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Due to war conditions, the local farmers had to largely rely on their own crop production, mainly by subsistence farming, in Tigray, North Ethiopia. We assessed the crop stands in 2021 and evaluated the level of resilience of the indigenous farming system. Quantitative data were collected from 161 farm parcels in various ecoregions of this tropical mountain region, in order to detect the share of sown land, crop types and their status. This participatory monitoring was accompanied by semi-structured interviews. Farmers cultivated their farms late, left it uncultivated or marginally sowed oil crops as improved fallow (28%), due to lack of farming tools, oxen, fertilizer, seeds or manpower. As compared to peace years, only few lands were sown with sorghum as there was active warfare in the sorghum planting period. The relatively good stands of wheat and barley (47%) are in line with the farmers’ priority given to cereals. Teff got a large land share because it could be sown up to the middle of the main rainy season and because farmers had consumed the seeds of their major cereal crops (wheat and barley) when hiding for warfare. Seeds left from consumption were only sown by late June, when troops had retreated, and the communities could revive. With almost no external support, the local farming system has proven to be remarkably resilient, relying on indigenous knowledge and local practices, block rotation, manure, improved fallow, changes in relative importance of crops, seed exchange and support one another. This is the first analysis of the socio-agronomic roots of the 2021-2022 Tigray hunger crisis, with a cereal harvest that could not at all sustain the local population as the planting season had been largely missed. The ability of the indigenous farming system to partially rebounce in times of autarky is another novel finding.
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Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system
during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia)
Tesfaalem Ghebreyohannes
&Jan Nyssen
&Emnet Negash
&Hailemariam Meaza
&Zbelo Tesfamariam
Amaury Frankl
&Biadgilgn Demissie
&Bert Van Schaeybroeck
&Alem Redda
&Sofie Annys
&Fetien Abay
Accepted: 25 July 2022
#The Author(s) 2022
Due to war conditions, the local farmers had to largely rely on their own crop production, mainly by subsistence farming, in
Tigray, North Ethiopia. We assessed the crop stands in 2021 and evaluated the level of resilience of the indigenous farming
system. Quantitativedata were collected from161 farm parcels in various ecoregions of this tropical mountain region, in order to
detect the share of sown land, crop types, and their status. This participatory monitoring was accompanied by semi-structured
interviews. Farmers cultivated their farms late, left it uncultivated or marginally sowed oil crops as improved fallow (28%), due to
lack of farming tools, oxen, fertilizer, seeds, or manpower. As compared to peace years, only few lands were sown with sorghum
as there was active warfare in the sorghum planting period. The relatively good stands of wheat and barley (47%) are in linewith
the farmerspriority given to cereals. Teff got a large land share because it could be sown up to the middle of the main rainy
season and because farmers had consumed the seeds of their major cereal crops (wheat and barley) when hiding for warfare.
Seeds left from consumption were only sown by late June, when troops had retreated, and the communities could revive. With
almost no external support, the local farming system has proven to be remarkably resilient, relying on indigenous knowledge and
local practices, block rotation, manure, improved fallow, changes in relative importance of crops, seed exchange, and support for
one another. This is the first analysis of the socio-agronomic roots of the 20212022 Tigray hunger crisis, with a cereal harvest
that could not at all sustain the local population as the planting season had been largely missed. The ability of the indigenous
farming system to partially rebounce in times of autarky is another novel finding.
Keywords Cereal cultivation .Fallow land .Famine .Indigenous knowledge .Subsistence farming .Tigray War
1 Introduction
The North Ethiopian region of Tigray experienced harsh con-
ditions since late 2020, with a war and the consequent famine
(or equivalent conditions of food emergency) (IPC 2022;
USAID 2022;WFP2022). In the first half of 2021, armed
forces of the Ethiopian government and from Eritrea as well
as from the neighboring Amhara region were engaged in war-
fare against the forces of Tigrays regional government; in the
second half of the year, warfare was essentially outside of
Tigray, more to the south, while Tigray itself was submitted
to a blockade with all telecommunication and lifelines to the
outside world cut (Pellet 2021;Gayim2021;Ramos2021), a
blockade that continued into 2022. The near-absence of
*Jan Nyssen
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Mekelle
University, Mekelle, Ethiopia
Department of Geography, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
Institute of Climate and Society, Mekelle University,
Mekelle, Ethiopia
INRAE, AMAP, IRD, CIRAD, CNRS, University of Montpellier,
Montpellier, France
Royal Meteorological Institute, Brussels, Belgium
May Tsebri Agricultural Research Centre, Shire, Tigray, Ethiopia
Department of Crop and Horticultural Sciences, Mekelle University,
Mekelle, Ethiopia
Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2022) 42:116
economic activities, combined with limited food stocks and
restricted humanitarian access, resulted in 70% of the popula-
tion experiencing starvation (sensu Stratton et al. 2003), i.e.,
high levels of acute food insecurity and excess mortality
(Plaut 2021; Istratii 2021; Weldemichel 2021; Oxford
Analytica 2021; Devi 2021; Müller and Read 2021). The
famine was worst from September to December 2021, as it
took up to December before the yearspoor harvest (Fig. 1)
could be consumed; the lean period (also called lean sea-
son,”“hunger season) has been very severe. The lean sea-
son is the time in between finishing the last food that people
(Hirvonen et al. 2016).
Farming system resilience may be defined as the ability to
maintain livelihoods, recover, and develop in the face of both
foreseen and unexpected shocks, such as wars (Folke 2016;
Diserens et al. 2018). Resilience studies are based on the
notion of systems, in which natural and human systems are
linked in time and place to form a single complex system
and focus on the durability, adaptability, and transformability
of social-ecological systems (Walker et al. 2004). Commonly
cited assets for resilience are the ability to adapt to variable
agroecological zones, food sovereignty (sensu Wittman
2011), and internal or external social security systems
(Lallau 2016). Particularly, subsistence farming, the domi-
nant farming system in Tigray, is associated with a number
of resilience factors: diverse livelihood strategies allowing
the spreading of risks (Ellis 2000), efficient use of family
labor (Lipton 2004), attachment to land and place (Ford
et al. 2020; Quinlan et al. 2015), and indigenous environ-
mental knowledge (Richards 1985;Hunn1999; Jellason
et al. 2021). These factors (Cabell and Oelofse 2012)allow
exploiting a variety of environmental niches and hence cop-
ing with crises (Schroeder 1985). Examples of resilient sub-
sistence farming systems in the worst of crises, i.e., wartime,
are in northern Nigeria (Jellason et al. 2021), Myanmar
(Ringer et al. 2021), Somalia (Ncube 2019), and Kenya
(Haokip 2020).
In Tigray, however, the greatest fears raised, when it was
observed, in early May 2021, that many farm parcels had not
been tilled. By the end of June, an interpretation of Sentinel-
based True Color Composite images indicated that there had
been good plowing progress in most of the region (except for
Western Tigray) with often more land plowed than in 2020
(Nyssen et al. 2022). However, in most areas, it was reported
that war conditions made crop cultivation very difficult: oxen
had been looted or killed, and farm inputs and tools had been
destroyed (World Peace Foundation 2021;Tghat2021b;
WeForest 2021). Furthermore, farmers who wantedto till their
land felt vulnerable; in many places, Eritrean soldiers
prevented the farmers from plowing (AFP 2021;Addis
Standard 2021). While trying to produce in February-
June 2021, farmers evaluated whether plowing was risky or
not and organized watch posts to verify the absence of soldiers
(Nyssen et al. 2022).
By the end of June, based on remote sensing data and
interviews (yet without formal ground truthing), it was antic-
ipated that the land would have been partly sown (Nyssen
et al. 2022), without using fertilizer, although that is necessary
on reactive fields (Nyssen et al. 2017; Tittonell and Giller
2013). Late sowing was assumed to have led the farmers to
plant crop varieties with a short growing cycle, similar to
drought years, particularly fast-maturing wheat landraces as
well as the local barley cultivar called saisaa(all terms in
local Tigrinya language are in italics), obviously with a lower
yield (Frankl et al. 2013). Our evidence in August 2021 shows
a different situation with only part of the farm parcels being
cropped, and another part fallowed (Fig. S1, electronic
supplementary information).
Here, we present spatially explicit field data on crop type
and crop status collected through participatory monitoring
by the end of August 2021; the data were analyzed in order
to determine the share of Tigrays land that has been sown
timely, which crops had been sown, and how they were
growing. We investigate whether the dire conditions have
led to shifts in crop types and fallowing patterns, whether
lean crops have been privileged, the extent to which the
harvest failed, and the potential resilience of the indigenous
farming system. In this way, we uncover how the Tigray
war led to a largely failed harvest and to the hunger crisis
in 20212022.
Fig. 1 Unprocessed wheat grain harvested on a farmersfield in
Yeresere, December 2021 (Fitsum Berhane, Pers. Comm, 26 December
2021). There are very few fully matured well-rounded white grains; most
grains are unfilled or partially filled with watery or reddish color. Quite
some Avena fatua weed seeds (elongated, with spike) are present the
weed is tolerated by the farmers as it increases the straw mass.
116 Page 2 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
2 Study area
2.1 A patchwork of terroirs
The study wascarried out inEastern and Southeastern Tigray,
in an area covering around 5000 km
, situated between
13°10′–14°05N and 39°05′–39°45E, at elevations ranging
from 1700 to 2800 m a.s.l. From south to north, it includes
the Samre district, Hintalo district (with Addi Gudom town),
Inderta (with Mekelle town), Dogua Tembien (with Hagere
Selam town), Kilte Awulailo (with Wukro town), as well as
the Tsaida Imba district, all in a radius of 70 km around
Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Region (Fig. 2). The study
area, where farming has been done in the midst of conflict and
battles, was considered to be representative for a wide range of
regional environmental characteristics. Lithologies exposed
are the Precambrian basement, Paleozoic (fluvio-)glacial
rocks, Mesozoic sedimentary rocks, Tertiary volcanics, and
Quaternary deposits (Gebreyohannes et al. 2010); dominant
soils are Leptosols, Luvisols, (often Calcaric) Regosols,
(Vertic) Cambisols, and Vertisols (Nyssen et al. 2019);
agroclimatic zonation in this semi-arid region is particularly
dependent on elevation, hence temperature (from coolto
hot) (Alemie et al. 2010). The Tigrinya term addi
(ecoregion,or land character,the French terroir sensu
Bérard (2016)orUnwin(2012)) points to an area character-
ized by the symbiosis between the combined environmental
characteristics and the local traditional farming system and
expertise. The land cover is dominated by cropland and shrub-
land (Zenebe 2009; Guyassa et al. 2018).
There were relatively few military battles (yet numerous
troop movements and also air bombardments) in Mekelle,
Addi Gudom, and most of Inderta in 20202021, whereas
the other study districts have been strongly affected by warfare
(ACLED 2022; Annys et al. 2021).
2.2 Rainfall and crop growing season
Annual rainfall in Tigray varies between 400 and 1800 mm
(Annys et al. 2021) and follows a south-north gradient, with
Fig. 2 Study area centered around Tigrays regional capital Mekelle and location of studied farmlands. GCPs, ground control points.
Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia) Page 3 of 17 116
annual rainfall decreasing as one moves away from the equa-
tor (Jacob et al. 2013). Rainfall is very seasonal, with a main
rainy season in the summer (kremti), and a less reliable spring
rainy season (belgi). Overall, in most places, the crop growing
period starts in the month of June and lasts 90 to 120 days (De
Pauw and Ramasamy 2017). In the two to three months before
this growing period, fine seedbeds are prepared by plowing
the land several times with a non-reverting oxen-drawn ard
(Gebreegziabher et al. 2009). Once the seedbed is ready and
when the soil is sufficiently moist, the seeds are hand broad-
cast over the land.
When the spring rains are sufficient and soil moisture lasts
up to the main summer rainy season, a productive long grow-
ing season is possible (azmera). At lower and warmer loca-
tions, crops with longergrowing period requirements will par-
ticularly be sown, such as sorghum, maize and finger millet
(Frankl et al. 2013). Reversely, the overall short growing pe-
riod may lead to crop failures with small variations in moisture
availability. This is one of the reasons why Tigray is often at
risk of crop failure (Gebreegziabher et al. 2009).
2.3 Farming system
In the study area, small-scale familyfarms operate in a cereal-
based permanent farming system, where oxen are used for
traction (Westphal 1975). Crop agriculture is practiced in
Tigray since at least three thousand years (DAndrea 2008;
Blond et al. 2018), which allowed fine-tuning the farming
system over time, including great farmersknowledge of land
suitability and seed selection processes (Abay et al. 2008).
The indigenous knowledge (sensu Bruchac 2018)alsocom-
prises a rich language on soil types (Nyssen et al. 2019)and
the ability to interpret the rainy season when choosing the crop
to be sown (Frankl et al. 2013). Since the 1980s, the egalitar-
ian land tenure regime has been strengthened, what has led to
a broad equality in landholding size (Hendrie 1999). A typical
household in the study area uses two or three parcels of crop-
land, together comprising less than a hectare. Grasslands,
rangelands, and forests are communally owned and managed
(Nyssen et al. 2008).
The basic goal of the indigenous farming system is to in-
crease the food security of the household, as it is predominant-
ly a subsistence farming system. Cropping focusses on cereals,
particularly barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum
aestivum), and teff (Eragrostis tef), an endemic fine-grained
cereal. All study districts are known for wheat and barley
production, with Inderta among the top 25 wheat producing
districts in Ethiopia, and Inderta and Hintalo among the top 25
for barley (Warner et al. 2019). If the spring rains allow risking
a long growing period, maize (Zea mays), sorghum (Sorghum
bicolor), and finger millet (Eleusine coracana) are grown (Fig.
3). Nitrogen-fixing legume crops are grown in rotation with
cereals such as field pea (Pisum sativum), horse bean (Vicia
faba), grass pea (Lathyrus sativus), lentil (Lens culinaris),
chickpea (Cicer arietinum), or fenugreek (Trigonella
foenum-graecum) (Tsegay et al. 2019). Sowing crop mixtures
like field pea-horse bean or wheat-barley (hanfets) is common
as it allows avoiding total crop failure in case of pest occur-
rence or drought (Frankl et al. 2013).
In the crop production systems of the study area, generally,
2 years of cereals are alternated with 1 year of legumes. Block
rotation is a common feature; farmers with adjacent lands
agree and rotate their crops in the same way over the years.
Typically, such rotation blocks include 1020 farm plots with
a combined area of 4 to 7 ha. The creation of larger areas in
which the same crop is grown, facilitates protection, and eases
stubble grazing after harvest. On fertile soils, cereals may be
monocropped for many years without any rotation. Generally,
the crop rotation schemes are not very rigid; besides soil nu-
trient depletion, they also depend on the availability and price
of seeds, meteorological conditions, the progress of land prep-
aration, and whether people are available for weeding, espe-
cially in case teff is grown. Moreover, high-valued cereals are
preferred above legume crops (Nyssen et al. 2008).
Though the inclusion of community fallowing in the block
rotation is well-known and positively valued, there are nor-
mally few farm plots left fallow (tsige) because of the high
pressure on the land (Nyssen et al. 2008;Redda2021). Also,
the cultivation of legume crops has become spaced within
crop rotation schemes (Corbeels et al. 2000). Sometimes,
farmers are reluctant to grow no crops at all, but prefer to plant
lentils, niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica), or linseed (Linum
usitatissimum) instead when they want to restore the soil fer-
tility (Nyssen et al. 2008). Chickpea is also planted with a
single plow operation at the end of the rainy season around
end of August and beginning of September.
In the peace years 19902020, the Tigray Region heralded a
strategy combining conservation-based agricultural develop-
ment and food security, including pro-poor development pro-
grams (Pender and Gebremedhin 2006; Gebremeskel et al.
2018;Förch2012). The food balance sheet of Tigray indicated
that the regional food self-sufficiency had substantially im-
proved over the years (van der Veen and Gebrehiwot 2011).
2.4 Characterization of the 2021 rainy season
The 2021 rainfall conditions were analyzed by the time of the
year at which normally all crop types had been planted and
emerged well. The CHIRPS 2.0 dataset (Funk et al. 2015)cov-
ering January 1981August 2021 was used for this. In the
spring months FebruaryApril of 2021, rainfall conditions were
mostly normal, though extremely dry in southern Tigray
(Nyssen et al. 2022). In this period, March 2021, however,
was overall abnormally dry with a probability of only 23%
for a March being even drier, based on the CHIRPS dataset.
Throughout this paper, we follow the AMS (American
116 Page 4 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
Meteorological Society) conventional terminology related to
drought (Svoboda et al. 2002). The summer rainfall conditions
(up to August) were wetter than normal in large parts of
Northern Ethiopia. Particularly, the study area located in a
radius of 70 km around the regional capital Mekelle experi-
enced moderately to extremely wet rainfall conditions (Fig. S2).
Conducting research in a conflict-stricken environment is
highly challenging; hence, data collection was adaptive
(Cohen and Arieli 2011; Kara and Khoo 2021;Mossetal.
2019). Due to war conditions, the study area could only be
visited by the co-authors residing in Mekelle. The field team
visited 161 farm plots in an area representative for the wide-
ranging bio-physical conditions of the wider region, particu-
larly with regard to elevation (plots were located at 1767
2598 m a.s.l.), lithology, soil type, rainfall conditions, and
hence cropping systems. Land use types other than rainfed
farming such as irrigated land, grassland, barren land,
bushland, or forest have been excluded from the analysis.
During transect walks, crop status was recorded, and inter-
views were conducted with farmers.
Data were transmitted using a rare internet connection
(September 1, 2021). The statistical analysis comprised de-
scriptive statistics, χ
tests, as well as a few regression analyses
for which purpose the ordinal scale used during observations
on the farmlands was promoted to a quantitative interval scale.
3.1 Transect walks
Between August 20 and 30, 2021, we visited 28 ecoregions
with different biophysical and agro-ecological characteristics,
along main roads, in six districts: Samre, Hintalo (including
croplands at the fringes of Addi Gudom), Inderta (including
Mekelle), Dogua Tembien (including Hagere Selam), Kilte
Awulailo (including Wukro), and Tsaida Imba. When a new
cropland area was reached, the researchers moved several
hundreds of meters away from the road to make transect walks
(Anderson 2004; Von Maltzahn and Van der Riet 2006)par-
allel to the road, to talk to the farmers who were present on the
land, and to observe and assess the farmlands together with the
3.2 Semi-quantitative and qualitative data collection
Data collection for each cropland was done through participa-
tory monitoring: recording the crop type, a group assessment
of the status of the crop according to local standards (failed,
poor, medium, good; taking into account growth features such
as plant height, greenness and density, ear length, homogene-
ity in crop stand), observations of whether or not cropping was
done in block by neighboring farmers, as well as a semi-
structured interview with the farmer or a group discussion
with local people present near the land (Van De Fliert et al.
2000;Nyumbaetal.2018; Young and Hinton 1996). Besides
the typical crop status assessment, attention was given to
block-wise cropping with neighboring farmers because, simi-
lar to three-field systems, this practice is an indicator of (a) an
internally well-organized community, and (b) the prevention
of disturbances, and hence an outlook on better yields (Nyssen
et al. 2008;Hopcroft1994;Ruthenberg1980). In these inter-
views, predetermined questions included the comparison of
crop stands to previous years, the state of crops on nearby
farmlands, and the presence or absence of block-wise
cropping. The remaining questions were follow-ups to the
answers provided. Part of the answers was coded manually
Fig. 3 Crop calendars (from sowing to harvest) in the May Biati valley (2200 m a.s.l., in Dogua Tembien), deemed to stand representative for the study
area. Tillage takes place in the months before sowing. After Frankl et al. (2013).
Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia) Page 5 of 17 116
(with the help of Excel) and added to the database of the 161
observed farm plots, which has been published
(Ghebreyohannes et al. 2022). We organized and analyzed
the unstructured data further by categorizing, sorting, and ar-
ranging it to find themes and patterns. As the data set was
relatively small, we used a step-by-step approach to first fa-
miliarize ourselves with the interview results by coding the
quantitative portion of it: crop growth condition on the mon-
itored farm parcel; if the land was fallow, had it been plowed
or not; and condition of the surrounding farmlands. We then
looked for themes to review and related them to our quantita-
tive findings (Nowell et al. 2017).
3.3 Statistical analysis
The larger part of the analysis is through descriptive statistics,
linked up with qualitative data obtained from the farming
communities. The χ
test was used to analyze whether there
were significant differences in crop stand distribution between
the study districts, and among crop types. For the sake of
temporal comparison, detailed information on crop cover for
the pre-war situation (2019) was obtained from the Kilte
Awulailo districts Agricultural Office. Rain conditions in
this district were normalin 2021 and moderately dryin
2019 (Fig. S2). Also here, the χ
test allowed understanding
the significance of differences in choice of crop or fallowing
between 2019 and 2021.
The categorical data on assessed crop status have also an
ordinal character. In assigning them numeric values (0 for
failed crop or fallow, 1 for poor, 2 for mediumand 3 for
goodcrop stand), and assuming equal-appearing intervals
(Thurstone 1928), the ordinal scale was promoted to a quan-
titative interval scale, allowing us to involve the data regarding
crop stands in regression analyses, after averaging observa-
tional data per district. Potential explanatory variables that
were recorded are as follows: longitude, latitude, and altitude;
we used also the reported numbers of massacres and civilian
victims per district in the period preceding the field observa-
tions (Vanden Bempt et al. 2021), as these were assumed to be
a proxy for intensity of warfare and for war crimes that could
have impacted the farm works.
4 Results
4.1 Qualitative observations during the crop growth
Upon return from field data collection, the local team summa-
rized their qualitative observations (Fig. 4) and farmersfeed-
back. Farm parcels had not been adequately plowed in all
ecoregions visited, as would have happened in the previous
years. On most observed farmlands, the crops were also late,
i.e., in a growth stage that was too small for the end of August.
In many places, the farm activities only really started by the
end of June, when governmental and Eritrean soldiers had left
the wider surroundings. At the time, everyone who could be-
gan working on the land with the surviving oxen, as well as
cows and donkeys. While plowing is generally a mansjob,
this time, it was also done by women and children. Owing to
the shortage of human resources and herbicides, weeds were
common in almost all farm plots with crops, which was ex-
pected to reduce yields. Reversely, due to a lack of off-farm
work prospects as a result of the war, a few farmers were able
to plow their fields earlier than usual, at least for those who
could cope with the aforementioned obstacles. Most farmers
did not use chemical fertilizers, as fertilizer supply was either
late or very low. Those who applied fertilizer used leftovers
from the previous year or had (borrowed) cash to purchase it
informally on the black market, a practice that has become
common in Tigray, in parallel to the formal fertilizer market
(Nyssen et al. 2017).
Like in most other sectors, at woreda (district) level, the
agricultural and rural development offices were generally not
operational. Few agricultural development agents
(extensionists) were present to advise and assist farmers.
Helplessfarmers were supported in their agricultural activ-
ities by the community (labor, borrowing of oxen or seed) and
locally by some staff present in the agricultural office.
Crop diversity was highest in woreda Tsaida Imba, with
crops such as potato, sorghum, maize, wheat, barley, lentil,
and flax commonly grown on the lands of almost each visited
village. Also, the two monitored plots with rainfed potato
were in this district (Table S1), which is very well known
for potato growing. Consumers of the wider area pay more
for these potatoes due to their quality; local traders announce it
as the Sinkata potato.
4.2 Quantitative parcel data
The quantitative dataset shows that by the end of August, 21%
of the farm parcels had been left fallow without any crops (34
plots out of 161). However, out of these fallow plots, almost
half was without weeds indicating that the land had been
plowed but not sown. A further 7% of the plots was under
oil crops (flax or niger seed), sown because these crops require
minimal land preparation or because that was the only seed at
hands. Among the cropped lands, half were under wheat, bar-
ley, or a mixture of both (hanfets), followed by teff. Only 4%
of all lands were cropped with maize and a meagre 3% with
sorghum (Fig. 5). All seeds were at the farmershands from
the previous year or had been obtained from other farmers,
mostly through bartering and occasionally by borrowing or
Among all observed plots with crops, 40% had been sown in
block, in concertation with the owners of neighboring lands.
116 Page 6 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
Especially about half of the wheat and barley parcels were sown
in block. For three of the seven lands with maize, it was grown
in block, but the five observed lands with sorghum were all
stand-alone, with the neighbors growing other crops that had
been sown later (Table S1). Small cereals were dominant in all
districts, with wheat and barley widely grown in the Inderta and
Tsaida Imba districts and teff in Samre. The farm plots with
maize were in the districts of Tsa'ida Imba, Hintalo and Samre
(Table S1). Oil crops were especially observed in Dogua
Tembien (flax), Inderta (flax), and Kilte Awulailo (flax and
niger seed), and the two assessed plots with rainfed potato were
in the Tsaida Imba district (Table S1).
For the Kilte Awulailo district, the percentages of cover by
different crop groups could be contrasted between 2019
Fig. 4 Photographic documentation of the qualitative field observations
at the end of August 2021: upper left (a)tef plots in Hintalo district; the
plot at the foreground has been sown very lately; upper right (b)at
Dengolat in Samre district, most of the lands have been sown but the
crops were too late. The fallow lands at the mid-plan were scattered and
not in block, which may indicate that something happened to these
families and they could not make it; lower left (c)emerging grass
pea with many weeds near Hagere Selam, surrounding crops are too
small for the end of August. Some fallowed lands at far; lower right
(d)in Tahtay Sinkata (Tsaida Imba district), some plots are covered
with maize, scattered over the landscape, those farmers have sown early;
other crops are too small for the season. Some plowed lands that remained
fallow are also visible.
Fig. 5 Crop status of 161
investigated rainfed croplands in a
radius of 70 km around Mekelle
between August 20 and 30, 2021.
Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia) Page 7 of 17 116
(relatively drypeace year) and 2021 (war year with nor-
malrainfall). The data collection method was totally different
in 2019 when there was an exhaustive survey of all agricul-
tural land by the district Agricultural Office. In 2021, on the
other hand, we have the 22 sampled fields, selected as being
representative of the situation of the district. For the sake of
comparison, both datasets were normalized into percentage
share of croplands. The share of crop types and fallow lands
was significantly different between the two years (p<0.001):
In 2021, there has been a very strong decrease in wheat and
barley (in yellow on Fig. 6), essentially due to the increases of
fallowed land and areas under teff and oil crops.
Nearly half of the wheat and barley lands were in good
condition, as well as two of the five sorghum lands.
Differences in performance among crop types are however
not significant, due to the small number of lands sampled for
several crops: Out of the seven lands with maize, four were in
poor shape and one totally failed. Other fields in poor condi-
tion include 67% of the teff lands and 75% of the oil crops
(mainly flax) (Fig. 7; Table S1). Similarly to the qualitative
field observations (Sect. 3.1), the quantitative data (Fig. S3)
also show that the Tsaida Imba district holds the greatestcrop
diversity: wheat, barley, sorghum, maize, rainfed potato, len-
til, and flax.
There was a significant difference in crop performance among
districts (χ
= 43.6; n= 127; p< 0.001); particularly in the
Hintalo and Samre districts, there were few croplands with
goodperformance (Fig. 8). The regression analyses of the data
regarding crop stands, treated as quantitative data assuming
equal-appearing intervals between ordinal categories of crop
stands (Thurstone 1928), did not show correlations with param-
eters related to civilian casualties at district level, most probably
because the casualty recording of the Tigray war is not completed
(Vanden Bempt et al. 2021). However, if we consider the region-
al capital Mekelle and surrounds as an outlier that was a bit safer
from excesses by governmental troops (Nyssen et al. 2022), we
find relatively good correlations between longitude (i.e., distance
from the main south-north running road) and average crop status
at district level (R
=0.56;n= 5; n.s.), as well as better crop status
in districts at higher (wetter) elevations (R
= 0.35; n=5;n.s.).
5 Discussion
5.1 Weediness and fallowing
Here we show for the first time the agronomic roots of the
Tigray hunger crisis in 20212022, with largely failed plant-
ing due to war conditions. The 21% of the land left fallow
(Fig. 5; Fig. S4) confirms earlier observations (Nyssen et al.
2022) that a large share of the farmers were either absent
(refugees or fighters), forbidden to plow, or were unable to
manage their land due to a lack of resources, injuries, sickness,
etc. Qualitative observations also showed that when lands had
been plowed, it had often been done hastily. Oil crops were
especially observed in the woredas DoguaTembien,Inderta,
and Kilte Awulailo (Fig. 6; Table S1). The outlook of oil
crops such as flax shows 73% in poor condition (Fig. 7)
Fig. 6 Share of crop types and
fallow in the Kilte Awulailo
district in peace year 2019 and
116 Page 8 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
it is indeed mainly used as an improved fallowcrop (see
Sect. 2.1.3). It also requires little land preparation and is easy
to harvest; a farmer lacking helping hands or grain seeds may
at least have tried to sow flax to improve his land for the next
year. The failed maize has also turned the lands where it was
sown into de facto fallow. Even the weedy nature of farmlands
(Sect. 3.1) makes the lands to bear characteristics of fallow
land. Though these wide fallow conditionsmay be good for
aiding the regeneration of future soil fertility, it strongly re-
duced the yields of the 2021 season.
Since the farmers were late to cultivate their land and there
was a lack of farming tools, fertilizer, and manpower, it is
evident that farmers were forced to leave some or all of their
lands uncultivated. The crops are late because many farmers
Fig. 7 Assessment of the crop status per crop type by the end of August 2021. There were only two potato farmlands formally recorded, but casual
observations indicated that rainfed potatoes were doing extremely well in the Tsaida Imba district, the only location where they were observed.
Fig. 8 Assessment of the crop status per district by the end of August 2021, with over 50% of the croplands in poor shape. Overall, there is a strong
dichotomy in the dataset, with little room for mediumcrop stands.
Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia) Page 9 of 17 116
could only start cultivation in late June, after governmental
and Eritrean troops had left these areas. In the same period,
and independently from our research, an NGO worker ob-
served in Koraro (woreda Hawzen, slightly west of our study
area) that more than a third of the croplands were not sown
due to a lack of seeds or oxen, as well as the late onset of
rainfall (Tghat 2021a). The lands under teff were for 67% in
poor condition (Fig. 7). Teff is a crop with high requirements
of workforce (for plowing and for weeding) (Tsegay et al.
2019), while relatives are often not in the village and no mon-
ey is available to pay temporary laborers. Overall, the ob-
served weediness of the crops is also in line with this lack of
time and manpower.
5.2 Reliance on cereals
The large share of cropped lands under wheat, barley, or a
mixture of both (hanfets) (49%) and next under teff (26%)
(Fig. 5) is in line with the farmers desire, more than other years
maybe (see Sect. 2.1.3), to grow staple cereals (84% of all
sown land), at the expense of legumes. To have one quarter
of the land sown with teff (Fig. 6) may surprise; teff is a
marketable high-value crop, but with lower yields (Mihretie
et al. 2021). Most probably, the large share of land under teff
is related to the fact that it could still be sown up to the middle
of the rainy season as the crop easily grows on residual mois-
ture after the rains have stopped (Tesfay et al. 2017). Its mul-
tiple deployability under adverse conditions isprobablyone of
the reasons why teff emerged as a top crop in semi-arid North
Ethiopia (see also DAndrea 2008). Although teff is not high-
yielding compared to wheat, barley, or sorghum, its ability to
survive and ensure at least some level of productivity under
depauperate conditions makes it a useful part of risk-
management strategies. In some cases, risk minimization
may be a higher priority for farmers (ancient and modern) than
maximizing yields, and this may have been a factor in its
domestication (A. Catherine DAndrea, Department of
Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, pers. comm.,
January 13, 2022).
Barley seeds are commonly kept from year to year by the
farming community. For wheat, besides own saved seeds or
purchased seeds from local sources (Alemu and Bishaw
2015), farmers increasingly counted on improved seeds pro-
vided by governmental institutions over the last years, due to
the higher quality and because it is free from weeds such
improved seeds were not available in 2021. Also, farmers
commonly have roasted or boiled their wheat and barley seeds
and eaten them while hiding in the mountains for the war
(Paravicini and Houreld 2021) and then teff became the only
cerealoption left.
The good stands of wheat and barley (47%) as well as
sorghum (Fig. 7) are in line with the priority given to cereals
for home consumption. Most probably, the little amount of
available fertilizer (Sect. 3.1) and the weeding activities have
been concentrated on these lands. Wheat and barley were
mostly sown in block (53%) consistent with crops on neigh-
boring lands (Table S1), further indicating the high priority
given to these crops. Legume crops such as beans or peas are
nearly absent in our sample (5% of the lands that had been
effectively cropped; Table S1), even in the traditional
legume-growing areas such as the uplands around Hagere
Selam (Fig. S3), confirming again the high priority given
to cereals.
5.3 Lean crops
Similarly to potatoes, and though it is small, the 4% maize
cover, in an area that is overall not very suitable for maize
except for the Samre District (Table S2), indicates a willing-
ness of the farmers to grow a lean crop. This reflects their
resilient behavior towards a crisis, as they have experienced
war, droughts and famine multiple times during their or their
elderslifetime (De Waal 1990;Hendrie1994;Macraeand
Zwi 1992). Hence, knowledgeable farmers always save part of
their land for a ready-made crop to be used easily and rapidly
as a meal,called bsul ekhli. These are crops that do not need
much processing, no milling, no baking, and not being served
with sauce. Maize is the most commonbsul ekhli, and farmers
typically try to grow it at least on one small plot (in a lower,
i.e., warmer place, or near the homestead). The advantage of
maize is that it can be consumed right away: just pick it when
it is ripe, and boil or roast it. In extreme cases, the cobs may be
picked at kernel milk stage and consumed raw (Ofori and
Kyei-Baffour 2009), possibly with some salt. Potato is both
a cash crop and a lean crop.
Formally recommended stress-resistant hybrid maize vari-
eties such as the open-pollinated Melkassa 1 have been devel-
oped in Ethiopia to give yields in 3 months (CIMMYT 2013;
Alemie et al. 2021). For more recent hybrids (Tadesse et al.
2014), the farmers may not have had seeds at hand given the
largely dysfunctional agricultural extension services during
the war. Yet, as a subsistence farming community, local
farmers are very good at keeping their seeds (Teshome
Hunduma, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, pers.
comm.). Farmers saved seeds of open-pollinated varieties
(Melkassa 1) or localvarieties, such as kayih ilbo and
tsaida ilbo, and have resown them in this planting season.
Indeed, local farmers developed such own maize varieties
over the years from seeds originally obtained from research
centers (Redda 2021).
5.4 Failed sorghum and maize planting
In normal conditions, maize and sorghum are planted early in
the year, provided rains are good. The 4% croppedwith maize
and 3% with sorghum (Fig. 5) indicate that farmers could
116 Page 10 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
however hardly use the spring rains for sowing these crops
with a long growing period though the 2021 spring rains
were sufficient for planting (Nyssen et al. 2022). The stand-
alone growing of sorghum, with the neighbors growing other
crops (Table S1), is remarkable. It is common to see sorghum
in Tigray occupying wide areas homogeneously (Fig. S5), and
a wide array of landraces exist, adapted to agro-ecological
variability (Semere et al. 2019). The small areas cropped and
the absence of block cropping with sorghum in 2021 indicate
that among the farmers who were present, only few dared
coming out with their oxen and planting this high-yielding
crop in spring, when soldiers were still present in Tigrays
countryside (Fig. S6). An additional reason for the small sor-
ghum coverage is that itsharvest comes a month later than
other cereals (Fig. 3).
Three out of the seven lands with maize were grown in
block (Table S1), which is common practice in order to easily
protect the crops from predators (particularly porcupine or
Hystrix cristata) and theft. Yet, most of the maize lands were
in poor shape or the crop even failed. Sorghum was doing a bit
better, maybe also because it is more drought-resistant
(Amelework et al. 2016)(Fig.7). The poor status of all crops
is most probably due to war-related stress (e.g., destructions,
late planting, late or lack of inputs) on the farming communi-
ties leading to poor management. In order to succeed maize or
sorghum growth, gemsa plowing, an indigenous supplemen-
tary plowing technique about a month after crop emergence, is
necessary; it enhances growth by root pruning and crop thin-
ning (Nyssen et al. 2011). Farmers may not have had suffi-
cient manpower, time, or oxen to carry out thissupplementary
plowing. Many maize and even more sorghum farm parcels
are not part of a block in the rotation system (Fig. S7), what
makes them sensitive to storm, predator, and human interfer-
ence, potentially leading to poor stand or failure (Nyssen et al.
The lower share of maize (Fig. 5) is also explained by the
fact that none of the studied districts is a top maize-producing
area. Yet, our sample shows decrease in two districts where a
comparison with a peace year is possible. In Kilte Awulailo,
no rainfed maize had been planted in 2021, in contrast to 2.3%
in 2019 (Fig. 6); and in the Samre district, 12% of the crop-
lands was occupied by maize in 2019, against 7% of its ob-
served croplands in 2021 (Table S2). Though the only obser-
vation method possible in 2021, i.e., expert-based selection of
representative farm parcels in each ecoregion, contrasts to the
exhaustive inventory in 2019, changes observed are
5.5 Insufficient harvest
Our field observations (Sect. 3.1) show that all crops were late,
even though some farmers without family help or other re-
sources told that they had been supported in their agricultural
activitiesby the community, occasionally by the local agricul-
tural development office. Such late plowing particularly af-
fected maize and sorghum. In Tsaida Imba, wheat and barley
are conventionally sown in early-mid June, while in
June 2021 Eritrean soldiers were still in the area. On
September 2, 2021, OCHA stated that only 25% to 50% of
the normal cereal production will be available this year as the
agricultural planting season has been missed in many parts of
Tigray.The main rainy seasons harvest (including grain
crops, tubers, fruit and vegetables) in the region fell from 2.1
Mg before the war in 2019 (CSA 2020)to0.88×10
Mg in 2021 (Sew 2022).
During this crisis, the farmersself-organization and strug-
gle for survival still led to 2050% of the farm plots being
promising(Fig. 8; Fig. S8); these are lands that were not
fallowed, and with medium to good crop stands land that
would allow to yield a reasonable harvest. Nevertheless, the
crops were anticipated to be late and rely on sufficient rain
until the end of September to sustain crop growth. The earlier-
mentioned NGO worker also observed in Koraro that summer
season crops grew well and that farmers were trying to weed
their crops (Tghat 2021a). However, September rainfall was
less than 40 mm (Fig. S9),which, jointly with latesowing, led
to a large share of poorly filled grains at harvest time (Fitsum
Berhane, pers. comm, professional translator for international
media, 26 December 2021; Fig. 1). For instance, in the
Yeresere ecoregion (southern edge of Dogua Tembien), most
wheat grains were partially filled only at harvest. In 2021,
given that there was warfare from March up to the end of
June in the wider Tembien area, farmers did not have the
opportunity to plant sorghum. Planting wheat, barley, hanfets
mixture, or beans was the only option left. After harvest, the
low quality of unprocessed wheat grain in Yeresere (Fig. 1)
further suggests that even this crop was sown lately (Fitsum
Berhane, pers. comm., 26 December 2021).
However, all-in-all, with distance from the main road, crop
status was a bit better; despite guerrilla warfare and reprisal by
government troops on civilians (Sky News 2021), farmers in
the remoter districts had a greater opportunity to work their
farmlands, in contrast to farmers in districts along the main
north-south road. In other zones of Tigray, well away from the
study area, the situation may be different: often worse such as
in Western Tigray, where many more lands have been left
fallow, due to ethnic cleansing of the population (Human
Rights Watch and Amnesty International 2022), and
Northwestern Tigray due to shortage of rainfall, possibly bet-
ter in Southern Tigray due to better rains and less warfare
during the planting season.
5.6 Farming system resilience
This study shows, for the first time, how the traditional farm-
ing systems in Tigray, in times of war and autarky (2020
Challenges and resilience of an indigenous farming system during wartime (Tigray, North Ethiopia) Page 11 of 17 116
2022) have partially rebounced, mainly relying on indigenous
knowledge. Indeed, our field observations (Sect. 3.1) show
that the agricultural and rural development offices were work-
ing at a low ebb. Hence, farmers did not count on advice from
development agents. The Tigray farming communities were
largely on their own in 2021, yet their ability of self-
organization during this crisis was remarkable. Despite the
multiple challenges that farmers encountered (poor access to
land, looting of assets), the farmers used their indigenous
knowledge of the farming system to a full extent.
The large cropping in block (40% of the sown lands,
hardly less than what would be observed in peaceful years),
in concertation with the owners of neighboring lands
(Table S1), shows that community relations have largely
been kept intact. Indeed, smallholder agriculture builds upon
intra- and inter-household social relations, which strongly
affect the negotiation of production decisions (such as block
rotation), acquiring inputs, management of knowledge, and
output marketing (Fairhead and Leach 2005). This is in line
with earlier observations on the resilience of indigenous
farming systems, where informal social structures exist
away from the towns, the people are creating new admin-
istrative structures of their own(Mulugeta Gebrehiwot,
February 2021, pers. comm., senior fellow at the World
Peace Foundation, Tufts University, residing in rural
Tigray); block-wise crop rotation works perfectly also in
absence of government support. Similarly, the farmers
substituted the absence of formal seed distribution by a re-
vival of the indigenous village seed exchange system (sensu
Alemu and Bishaw 2015).
The fact that 9% of the lands had been fallowed, after
being plowed was sometimes due to lack of seeds; in other
cases, it testifies of good land husbandry by local farmers.
Indeed, the best fallowing technique in the study area is not
only to interrupt cropping for a year, but also to plow it once
at the beginning of the rainy season in order to enhance
infiltration (Redda 2021). The early 2021 conditions made
plowing of the arable land very difficult, and many farmers
additionally may have lost their ox or their homestead.
Farmers have also become internally displaced persons
(IDPs), forcefully absent from their land. For those remain-
ing, the indigenous social security system, called idir
(Maxwell et al. 2010) led to farmers sharing what they have
including the use of their ox and to help the families of war
victims. However, the plight is beyond that. Oxen have been
looted, and those that remain may be insufficient to plow all
the lands of whole villages. In some villages, there might be
no oxen remaining at all (Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, February
2021, pers. comm.).
As a smallholder livelihood system, the local and indige-
nous dryland farming system is complex (Bauer 1987;
Kraaijvanger et al. 2016): It involves a number of crop spe-
cies, oxen, and other livestock. There are interactions between
the components of the farming system, intercropping, and
potential substitutions (Morton 2007). Like other smallholder
farming systems, the system includes the use of wild resources
(Scoones and Wolmer 2003; Addis et al. 2005), roots, tubers,
bulbs, shoots or young stems (Aregay et al. 2017), Opuntia
ficus-indica cactus fruits (June-August), and cooked pads
(Gebru et al. 2019). During the Tigray war, non-agricultural
strategies were not available, neither the use of remittances
(Ellis 2000) due to blocking of the bank sector, nor off-farm
labor (Bolton 2020;FAO2017) due to the overall collapse of
the local economy (Oxford Analytica 2022; Ibreck and de
Waal 2021). Among the wide array of possible coping strate-
Swearingen and Bencherifa 2000; Ziervogel 2004), the local
farmers only remained with (i) the indigenous seed supply
system (hence restocking critical plant genetic resources)
(Sperling and McGuire 2010), (ii) a perfect understanding of
farmland management under adverse conditions, (iii) the use
of fallowing (possibly accompanied by the strategic use of a
single plow operation), (iv) changes in the relative importance
of crops (Swearingen and Bencherifa 2000; Kuol 2014;
Macrae and Zwi 1994; Adelaja and George 2019), and (v)
an indigenous social security system, called idir(Maxwell
et al. 2010).
Despite crop yields that are significantly below pre-war
levels and insufficient to support the farmershouseholds,
the Tigray farming system has, to some extent, maintained
livelihoods in the face of unforeseen stress, demonstrating its
resilience. In time and place, the agricultural, ecological, and
human systems are interwoven to form one holistic system,
and this social-ecological system has demonstrated adapta-
tion and persistence, and it has not been altered. This is in
contrast to the findings of Zúñiga-Upegui et al. (2019), who
investigated social-ecological systems in the post-conflict en-
vironment of Columbia and found a trend toward enhanced
cash crop production at the expense of local socio-ecological
systems. The concept of resilience has however practical
constraints where people's assets have been completely de-
pleted by successive crises (Ncube 2019). Hence, another
year of war and siege would be disastrous for Tigraysagri-
cultural sector.
6 Conclusions
This is the first analysis of the socio-agronomic roots of the
Tigray hunger crisis in 20212022. Despite the difficult war-
time conditions, collecting field data allowedus evaluating the
status of cropping in part of the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, by
the end of August 2021. We observed that local farming com-
munities are remarkably resilient, also in times of conflict and
116 Page 12 of 17 T. Ghebreyohannes et al.
When considering earlier mentioned assets for resilience
(Choptiany et al. 2015;Lallau2016; Diserens et al. 2018),
local farmers could strongly rely on the opportunities offered
by the smallholder farming system and local agroecology, yet
external factors of resilience such as off-farm income or sup-
port by formal actors, locally, nationally, or internationally,
were largely absent. Relying on, partly reviving indigenous
knowledge and local practices, farmers have shifted to the
production of crops that need minimal effort and resources
or teff that could be sown up to the middle of the rainy season.
However, very few lean crops (maize, potato) were
planted, and we estimated that only 2050% of the farmland
would produce a reasonable yield. The fallowing and poor
crop stands were not related to meteorological conditions,
which were slightly wetter than normal. What was growing
was well below what is required to sustain the local population
in a subsistence farming economy.
Even for the cropped lands, there was a real risk of bad
harvest due to failing September rains, low manpower avail-
ability needed for processing the harvest, poor conditions of
the fields (weeds), and above all, late sowing. These factual
findings are valid for the study area and probably the adjacent
districts, whereas further away, different rainfall or conflict
patterns may have induced other adaptation strategies.
Remarkably, however, using the case of Tigray, the study
shows how traditional farming systems in times of autarky may
partially rebounce, mainly relying on indigenous knowledge.
Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary
material available at
Acknowledgements This study could be carried out thanks to support
from the local farming communities. Mekelle University, College of
Social Sciences and Languages provided a vehicle to carry out the field-
work and access to the study area, and fuel was granted by the command
post of Mekelle City. We also thank driver Melaku Desta, and Birhanu
Belachew, Gebretsadkan Gebremichael, Yafet Tadesse, Desalegn Kiros,
and Tadese Hailemariam for their participation in field data collection, as
well as Every Casualty Counts.We thank colleagues Kindeya
Gebrehiwot, Mitiku Haile, Tesfay Gebremicael, Lutgart Lenaerts,
Teshome Hunduma, Stefaan Dondeyne, and Seppe Deckers for useful
exchanges of thoughts. Two anonymous reviewers as well as the section
editor and editor in chief greatly supportedthis article with their numerous
critical comments and encouragements.
Authorscontributions Tesfaalem Ghebreyohannes: conceptualization,
funding acquisition, supervision, investigation, data curation, formal ana-
lysis, writing original draft, review and editing; Jan Nyssen: concep-
tualization, project administration, supervision, writing original draft,
review and editing, formal analysis, validation, methodology, corre-
sponding author; Emnet Negash: visualization, writing review and
editing, formal analysis, software; Hailemariam Meaza: writing review
and editing, investigation; Zbelo Tesfamariam: writing review and
editing, investigation; Amaury Frankl: visualization, writing review
and editing; Biadgilgn Demissie: writing review and editing; Bert Van
Schaeybroeck: writing review and editing, data curation, software;
Alem Redda: writing review and editing, investigation; Sofie Annys:
conceptualization, visualization, writing review and editing, data
curation; Fetien Abay: conceptualization, writing review and editing,
investigation, formal analysis, validation
Availability of data and materials The datasets generated and analyzed in
this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable
Code availability Not applicable.
Conflict of interest The authors declare no competing interests.
Ethics approval Not applicable.
Consent to participate The interviewed farmers were informed about
the conditions and purpose of the research. Verbal informed consent was
obtained prior to these interviews.
Consent for publication All the authors whose names appeared on the
submission approved the version to be published and agreed to be ac-
countable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that the questions related
to the accuracy of integrity of any part of the work were appropriately
investigated and resolved.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adap-
tation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as
you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, pro-
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