Drought-hit Ethiopia moves to protect its dwindling forests

by Elias Gebreselassie | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 4 July 2017 10:53 GMT

An emaciated cow walks in an open field in Gelcha village, one of the drought stricken areas of Oromia region, in Ethiopia, April 28, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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Forests can provide more stable water, harvests and jobs - but rural population growth make protecting them a challenge, officials say

By Elias Gebreselassie

CHILIMO, Ethiopia, July 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ethiopia is enlisting the cooperation of people in and around its forests to manage woodland better, hoping to protect the country from the effects of climate change while boosting development prospects for its population of 100 million.

The government of Africa's second most populous country has set an ambitious aim of reducing poverty and becoming a carbon-neutral economy by 2025, in part by transforming the way rural landscapes are managed.

Its Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy aims to meet half of its target reduction in carbon emissions by adding 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) of forests by 2020 – just three years from now – and restoring 22 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2030.

The government sees adding forests as a key way to both curb climate change and help the country adapt to and deal with strong climate change impacts, including droughts, said Yitbetu Moges, the national representative for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) at Ethiopia's Ministry of Forestry, Environment and Climate Change.

With water resources under ever greater stress due to the country's rising population, forests are important to maintaining stable rainfall and building drought resilience, while the carbon they store reduces emissions to the environment, Moges said.

STARTING IN OROMIA

According to the ministry, the biggest forest conservation programmes are taking place in Oromia, which is home to a third of the country's population.

The 10-year Oromia Forested Landscape Programme (OFLP), which is getting underway this year, is a community-centered programme for sustainable forest management.

The project, with an initial $18 million of funding from the World Bank, aims to reduce deforestation and lower net greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land use.

The programme's first pilot project launched in early May in the Chilimo Forest Reserve, one of the last remnants of a dry, mountainous forest that once covered Ethiopia's central plateau.

Located 90 km (56 miles) west of Addis Ababa, the forest currently covers about 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres), down from 12,000 hectares (29,600 acres) in the 1980s, mainly as a result of logging in the early 1990s, officials say.

Under the programme, local community cooperatives have been given the right to protect and manage the forest, which faces encroaching population pressure and illegal logging, and decide on how to use the benefits accrued from it.

The programme encourages cooperative members to harvest stalks and other crop residue from fields for fuel, instead of using wood, and cultivate wild honey and crops like green pepper, onion and potatoes, which can be grown within the forest limits without requiring significant deforestation.

Communities are also urged to plant fast-growing, non-native trees such as eucalyptus to harvest for timber or medicinal purposes as a way of generating income.

Degu Woldegiorgis, a local community leader, is a member of one of 12 forest associations, representing 3,000 residents around Chilimo, that will participate in managing the forest.

He said the community's decision to help preserve the Chilimo reserve is the result of seeing the problems other communities have faced after destroying their forests.

"The forest is our life. We get many benefits from the forest," he said.

Woldegiorgis said his community has committed to planting three tree seedlings per community member on deforested land each year.

BENEFITS DOWNSTREAM

Stephen Danyo, an expert in natural resources management with the World Bank's Ethiopia office, said the forestry management scheme aims not just to secure incomes for local communities but to protect water resources for downstream communities as well.

"Forest is worth protecting and expanding because forest not only provides jobs and livelihoods, it provides water security, it provides food security, it provides climate security," he said.

Moges said protecting forests would also help ensure more stable harvests by protecting water supplies – a major concern in a country where the government says 7.8 million Ethiopians face food shortages as a result of climate change-related drought and land degradation.

"Agriculture will benefit as it will be less impacted by climate change shocks, creating climate stability, in addition to the forest's well-known touristic benefits," he said.

The government estimates that about 15.5 percent of Ethiopia is covered in forests – but the country is losing 92,000 hectares (227,000 acres) of forest annually, and only 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) are being replanted, Moges said.

He said that to protect more forests young Ethiopians need to learn about the value of forest conservation in school, from primary level onward.

Woldegiorgis, on the other hand, thinks tougher punishments for illegal loggers in the Chilimo Forest Reserve are needed. He said that loggers caught by his organisation and handed over to the authorities have received what he sees as lenient prison sentences of only a few months.

POPULATION PRESSURE

Moges also thinks some of Ethiopia's rural population needs to move to its cities to better protect forests and other land as the country's population expands. More than 80 percent of the country's population lives in rural areas, adding to the pressure on forests, he said.

"National planning is needed with regards to population pressure to relieve pressure on land. But we also have to ensure today's children can migrate to cities, learn in good schools, be employed in industries, and open up business," he said.

Danyo said such strategies need to start working soon, or Ethiopia may struggle to hold onto its remaining forests as population pressures grow.

"There's not much left in Ethiopia of the old, native, original forest. It's disappearing quickly," he said. "Protecting forests is not just because people love trees and forests but because it's important for poverty reduction, jobs, water security energy and agriculture."

Moges said he sees protecting forests as critical to the country's future success.

"A prosperous Ethiopia is one that protects its forest resources. Preserving forests is creating prosperity," he said.

(Reporting by Elias Gebreselassie; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)