the rare existing forests and the closured pasture lands (allowing
however hay making by local communuties), would trend towards
the restorationof the dry evergreenforest, submitted to forest man-
agement (including for example tree pruning in order to supply
timber and firewood).
With regard to agricultural land, tree protection (as it exists at
present) and planting (particularly of leguminous trees) and the
respect of a strip of semi-natural vegetation on the outer edges of
cultivation terraceswould considerably reduce acceleratederosion
on agricultural land. In Kenya, one has measured that grass strips
of 1.6 m wide, planted with trees (every 3 m) and alternating with
5 m wide fields, involve, in a period of six years, the creation of
about 40 cm high inclines and a decrease of the field's slope from
13.8% to 6.8 % (Kiepe & Young 1992). Trees and shrubs are
important for the maintenance of terracesand/orarmos(lynchettes),
which are composed of fine particles and whose slope is much
steeper than the natural slope. Roots strengthen the incline; bear-
ing leaves during the rainy season, they also suck water out of the
material'spores: there will thus be a decreasein Archimedes' pres-
sure which, in the case of substantial soil moisture, may provoke
landslides and solifluction (Fenelon 1963, Diemont & Van De
Westeringh 1978). One must bear in mind that the natural sec-
ondary vegetation which existed on the flats, the montane savanna,
allowed the coexistence between Gramineaeand large trees. In short,
tree-growing concepts that both complement and supplement
agriculture rather than compete with it' (Schrempp 1992: 109).
A reorientation of cattle rearing seems to be necessary:present-
ly, many slopes are overgrazed; moreover, the custom of stubble
grazing does not permit tree planting on plot limits (outside of the
villages) and on terraceedges. They would not have a resistance to
grazing cattle. One solution would be to reduce livestock (which
will increase its quality), together with stalling, carrying of fodder
to the cowshed and manure to the fields (Mitiku Haile 1994, per-
sonal communication).

My calculations, from data by Feoli et al. (1994: 31).

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- 57

Classification and cartography of the vegetation cover

A classification is proposed (table 4), as a function of tree and

shrub cover as well as the degree of degradation by overgrazing.
This classification takes into account the reality observed in the
field, photointerpretation needs (aerial photographs realised dur-
ing the dry season), and the possibility to quantify the role of the
vegetation cover:for this purpose the C-factorof the Universal Soil
Loss Equation (Wischmeier & Smith 1978), aimed at the assess-
ment of quantities of eroded soil, is used. This C-factor expresses
the degree of prevention that the vegetation cover offers. It is worth
0 in case of perfect vegetation cover and 1 in case of bare fallow.
The classification has thus been realised taking into account the
erosion risk corresponding to the different vegetation types.

Table 4. - Vegetation cover in Dega Tembien: classification

Semi-natural vegetation'
Dense protected forest; tree cover > 75 % C = 0.001
Protected forest; tree cover 40 - 70 % C = 0.003
Loose forest; tree cover 20 - 35 %
Area closure C = 0.006
Pasture land C = 0.025
Overgrazed C = 0.06
No significative tree cover < 20 %
Area closure (95-100 % grass cover) C = 0.01
Pasture land (75 % grass cover) C = 0.05
Overgrazed (50 % grass cover) C = 0.1
Overgrazed (25 % grass cover) C = 0.2
Bare land ( 0 % grass cover) C = 0.45

Artificial vegetation
Sorghum,Maize C = 0.1
Cereals, Legume crops C = 0.15
Tef C = 0.25
Eucalyptusplantations3 C = 0.04

'C according to the values presented in tables 3 and 4 of Arnoldus (1977: 112-113)
and according to Hurni (1985: 11).
2According to Hurni (1985: 11).
according to the values presented in table 3 of Arnoldus (1977: 112-113).

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The interpretation of aerial photographs, taken in the dry sea-

son, allows evergreen woody vegetation to be distinguished from
grasses and an estimation of its density to be made; lighter tones,
on the contrary, are due to a greater reflectance of overgrazed grass-
lands, and allow an estimation of the remaining grass cover.
A vegetation cover map presenting a classification of the vege-
tation as a function of the erosion risk represented by every class
was realised. It could however not be verified in the field.
Is this C-factor of vegetation cover correlated to the vegetation
index, calculated from reflectances in red and near infra-red wave-
lengths of a satellite image? A ground check (table 5) was realised
in the study area, using a Landsat image realised at seedtime

Table 5. - Ground check of the vegetation index

Normalised difference of vegetation index: NDVI = QIR - QR / QIR + QR

where QIRand QR are the Digit Numbers of the pixels in infra-red and red wave-
lengths (Jensen 1986).

The Digit Number of a pixel in a wavelength is correlated to the reflectance of the

observed object in that particular wavelength. Infra-red and red wavelengths are
chosen because the first one is strongly reflected by the blade's tissue; red light, to
the contrary, is absorbed by the chloroplasts.


- church forests - fields
- villages (eucalyptus and euphorbia) - bare rocks
- thicket - pasture land (degraded or not)

At the end of the dry season, a low NDVI corresponds to a quite

vast area without trees or other evergreen woody vegetation: fresh-
ly sown fields, badlands and dry pasture land. Thus, this index then
only indicates the presence or absence of evergreen vegetation (trees
and shrubs).

Moreover, on the Ethiopian Highlands the correlation between

the cover of woody vegetation on one hand, and that of grasses on
the other hand, is very low5. Under a high tree and shrub cover,

5 The determination coefficient deduced from the floristic data

by Feoli et al. (1994:
31) is almost nil (r2 = 0.04).

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both low and high grass cover may exist. This is due to the vari-
able intensity of grazing.
Care is thus needed when using the vegetation index (NDVI) to
study the protection from erosion that is offeredby vegetation. Par-
ticularly during the dry season, this index informs of tree canopy
cover, but the grass cover cannot be deduced from it; and this grass
cover is essential for the protection of the soil from the impact of
raindropsand from runoff.
In order to obtain a correlation between the values of the vege-
tation index and the C-factor (the Soil Loss Equation's land cover
factor), it seems essential to use several images, realised at differ-
ent times of the year, and to correlate the NDVIs of every image
with the existing vegetation (and especially grass) cover at the
moment of its realisation. Rather than using the NDVI, Eweg &
Van Lammeren (1996: 52) suggest the development of 'a set of
spectral signatures for vegetation classes which are characteristic
for the Ethiopian Highlands. Subsequently, the natural and agri-
cultural vegetation for large areas can be mapped on a detailed
scale'. In this way, problems of linking the C-factor to the NDVI
are avoided, but, in this approach too, the use of several satellite
images, realised in the different seasons, would allow a more pre-
cise classification.


The present degraded semi-natural vegetation in Dega Tembien

is made up of evergreenthicket on steep slopes (which can be com-
pletely overgrazed, or showing a good regeneration after area clo-
sure) and some remnants of montane savannaon more level places
(between the fields and in some communal grazing lands). Artifi-
cial vegetation comprises mainly cereal and legume fields on the
flats and also Eucalyptusplantations.
Deforestation, induced by impoverishment and searchfor imme-
diate returns,meant a decreaseof surfacewater infiltration, increase
of runoff, sheet erosion and gullying.
Presently, huge efforts are being made by the population who,
within the framework of catchment-wide soil conservation pro-
grammes, build stone bunds in the fields. The effectiveness of these

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structures could be increased by doubling stone bunds with a veg-

etation strip, which is traditionally established at the lower plot
With regard to steep slopes, cattle exclosure, where it exists,
allows a rapid regeneration of the thicket.
Agroforestry in soil conservation and particularly tree planting
in the fields is considered in Tigray (particularlywith leguminous
trees like Acacia and Sesbania),but it means convincing the farm-
ers to protect the concerned plots from stubble grazing for some
years (Mitiku Haile 1994, personal communication).
Vegetation cover in its relation with soil erosion can be quanti-
fied by the C-factor of the Universal Soil Loss Equation. This C-
factor is the one which explains most of the observed differences
between assessed quantities of eroded soil in different sampling
places. It presents a ratio of the highest observed value to the low-
est observed value which is much higher than the same ratio cal-
culated for other USLE factors (rainfall intensity, soil erodibility,
slope length and steepness, conservationpractices) (Nyssen 1995a,
table 38). Very precise observationsare thus necessaryfor the esti-
mation of C values.
Acknowledgements: I wish to thank professors A. Pissart and A.
Ozer (Department of Physical Geography,University of Liege) and
Mitiku Haile (Dean, Makalle University College) for scientific
supervision of my dissertation research,Ir. P. Bamps of the Belgian
Jardin BotaniqueNational for the introduction to the herbarium of
African flora and for the identification of some plants, Ato Yemane
Asgedom (botanist, Makalle University College) for the identifica-
tion of many plants of Dega Tembien, and Ato TesfayeAbuye (offi-
cer of the Ministry of Natural Resources in Hagere Selam) for the
numerous discussions on field observations.


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