- The new designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Ethiopia will also come with the relocation of the more than 20,000 people living inside Bale Mountains National Park, say park officials.
- Home to a wealth of biodiversity, the park has experienced a dramatic increase in illegal human settlements, which park officials and conservationists say threatens its natural resources, forest cover, and habitat for rare and endemic species.
- Community members have mixed feelings about the planned relocation, with longtime residents mostly opposing it due to attachment to the land and fear over their livelihoods, and others open to receiving fair compensation in exchange.
- The relocation strategy is still in its initial stages and hasn’t officially been shared with communities, though UNESCO and Ethiopian officials underline the importance of consulting the locals and supporting their livelihoods.
GOBA, Ethiopia — Nestled in the heart of Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia’s highlands is an isolated village surrounded by lush natural forest — one of the few left in the country. Covered in low-hanging clouds, a dirt road runs through the village of Rira, connecting it to the outside world. Along the sides of the road, people sell collard greens grown from slopes and honey collected from hives. Behind the trees, a bountiful array of rare, endemic animals spring into a new day.
On Sept. 18, Bale Mountains National Park finally received UNESCO World Heritage Site status, following 15 years of deliberation, thanks to its rich biodiversity and extraordinary beauty.
However, with this approval also comes the relocation of the more than 20,000 residents living in the park. To fit UNESCO criteria where sites must not “suffer from adverse effects of development and/or neglect”, park officials and the regional government decided to resettle locals outside the park, citing the pressures they put on its ecosystems. Community members still haven’t officially received their relocation notice, and authorities are reluctant to speak about the resettlement plan.
“Most of the problems observed in the Bale Mountains National Park were related to illegal human settlements,” said Aschalew Gashaw, a facilitator at the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), about the evaluations done by the IUCN, the advisory body to the World Heritage Committee.
The UNESCO World Heritage Center, which says it made no request to relocate people, told Mongabay it asked Ethiopian authorities to respect the rights and opinions of local communities during its resettlement.
The park has a mix of old and new inhabitants — mostly new. According to the park’s official documents, the park had few permanent settlements before it was established in the 1970s, and only seasonal pastoralists came to graze the grasslands. However, the population and settlements increased rapidly along with a shift from traditional livestock husbandry that grazed through the area, to mixed farming that also plowed the land. Today, the park has more than 3,000 households, each with about eight residents, and seasonal resource users.
Aman Kebeko, a subsistence farmer in Rira village, is one of the park’s older inhabitants. He’s been here for more than 70 years and grows barley and maize on a small plot of farmland near his house.
Dressed in an old black jacket, a hat and long boots, and accompanied by one of his children, Aman was visiting his farm on the coldest morning of October. He also raises cattle and manages beehives in the nearby forest to support his extended family of 20.
“We haven’t officially been told by the government that we are about to relocate but we heard [in gatherings] there is a plan to evict us out of the park,” Aman said. Like many locals, he’s not prepared to go. He said he plans to build a new hut and share a portion of his farmland with one of his sons who is about to get married and start a family — a plan challenged by the impending relocation.
“We are not refugees here,” Aman told Mongabay. “We have been living here all our lives, living and cultivating our land. Our village is legally recognized.” Rira is an officially registered kebele, or district, complete with a police station, a school, a health center, and a municipal budget.
Other community members told Mongabay they have mixed feelings about the relocation plan and seem unsure about their future. Most of the older residents expressed opposition. However, some took a more moderate perspective on the matter.
Fekadu Aman, 47, is one of the newer settlers in the Rira community. He said he’d be willing to move if the plan entails relocating him to a place that’s similar to Rira and would benefit him in all aspects, economically and socially. But if he’s to be relocated to a place that’s not beneficial to him, “I would prefer to stay here.”
Regardless of what the relocation process looks like, locals like Aman who have lived here for a long time said they’re not ready to adapt to a new lifestyle.
“I don’t care about the amount of money they gave us as compensation; it wouldn’t give us a happy life as we live here,” Aman said. “My life depends on the forest and the forest is our everything. Our spirit is connected to nature; I can’t stay a day out of this place.”
What is happening in Bale?
Bale Mountains National Park, a six-hour drive southeast from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is made up of moorlands, juniper forests, volcanic plugs, peaks, alpine lakes, and mountain streams that flow into the fertile lowlands below. Sitting in Ethiopia’s highlands and four times the size of the capital, the park is a critically important area for a number of threatened endemic species, like the endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) and the critically endangered mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni), a large antelope. There are 1,600 flowering plant species in the park, 163 of which are native to the area.
Park officials say that as new people move to the region and families grow, farmland and cattle grazing areas are expanding and encroaching on the park’s woodlands. This has increased the stress on water and other natural resources, and reduced forest cover and habitat for wild species. They’ve also noticed a loss of wildlife corridors and an increase in invasive species.
Despite being prohibited by law, thousands of residents live inside the park and created small villages. In the case of Rira, which existed before the establishment of the park, the government recognized the village’s de facto presence and wasn’t prepared to relocate people — so the number of settlers in this village and park grew.
Fekadu, who has nine children and lives on a small farm that his parents gave him, said the community has long been aware of the problem, but that the local government hasn’t been responsive to their concerns.
“As the population grew, there was a high demand for land for housing and farming. The local government was unable to legally provide us land, saying the district couldn’t expand inside the park,” he said. “We eventually asked the government to provide a solution to this problem, but we haven’t yet received one.”
Many agree that the natural resources have to be protected, he said, but locals want to be able to benefit from resources in the park as needed or be provided with other sources of income, like ecotourism.
The park management has for years faced challenges balancing community needs with protecting biodiversity, said Shamil Kedir, chief warden at Bale Mountains National Park.
A lack of park management capacity and a clear political directive for 40 years led to the use of the park as an open-access resource for new inhabitants and the current unsustainable situation, according to a 2017 management plan of the park. Unless measures are put in place, the authors wrote, the current resource degradation will continue until the resources are depleted.
“We are not only responsible in protecting the environment but have equal responsibility to safeguard the well-being of the people,” Shamil told Mongabay.
According to park officials, another big threat to the park is grazing. Within the Web Valley area of the park, where the Ethiopian wolf prowls, cattle density is estimated at 250 her per square kilometer, or about 650 per square mile, leading to the degradation of the Afroalpine ecosystem on which the wolf’s prey depends.
The domestic dog population has also increased alongside the human one. This has raised the risk of diseases like rabies and canine distemper virus being transmitted to the wolves, one of the world’s rarest canids. In 2010, two-fifths of the park’s wolves died from disease, and in 2019 70% died from canine distemper, according to the park authority.
What is the plan?
Park officials were reluctant to speak to Mongabay about the resettlement process, saying the issue is sensitive and the government is handling it with caution. Community leaders declined to respond to questions unless they were told to do so by government officials. As for the locals, many asked to remain anonymous.
A spokesperson from the UNESCO World Heritage Center, told Mongabay that they requested any relocation “follow a rights-based approach, ensuring the free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities and applying international best practices and applicable norms and standards.”
The actual relocation plan hasn’t yet begun, and it’s not clear where the people will be moved; it appears many will be relocated near the park in similar environments. The plan is still in its initial stages, and the resettlement will take a few more years, according to park officials.
Aschalew of the EWCA says preassessment studies, socioeconomic surveys and legal procedures are underway with multiple federal offices, and the findings will be shared with communities at an undetermined date.
A general management plan dating from 2017, before the UNESCO designation, mentions gradually phasing out grazing, reducing settlements, and a voluntary relocation process. Along with the possibility of financial compensation or land offers, officials didn’t confirm with Mongabay whether these strategies would be used in this relocation process.
Girma Timer, who backs the resettlement plan, is a consultant with the German government’s KfW Development Bank supporting the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority. In an interview, he shared his advice.
“[Relocation] should be done with great caution, and community willingness should be prioritized,” Girma told Mongabay. “In addition, much focus should be given to providing long-term livelihood support for the relocated community.”
Girma said he believes that if the relocation is implemented effectively, based on best practices, such as local consent, it will be possible to ensure that the people live a better life than at present, with greater access to land and resources.
Park warden Shamil said the local people have strong traditional knowledge and understand conservation practices, adding he’s hopeful about the plan. Once the community receives the official relocation plan, they won’t oppose the idea, he said, and will be the ones who bring better solutions to implement it effectively.
“But we have to communicate with them properly and consult locals,” Shamil told Mongabay.
None of the sources said whether they’d considered the idea of providing training on sustainable or regenerative agriculture for locals who want to stay, in an effort to both conserve the park and their residency.
However, Shamil said there isn’t enough time. If people were allowed to remain in the park, he said, their numbers will grow and the relocation process “will be more complicated than today.”
Back in Rira, Aman worked on his farm surrounded by forest, worried about the future and indignant about his move.
“The forest provides us with everything we need,” he said. “I see the trees as one of my children. We know how to protect it and use the resources responsibly.”
Banner image: Small children from Rira village stand by the roadside near their humble home. Image by Solomon Yimer for Mongabay.
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