In Ethiopia, cultivating hope through tree seed orchards

PATSPO project lays foundation to supply quality seed for large-scale forest restoration
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Breeding seed orchard of Juniperus procera at Suba. Photo by Eyob Getahun/CIFOR-ICRAF

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On a flight over western Addis Ababa, the Suba Forest appears as a dark green island in a brown sea of farmland. On closer inspection, you can see in one corner a fenced-off area containing tree seed orchards of five different species, which have been developed by the CIFOR-ICRAF Provision of Adequate Tree Seed Portfolios (PATSPO) project in collaboration with the Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise (OFWE). 

The African juniper (Juniperus procera) and Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) orchards are visible from the gravel roadside; walking further into the fenced area, you’ll find African redwood (Hagenia abyssinica), flat top acacia (Acacia abyssinica), and southern blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus). Each orchard spans about 1.5 hectares.

“We knew these trees are special,” said Ayele Demissie, one of the orchards’ guards. “They are for seed production; that is why they are fenced and cared for well.” Like most of the forest’s guards, who have been hired by OFWE, Ayele is a farmer and has his own farmland nearby. 

“The people living around the forest know that the seed orchards are different from other local plantations because they have very high survival rates,” said Belete Zeleke, head of the Suba-Sebeta District of OFWE. “We need these orchards, because we are currently collecting seed from forests, and that is not giving us the required quality in timber and construction wood.”

Fencing the BSOs and SSOs established by PATSPO. Photo by Adgo Tassew/CIFOR-ICRAF

The guards have to be vigilant at all times. Despite the fence, baboons have managed to attack some of the trees, and at various times people have broken the fence and let their cattle graze in the orchards. Wire mesh from the fence has also been stolen. The proximity of human settlement to Suba Forest makes the guards’ work particularly difficult, although most farmers in the area are well aware of the benefits of the forest and work to protect it. However, despite these challenges, the orchards are thriving under the special attention and care of OFWE. 

A BSO of the indigenous Hagenia abyssinica trees at Suba. Photos by Eyob Getahun/CIFOR-ICRAF

Seeds to serve restoration targets

PATSPO has established two other tree seed orchards at another location in Suba, and 41 more in various other parts of the country – including the Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Sidama and Central Ethiopia Regions – since 2018. 

The work forms part of a wider goal. As part of its Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy, Ethiopia aims to restore more than 20 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, and has been engaged in large-scale tree planting campaigns like the Green Legacy Initiative to help meet this target. 

In that context, the Government of Norway and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) launched the PATSPO project in 2017 to support the supply of quality tree seed for such tree planting endeavours. Since its start, PATSPO has been engaged in a range of activities to meet this goal, and the tree seed orchards represent a particularly visible and successful “flagship” for its work so far, according to the project’s senior team leader Soren Moestrup. The orchards will produce a huge amount of genetically high-quality seed, leading to better trees providing higher levels of desired ‘services’ such as wood, fodder, erosion reduction, medicine, food, and more. 

Breeding and seedling orchards

PATSPO has established two types of orchards – some that cultivate breeding seed (BSOs) and others that cultivate seedlings (SSOs). Currently, there are 32 BSOs and 16 SSOs. Both kinds of orchards are set up from seed collected from 125 superior trees found in five different areas where the species in question is growing well.

“BSOs produce the best quality tree seed, but are more complicated to establish and manage than SSOs – which also produce good quality tree seed,” said Dr. Abrham Abiyu, a senior officer at PATSPO who is heavily involved in seed orchard establishment. 

In the BSOs, the collections from each of the superior trees are kept separate, and seedlings from each of these ‘families’ are raised separately in the nurseries, and then planted in the field following a complete and randomized block design according to their family identities. This design makes it possible to take measurements, estimate which families are the ‘best of the best’, and prioritize these when thinning the orchards out – a process that’s known as ‘genetic thinning’. 

From left: BSOs of African moringa (Moringa stenopetala) and patula pine (Pinus patula). Photos by Adgo Tassew/CIFOR-ICRAF

In the SSOs, meanwhile, seed from the superior trees is mixed in equal amounts (based on seed weight) before being sown in the nurseries. The seedlings are thus planted in the field without family identity, and thinning is done based on measurements and visible assessment of which trees are the best – a process called ‘phenotypic thinning’. 

In both cases, timely thinning of trees with undesirable observable physical properties is critical to realize the orchards’ main objective: quality seed production. So, following a growth measurement and analysis process, PATSPO and Ethiopian Forestry Development (EFD) have begun thinning some of the orchards. “Involving the national research system in the growth measurement activity is expected to ensure the sustainability of the BSOs,” said Abrham, “because it means researchers can continue to help the forest enterprises [OFWE and AFE] in their future management after the PATSPO project accomplishes its mission.”

A Eucalyptus globulus BSO in Suba that has been thinned once. Photo by Eyob Getahun/CIFOR-ICRAF

Partnership

As the previous collaboration example suggests, partnership has been critical to the success of the venture so far. All seed orchards were established in collaboration with key stakeholders of the second phase of the PATSPO project (PATSPO II), including Ethiopian Forestry Development (EFD), OFWE, Amhara Forest Enterprise (AFE), the former Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region Environment Bureau and the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources of Tigray.

PATSPO covers all establishment costs, while partners provide nurseries for seedling raising and land for planting the trees. “We are very happy with the professional and financial support we are getting from PATSPO,” said Kedir Nino, the deputy director general of OFWE. 

“Forest development is a long-term investment,” said AFE’s director general, Biadglign Shiferaw. “One must be farsighted enough to establish quality tree seed sources today to get reliable seed sources in the future. What PATSPO has been doing in this regard is commendable, as it supports the sustainability of the enterprise.” 

From PATSPO’s perspective, Moestrup said that “establishing seed orchards together with our partners makes it possible to establish more seed orchards – and at the same time to get the partners more involved in the actual establishment and management of the orchards, as they do most of the work, and we at PATSPO in principle only do the technical supervision.”     

Before planting the orchards, project implementers must select appropriate tree species for local ecological, economic, and social realities. So far in this project, EFD, OFWE, and AFE have chosen the species to be planted in seed orchards, with technical inputs from PATSPO. Eleven of the 19 species for which such orchards have been established so far are indigenous, while eight are exotic. Almost all are economically valuable, although some of the indigenous trees may not be preferred by farmers as they are slow-growing. 

Once the species are selected, project implementers collect seeds throughout the distribution range of the prioritized tree species using a range of ecological theories and techniques. In some cases, they also import highly bred seeds of exotic trees from their countries of origin. 

PATSPO also covers the cost of seedling production in the nurseries and, during the first phase of the project, hired labourers to dig planting pits, plant trees, and build fences to ensure the trees are not damaged or browsed by livestock. Initially, PATSPO also took care of the financial management of orchard establishment. But since April 2022, after PATSPO II was launched, project partners have taken on the responsibility of managing the funds. This aligns with PATSPO’s approach of ‘phasing over’ its activities and responsibilities to the Ethiopian institutions to which the activities rightfully belong.

Baboons and beetles: biological challenges 

Some of the BSOs have already faced significant challenges. As mentioned in the introduction to this story, in the Suba Forest some Hagenia abyssinica and Acacia abyssinica trees have been attacked by baboons. “The baboons eat beetles found in the hollow stems of the young Hagenia trees,” explained Tiglu Seboka, PATSPO’s field coordinator for Oromia Region. “They break the shoot at the top of the tree, inhibiting its vertical growth.” The invading animals also uprooted and ate the root bark of the orchard’s Acacia abyssinica trees, killing almost forty percent of them. 

Since then, two more guards have been assigned to the area, and scarecrows have been erected to dissuade the baboons from attacking the trees again. OFWE district head Belete stressed his commitment to preventing further incursions: “Seed is the foundation for growing trees to produce timber, poles, and construction wood that we harvest in the future,” he said. “As the trees planted in the orchards have been selected so carefully, the enterprise will now pay greater attention to protecting them.” 

Hagenia abyssinica trees that have been broken by baboons in search of beetles in their hollow stems. Photos by Eyob Getahun/CIFOR-ICRAF

Other BSOs have experienced insect and pathogen attacks. For instance, a seed orchard in the Ansewe area addressed an aphid attack on common yellowwood (Afrocarpus falcatus) trees using biological control by introducing a parasitic wasp that was already in use by OFWE, which lays eggs inside the aphids that then hatch and consume them from the inside out. A white acacia (Faidherbia albida) BSO at Mojo in Oromia, meanwhile, experienced a fungal attack in 2020. The trees were sprayed with a fungicide, Mancozeb, twice in 2020 and 2021, and are now old enough to resist the pathogen. 

While such incursions and infestations are never welcome, they are also part of the process of gaining experience and knowledge to improve resilience to future challenges. To support in their prevention and cure, PATSPO II has published a booklet, Guidelines on health management issues of BSOs which – like all of the project’s publications – is freely downloadable on its website.

Knowledge transfer and experience sharing

Enriched by their broad array experiences to date, PATSPO II’s technical experts have also produced a broader resource, Guidelines for the Establishment of Breeding Seed Orchards, in English and in two major local languages, Amharic and Afan Oromo. They are also sharing their knowledge and experience beyond Ethiopia. “PATSPO is learning from the successes and failures of the seed orchard development process,” Moestrup said. “We are now helping other countries in East Africa – including Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda – to establish their own seed orchards, too.”


Acknowledgements

The PATSPO II project is implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF and local partners, with financial support from the Norwegian government through its embassy in Addis Ababa. 

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