Ethiopia is home to sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest population, and most of the country’s 100 million people are farmers. In Ethiopia, land is life and preserving it has become a national priority.
Just over 100 years ago, this rugged, landlocked country had a much greater forested area (though estimates vary widely). Today, it’s less than five percent of the country’s total area — though government estimates put it around 15 percent, based on a recently adopted definition of what constitutes a ‘forest’. All figures agree on a loss of forested land, mainly due to rapid population growth, which in turn has led to a major increase in demand for crop and grazing land, wood for fuel, and the poorly regulated expansion of commercial farming.
In 2011, the Bonn Challenge was launched with the goal of restoring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. The idea is to use the approach of FLR, Forest Landscape Restoration, which aims to restore ecological integrity to degraded lands, while at the same time improving human well-being.
Ethiopia has responded to this Challenge with a pledge to restore 15 million hectares of degraded forests, woodlands and production landscapes.
But how do you achieve such a goal? Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and national partner institutions wanted to find out how the ‘exclosure’ method worked in Ethiopia, and what needs to be done to improve its conservation and livelihoods outcomes, and thereby its sustainability. Also known as ‘social fencing’, this method requires communities to close off areas of land to human and domestic animal disturbances for a certain time period. This allows native vegetation to regenerate and reduces land degradation.
Ethiopia is planning to expand this program, but before scaling up, researchers and policymakers came together to study it closely — also involving local communities, since they need to know what barriers or challenges exist.
The team focused on nine successful areas in the country’s northernmost regional state, Tigray, where the government began promoting exclosures as early as the mid-1980s.
“Much of the land in Tigray has been degraded. So communities had two choices: move to a more fertile area, or restore their land. Most chose to stay and fix the problem using exclosure techniques,” says Emiru Birhane, Professor at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
The results of the study were published a Special Issue of International Forestry Review on forest landscape restoration, launched this month at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany.
A COMMUNITY CONCERN
The experience in Ethiopia has brought some lessons regarding the mobilization and engagement of communities in landscape restoration. Over the past few years, during the dry season and soon after the harvest, smallholder farmers have contributed up to 30 days of free labor for restoration of agricultural or forest land.
“Communities have participated in the restoration, but the focus was on conservation, with little emphasis on options to maintain and enhance people’s livelihoods from restored landscapes,” says CIFOR scientist, Himlal Baral.
“Now, the communities are demanding more economic benefit and increased control over the land restored,” he says.
Birhane agrees and adds that rural communities in Ethiopia are becoming increasingly proactive, and understand what they need to do to move forward.
“They are very involved now and are not afraid to speak up. The community members work together with local government to identify areas to be restored and even elect community members to guard the exclosed land against trespassers who may try to steal wood or bring livestock to graze,” says Birhane.
But these communities do face major challenges. Ethiopia is prone to frequent and severe droughts — the most recent, in 2016, affected more than half the country, including Tigray. Environmental degradation is a contributing factor. With less protection against erosion, soil is also more easily washed away, and the survival rate of planted trees remains low.
“There is an urgent need to invest in better water harvesting systems to address this problem,” says Birhane.
In interviews with farmers, the researchers found that 70 percent preferred storing collected rainwater in situ, so that water is kept in areas where it is going to be used, rather than transported in from other areas.
“We also found that if communities embraced enrichment planting during the rainy season and used certain types of species — like fruit trees, forage plants, and timber species — they could maximize their results. But so far, just 15 percent have chosen to plant these economically important species,” he adds.
WHOSE LAND ARE WE PROTECTING?
Another key concern found in many countries is secure land tenure, which is critical for the sustainable management of natural resources. It is important that the tenure security aspects of areas rehabilitated are addressed so that the responsibilities to restore and protect them is supported with clearly defined land rights.
The scientists hope their research will provide planning and decision-making tools and solutions to government, international organizations and community groups, to the benefit not only of the environment, but the people who live there too.
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