EMBITO, ERITREA — TOILING to construct a 30-foot-tall earth dam for crop irrigation, mostly by hand, some 55 residents of this African farm village, including young girls and elderly women, line up with burlap sacks.
After digging dirt by hand to fill the sacks, they lug their loads to the dam site, 200 yards away. There they dump the dirt and tamp it down with the only machine being used, a small motorized roller. Then the workers, who are paid less than 50 cents a day worth of sorghum, go back for another load.
Along with massive terracing and reforestation projects, such dam-building is part of a national effort to restore - mostly by hand - the environment and farming of Eritrea, a breakaway province that won a 30-year war against Ethiopia in 1991. Officials celebrated the new country's independence on May 24 this year.
But with 80 percent of the population dependent on agriculture for a living and much of the country's farmland suffering from years of neglect during the long war, the task ahead is Herculean.
The soil erosion is "horrendous," says Tesfai Ghermazien, who heads the Eritrean Department of Agriculture. "Unless we restore our ecology, we can't have restoration of agriculture."
During the war, terraces that once slowed erosion were allowed to deteriorate, as farmers fled battles or, because they might have to flee, minimized their environ-mental efforts.
Some 500,000 Eritreans, most of them farmers, fled to neighboring Sudan to escape the war and drought. Most are still there.
Massive numbers of trees were cut down in Eritrea during the war, increasing the erosion, especially around areas where units of the Ethiopian Army were stationed.
The combination of drought and the cutting of trees for fuel by both soldiers and trapped urban residents has devastated the region around Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, including this hilly area some 20 miles from the city.
"When I was young, the hills [in this region] were covered with trees," says Bahta Tedros, a soil and water conservation expert with Eritrea's Department of Agriculture.
Around the turn of the century, about 30 percent of Eritrea was forest; now less than 2 percent is, Agriculture Secretary Tesfai says.
In this valley, soil has eroded off the treeless hills so badly that only rock remains near the top of some ridges.
But as some villagers build the dam to allow the growing of dry-season vegetable crops by irrigation, others have begun restoring old terraces or building new ones on many of the hillsides where there is still some soil.
The terraces not only retard erosion, but they also slow rain runoff so that it seeps into the hillsides, eventually raising the water table under crop lands in the valleys and improving crop-production potential, Tedros says.
Standing on a terraced hillside about six miles outside of Asmara, near another village, Mr. Bahta points to the recently constructed lines of earth and stone terraces that snake around the hills.
"We can do it," Bhata says confidently of plans to stabilize the soil on hillsides in the region and make the valleys below flourish. "If you are hopeful, you can do anything," he says, before trudging back down the hill.
In addition to thousands of miles of terracing, in 1992 Eritreans completed 17 dams, 20 ponds, and 34 wells, and they planted more than 20 million tree seedlings grown in rural nurseries, says Secretary Tesfai.
Some 100,000 seedlings are growing at one small nursery in the village of Adihawsha. The seedlings are mostly local varieties, which do well if the rains are good, says Isak Gilagbir, the head of the nursery. About 10 percent, he adds, are nonnative eucalyptus, which do better during dry years. The government of Eritrea supplies eucalyptus and juniper seeds to nurseries; villagers gather other seeds from local trees.
"Trees are growing well," says Scott Jones, a British forestry specialist working for the Eritrean Department of Agriculture. "People are craving seedlings."
One worker in the nursery, Tesfai Mairam, says he and many other farmers in the region hid themselves and their cattle in caves to escape detection by Ethiopian troops during periods of heightened tensions.
"Some family members were shot while walking along the roads; others were imprisoned" by Ethiopian troops, he says. "We weren't allowed to farm this area."
On March 30, the International Development Association approved a $25 million loan for Eritrea, part of which is for fertilizer, seeds, tools, and livestock - all needed to help farmers.
Even though many farmers in the area still lack enough seeds, tools, and oxen for plowing, farmer Rigbe Gebreapt, another part-time worker at the nursery, says the future looks "very bright."
"We have each other," she says. "Brothers and sisters have been reunited."
But conflicting land-ownership claims and lack of a uniform land-tenure system in Eritrea make "the land issue the most explosive issue" facing the new country, says Haile Woldense, secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Cooperation. A government commission has begun studying the topic, but it "might take it some time" to sort things out, he says.