The country’s capital city of Addis Ababa, already home to about 3.4 million people, is expanding outward and impacting forestland in its periphery.
A legacy of poor forest management has long plagued Ethiopia’s efforts to protect and manage indigenous tree species and the habitat in which they grow.
Poverty is driving the exploitation of woodland resources such as eucalyptus, as the need for charcoal and firewood increases along with population growth.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – In Ethiopia’s ever-expanding capital of Addis Ababa, the massive afromontane forest coverage on the city’s outskirts could be under threat from the increasing urban population, which is more than 3.4 million and growing. At an elevation of 3,200 meters (10,500 feet), the Mount Entoto region at the northern limit of Addis Ababa has long been a haven for hikers, tourists, and forest researchers who flock to the area from around the world.
At the turn of the 20th century, natural resources in the Entoto region were quickly used up, and the devastated natural forest was replanted with eucalyptus. Today, the Entoto region is a state-owned eucalyptus plantation and a popular place for locals to gather firewood for home use and sale.
Things in the Entoto region and throughout Ethiopia are changing, though. According to the UN, Ethiopia is expected to become “significantly more urbanized” by 2050. That means more space and materials for homes, roads, and infrastructure. What used to be densely wooded forestland covered with eucalyptus and fig is now rapidly disappearing as the city continues to experience massive population growth – including new construction that relies heavily on wood products. The growth seems to be mushrooming in every corner of the city.
That growth, much of which is organic or unsanctioned, presents additional challenges to effective forest management. The third most populous African nation, Ethiopia remains a difficult place to get reliable data on the condition of forests. Indeed, estimates of how much of Ethiopia’s vegetation cover is natural forest varies significantly.
REDDdesk.org, an online resource project by the UK-based tropical forest think tank Global Canopy Programme, also notes the difficulty of obtaining sound estimates on forest cover and forest cover change in Ethiopia. The website states that conflicting data sources are partially attributable to varied definitions of forests in the country. Through a combination of a number of studies, the site says the average deforestation rate can be estimated at somewhere between 1.0-1.5 percent annually.
For example, the Woody Biomass Inventory and Strategic Planning Project estimates that around 3.3 million hectares (8.1 million acres) of Ethiopia is covered by “high forest”, which amounts to about 3 percent of the of the total land area. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that total forest cover is about 12.29 million hectares (30.37 million acres), which amounts to 11 percent of the total land area.
Addis Ababa’s expansion is only part of the challenge. Ethiopia’s population is fast approaching 100 million, according to World Bank figures. The population increase is only the start of the challenges, though.
“The main drivers of deforestation in Ethiopia are basically two,” said Mulugeta Limenih, regional head of natural resources management and forestry with Farm Africa. “The main cause is the expansion of Ethiopia’s small-scale agriculture that necessitated the clearing of forests to make way for agricultural lands. Biomass fuel is the other factor, as the dominant energy source for rural households in the country is firewood and charcoal. This subsequently has led to the unsustainable harvesting of forests for the production of this biomass fuel.” Biomass is loosely defined as renewable organic materials, such as wood, that can be burned as fuel.
Ethiopia has had major ups and downs in the past two centuries regarding its forests. In the mid-19th century the Entoto region was home to a wide variety of rare and precious tree species, which were nearly decimated by the early 20th century. The first modern-day afforestation and re-afforestation programs began during the military Derge regime that ruled from 1974 and fell in 1991. The work done in that period is often credited for the presence of most of today’s forests in and around the capital.
According to FAO, for two decades preceding the Derge regime between 1955 and 1979, Ethiopia lost a devastating 77 percent of its forested area.
In an Ababa University study published in 2013, Amogne Asfaw Eshetu notes that during the Derge period there was a drive to promote community-based forestry through plantations.
“The plantation scheme was undertaken in response to critical shortage of fuel wood,” wrote Eshetu. “Rather than showing the ecological impact of forest destruction, more emphasis was given to its economic benefit [as fuel].” He also noted that murky tenure and ownership rights led to a significant lack of community participation. Most of the plantations were removed during the fall of Derge’s regime. Some national parks and big game reserves in the south were also damaged through arson.
“Peasants and others demolished bunds (embankments) and terraces, set fire on forests and national parks,” he states in the report. They also ripped out young, recently planted saplings and stole trees from government plantations. Eshetu describes the damage at that time as widespread: About 60 percent of Ethiopia’s conservation assets created under Derge were destroyed in just two years.
Not all is lost, though. Recent successful forest preservation projects in Ethiopia notably includes a Participatory Forest Management (PFM) scheme pioneered by Farm Africa close to 20 years ago.
PFM projects involve processes and mechanisms that enable people who have a direct stake in forest resources to be part of decision making in all aspects of forest management, from resources to formulating and implementing institutional frameworks. More specifically, community forestry refers to a component of participatory forestry that focuses on local communities as key stakeholders for sustainability.
Launched in collaboration with local and international partners, PFMs have led to the preservation of close to 1 million hectares of natural forest in Ethiopia. The scheme benefits the livelihoods of communities who rely on the forests and at the same time protects the forests. The approach has led to the reversal of deforestation in some areas.
PFM projects, like Farm Africa’s in Benishangul Gumuz Regional State, include activities such as training. The Benishangul project teaches community members to produce frankincense from the forest – something that the government and private forest concessions used to do.
There have also been more attempts to integrate PFM with REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries), an international effort dedicated to slowing greenhouse gas emissions through financial rewards to developing countries for projects that protect and restore forests. In Ethiopia, REDD+ efforts have been woven into the country’s larger green economic growth strategy, including carbon trading.
The first REDD+ initiative in Ethiopia was the Bale Mountains Eco-Region project in the Oromia regional state, a continuation of an earlier project in the area. Oromia is the largest regional state in Ethiopia. It encompasses Addis Ababa and much of the south, and is home to 70 percent of Ethiopia’s remaining high forest cover in the country. A major block of Oromia’s high forest is in the Bale Mountains eco-region.
The 20-year Bale Mountains project started in 2012 under REDD+ project and it is projected to reduce deforestation by over 68 percent in the Bale eco-region. It has already managed to reduce emissions from the forest by 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to Farm Africa’s Limenih. It also aims to establish about 60 PFMs in Oromia.
Today, PFMs are formally recognized in forest proclamations of Ethiopia’s federal government and several regional states. Despite the program’s encouraging success in Oromia, many other locations in Ethiopia still continue to experience deforestation at an alarming rate, especially in the north, northeastern and northwestern parts of the country.
Farm Africa’s Limenih says that overgrazing from free-roaming cattle is also becoming a big factor as Ethiopia has the largest cattle population in Africa.
“This overgrazing problem has led to forest grazing,” Limenih said. He added it is also affecting the regeneration of trunk leaves and other issues are having an impact on the country’s forests. “Ethiopia has experienced a number of forest fires in the past though it has relatively been rare recently. Illegal timber harvesting was also an issue but it has significantly been limited in recent years.”
In April 2015, Ethiopian officials announced to local media that the country’s forest coverage had increased 15 percent, with a 4 percent increase over just a decade. The Ministry of Environment and Forest stated at the time that the increased coverage was the result of the extensive natural resource conservation campaigns. Natural conservation activities were undertaken on more than 13 million hectares of land in the course of four years. “The national reforestation program and green economy strategy contributed for this success,” said Kebede Yimam Dawd, Ethiopia’s state minister for environment and forest, in a statement published by Fana Broadcasting Corporation.
Some experts cast doubt on the 15 percent figure, though, stating that it is difficult to judge whether the forest coverage in Ethiopia is increasing or decreasing. Accurate forest data in Ethiopia has long been problematic, due in part to conflicting data sources and differing classifications between natural forests and plantations.
According to Limenih, forest enclaves increase and decrease and some plantations in enclosures can be difficult to categorize as forests. There are also contradictory figures regarding natural forests.
“There is a huge increase in eucalyptus planting by smallholders that is estimated to be 1 million hectares wide,” Limenih said. “However, in terms of a formal industrial plantation, there is a very small annual planting by regional institutions.”
Regardless of the deforestation rate and data questions, Ethiopia remains a prime example of a burgeoning green economy. The Ethiopian government’s pursuit of that has included infrastructure projects that use electricity instead of oil, like the newly built nationwide railway system. In 2011, Ethiopia launched its Climate Resilient Green Economy economic strategy plan to achieve green economy growth in the next two decades. It is estimated it will cost $150 billion. The country as a whole also aims to be net carbon neutral by 2025 as part of its green economy strategy.
Ethiopia’s current forest policy and strategy aim is to meet public demand in forest and forest products and to enhance the socio-economic and environmental contribution of forests.
According to the latest available data from Global Forest Watch, the forestry sector in Ethiopia contributed over $893 million to the economy in 2011, which is approximately 3.2 percent of the GDP. The share of forests to the country’s rapidly growing economy is expected to rise as more forest products are needed in the years to come, if well managed.
Banner image: A woman and donkey carry firewood and tree material from the Entoto forest. Photo by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia Commons.
Elias Meseret is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You can find him on Twitter at @EliasMesert.
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