BALE, ETHIOPIA–Over the last two decades, deforestation in the Bale region of southern Ethiopia reached alarming levels of 8 percent per annum. “It all comes back to poverty,” says Michelle Winthrop, country director of Farm Africa Ethiopia. With no viable alternatives for income, desperate locals encroached on the protected forest area to harvest wood and graze their livestock. “There was an enemy relationship between the natural forest and the community,” explains eucalyptus farmer, Munir Adem.
In addition, environmental degradation had disrupted the forest’s fragile ecosystems, causing grave hardship for locals dependent on it for their livelihoods. Their poverty deepened as irregular rainfall caused coffee yields to shrink and water points to dry up.
Michelle knew that people and forests can mutually coexist without harm, and that given the ecological significance of the region–which supports a number of unique plant and animal species–it was especially important to restore the balance. So in 2007, Winthrop and Farm Africa pioneered an innovative approach to fixing the environment in Bale: They organized forest communities into cooperatives, and placed the responsibility for protecting the forest in their hands.
This was a dramatic shift for locals whose rights to forest resources had been denied for so long—and the government’s faith in them has been amply rewarded. “You can stick up a big fence around the forest but people climb fences,” Michelle says. “If you embed the ownership for the protection of the forest in the hands of communities, it is much more powerful”.
At a meeting of the Birbissa Forest Management Committee, the elected body responsible for conservation in the Birbissa district of Bale, chairperson Ali Gilo reflects on how powerful a sense of ownership can be. “Before it was managed by the government, so we didn’t care about the condition of the forest,” he says. “But now we are managing with the government, so we feel ownership responsibility. The whole cooperative has benefited.”
The condition of the forest has markedly improved. People no longer cut down trees for fuel or livestock grazing–and if they do, Ali says sternly, “There is no escape!” Forest fires and illegal logging have been eliminated; and indigenous tree species, flora, and fauna are now returning.
But this unique transfer of power was only part of the solution. Because poverty drove communities to encroach on the forest, it had to be effectively addressed to stave off future suffering. “We had to find a way to replace those unsustainable ways of earning incomes,” Michelle says.
Fortunately, Bale is rich in natural resources. Forest dwellers have traditionally harvested coffee and honey, which are both environmentally sustainable and highly saleable. But until recently, local farmers had neither the technical expertise to harvest with much success nor the access to markets where they could sell their products. And so, Farm Africa provided agricultural expertise and equipment to help farmers produce high-value crops as well as connections to more lucrative market opportunities.
“We helped locals understand that a small amount of coffee, carefully harvested, is important both for their own pockets and also the condition of the forest,” Michelle says. Farmers in Birbissa now receive a premium rate for their coffee, which is sold at a cooperative store in the local town, Delo Mena. A neighboring cooperative has gone a step further and supplies international markets through the Slow Food movement.
In Birbissa, coffee farmer Abdul Haji Ismael hurries excitedly around his homestead, proudly pointing to improvements. “They gave us this mesh wire and taught us how to harvest the coffee,” he says. “Now I collect only the red cherries; I dry the coffee on this mesh-wire drying bed; and I use a plastic sheet to protect the coffee in the night.” He pauses before exclaiming, “It is for the quality purpose.”
This introduction of better farming techniques has enabled families to as much as triple the income generated from traditional crops. “Now the management and production of coffee and honey has improved,” Ali says. “This has really changed the lives of communities.”
The forest also provides other resources; and in the last five years, Michelle and Farm Africa have widened the possibilities for earning income. In a neighboring district, a group of women strains under hefty sacks of eucalyptus leaves, which are weighed and sold at a government-run processing plant that turns them into eucalyptus oil. At the same plant, bamboo is used to make charcoal briquettes–an alternative fuel that reduces household dependency on timber; soap and cosmetics from natural forest products are also produced there. Locals are monetizing traditional handicrafts, including bamboo furniture and raffia weaving. All these products reach national markets, which is having a powerfully transformative effect on these communities.
New employment opportunities have also enabled women to enter the workforce. Like many women, Meselech ran the household yet was wholly dependent on her husband. “I didn’t have anything before,” she says. “Now I have my own money and we decide together how to spend our savings.”The family has even been able to buy a cow with her earnings.
This was a key outcome for Michelle who recognized that the position of women in Bale was “particularly low.” New income-generating activities and women’s savings cooperatives have now given these women unprecedented economic and social independence. Gender equality in Ethiopia will not be achieved overnight, of course, but Meselech, who started harvesting eucalyptus leaves in the winter of 2013, believes that a change of attitude is already evident. “Now men realize that women too can make money,” she says with justifiable pride.
New and improved opportunities for forest dwellers have reduced poverty in Bale and cemented the community’s sense of ownership over the forest. Lives have changed: Iron roofs replace thatch; sending children to school is now the norm rather than the exception; and with clear financial benefits, locals have come to a deeper understanding of the vital importance of treating the forest’s natural resources with protective care.
“Unlike Arab countries who have oil petroleum in the ground, we only have our forest for our livelihood,” says Ali. “So we must continue to conserve that forest.”
“It has been a long journey,” Michelle admits, since they first piloted the initiative. But as the wells fill up, crop yields grow and families can thrive, the benefits of this regeneration will hopefully sustain the momentum for sustainable forest management in Bale, for the benefit of indigenous species, coffee drinkers worldwide, and future generations in the forests.
Feature photo (top): Women Sell Sustainably Harvested Non-Timber Forest Products at Essentail Oils Processing Centre. Photo by Lisa Murray.
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Farm Africa believes that Africa has the power to feed itself and that its smallholders hold the key to lasting rural prosperity. Nearly one billion people – equal to the populations of both the USA and Europe – do not have enough to eat. Hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, TB and malaria combined. Increasing pressure on food security from population growth and climate change means that global food production will need to rise by 70% in the next 40 years. We pioneer techniques that boost harvests, reduce poverty, sustain natural resources and help end Africa’s need for aid.
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