Sue Edwards und Tewolde Berhan from Ethiopia

Many of the world’s most innovative and impactful visions spring from shared aims and principles. For Ms. Sue Edwards and Dr. Tewolde Berhan it was no different when they set out on their aim of using ecological principles, sustainable knowledge, practices and innovations to support and improve the livelihoods of local farming communities in Ethiopia. Their journey so far has had an impact on thousands of farming families, schools, and youth groups and has also been documented in numerous publications and research documents. Planting over 600,000 trees and other useful plants has seen the most arid of regions flourish in biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farming families.

Born to a smallholder farming family near Adwa, Tigray, on February 19, 1940, Tewolde Berhan completed his undergraduate studies at the Addis Ababa University (AAU) and earned a PhD in plant ecology at the School of Plant Biology at the University of North Wales in November 1969. Ms. Sue, a botanist specializing in taxonomy, was born in Kent, England, on 14 June 1942. Her parents ran a one-hectare family farm producing fruit and vegetables, eggs, chicken, and honey. Sue moved to Ethiopia in 1968 to teach at the biology department where she met Tewolde on his return from Wales. 

Improve conditions for farmers

Their shared passion for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of smallholder farmers has brought about long-lasting change from villages in the Tigray region of Ethiopia to United Nation’s negotiations on the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and on biosafety. Here, Dr. Tewolde Berhan played a key role in protecting biosafety and biodiversity as well as respecting traditional and community rights in developing countries. They also worked together to incorporate the knowledge of Ethiopia‘s rich natural and agricultural biodiversity and they co-published eight volumes on the flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea in the time from 1983 to 2009.

Tigray is the northernmost of the nine regions of Ethiopia. It has been subject to mass deforestation which means that during the rainy season rain quickly flowed downstream eroding fertile soils on its way. Consequently, land dried up quickly making it next to impossible for farmers to grow food. Having already worked together on a new curriculum for agricultural science, Ms. Sue and Dr. Tewolde Berhan believed that bringing a more ecological approach to agriculture in Tigray could vastly improve conditions for farmers. This idea took its first steps toward reality when, in 1996, a room in their home with a computer and photocopier served as the first office of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD).

The start-up financial support was provided by the Third World Network whose director, Dr. Martin Khor, had met Dr. Tewolde Berhan at the Rio Summit in 1992. Dr. Tewolde Berhan had been leading a government project to develop the Environmental Policy of Ethiopia which was adopted in the end by the government in 1997. His travels to many parts of Ethiopia during the time when the policy was formulated provided precise knowledge of the conditions of rural Ethiopia and its smallholder farmers. It was only logical that the Ethiopian government asked Dr. Tewolde Berhan to become Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority and gave him the task to implement the environmental policy. Therefore, Ms. Sue took over ISD, which thus started its work based on a relatively precise knowledge of the condition of the Ethiopian environment and the smallholder farmers of Ethiopia.

The journey of ISD was not always easy since the urban elite had been involved in land grabbing during the feudal era. Smallholder farmers were, at first, weary of ISD staff intentions.

This soon changed and and ISD became a valuable asset for Ethiopian smallholder farmers. Today, the farmers are well aware that they can organize themselves at the local community level and they are ready to try out new systems that they can learn about. Ethiopian smallholder farmers cannot be coerced any more into taking up harmful technologies and activities. On the contrary, they know that they need access to effective technologies based on sound sience in order to increase productivity and improve their livelihoods.

The achievements of Ms. Sue and Dr. Tewolde Berhan on a personal level are also worth noting. Living simple basic lives meant they were also able to support many children through their education: together they raised more than 46 children. Ms. Sue continues working while Dr. Tewolde Berhan retired at the age of 77 having served in three different political systems showing that his commitment to change went above and beyond political affiliations. But such great passion for people and the environment never truly retires.