Monday, November 25, 2013

Ethiopia's forest farmers work for a sweeter future

Zewde Yesuf tends his beehives in Bale. Deforestation has reduced rainfall and caused temperatures to drop, making his yields unpredictable. Photograph: Lisa Murray

As local people take ownership of southern Ethiopia's forests, the environment is starting to recover from years of deforestation. But further progress requires a bold step
Zewde Yesuf pauses in contemplation. His eyes sadden as he scans the row of empty beehives. "Yes, it's a big problem. I'm very sad this year, because I'm unable to provide for my children," he says.

Yesuf belongs to one of 23,000 households that depend on the forest in Ethiopia's Bale Mountains eco-region. In recent years, poverty and rapid population growth have contributed to alarming rates of deforestation. "There was forest fire, illegal logging and conversion of the forest for agriculture," coffee farmer Munir Adem recalls. "There was an enemy relationship between the natural forest and the community."

The environmental consequences are catastrophic for smallholders. "This season the flowers did not grow," Yesuf recounts ruefully. "The temperature dropped – it was so cold – so the bees were not able to do their work. Because of this I did not harvest any honey."

Between 1986 and 2009, exploitation of forest resources in Bale – primarily for firewood and livestock grazing – drove deforestation of up to 8% per annum, affecting temperatures and rainfall, and exacerbating poverty stress. Recognising the ecological significance of Africa's largest afroalpine habitat, the government employed armed guards to protect the forest but this had little effect. "People encroach on forests because they have no alternative livelihood options," explains Michelle Winthrop, country director of Farm Africa Ethiopia. "It always comes back to poverty."

Community engagement

In 2007, a pioneering accord between local communities and regional government, facilitated by NGO partners Farm Africa and SOS Sahel, sought to address the dual problems of poverty and environmental degradation in Bale. The government signed participatory forest management (PFM) agreements with local co-operatives, which transferred responsibility for conservation to forest communities. "We taught communities about the importance of the forest and how they can share the benefits of sustainable forest management," says Tesfaye Gonfa, Senior Forestry Expert at the government-owned Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise (OFWE).

Under the PFM system, co-operatives developed a management plan for sustainable harvesting and were offered technical support. This had a transformative effect on the livelihoods of farmers like Yesuf, who was trained in "the modern way" of honey production two years ago. This led him to replace his rickety tree hives with new, free-standing versions and use safety equipment. "In the traditional method there is low productivity: I was getting 7kg per box," he says. "But with these modern beehives I get 20-30kg for each harvest."

Previously, Yesuf produced honey purely for household consumption. Now he harvests a marketable surplus. Engagement with OFWE has also opened up lucrative markets to Bale's farmers: Yesuf now sends honey to Addis Ababa, where he receives 50% more per kilogram than at the local market. His eyes sparkle as he describes harvesting his produce: "When I collect that honey I really feel excited. I  don't want to sell it – I want to keep it in my house!"

With access to alternative and improved income streams, forest dwellers are abandoning the livelihoods that fuelled more than two decades of deforestation. "Now people are aware of their ecological roles and are also getting financial incentives," Gonfa reports. As communities realise the value of conservation, exploitation abates. Already the local environment is beginning to recover. "The water is returning, honey flora is increasing and the production of coffee has improved," Adem observes.

The impact of decades of deforestation on the climate – particularly the rainfall on which harvests depend – may take longer to reverse. But, as Adem explains, access to superior harvesting techniques and lucrative markets has made communities more resilient. "Now we know how to dry and store the coffee properly, so we are getting much higher prices. This year the rain is late, but because we are making quality coffee, it is not such a problem."

Reforestation is not only important for those inhabiting the forest. With two major rivers sourcing in the Bale Mountains, the region provides water and nourishment for up to 15 million people living on semi-arid land downstream. Restored rainfall levels in Bale will ease water stress for these populations and, in theory, reduce their need for the food aid on which many of them have relied for 20 years.

New horizons

There are also plans to adapt the PFM model for Ethiopia's rangeland – uncultivated landscape that covers much of the country and is largely used for grazing livestock. This would help pastoralists to manage their resources and create market chains for high-value crops, such as pepper, sesame and frankincense. In time, it might alleviate poverty and help rangeland dwellers to cope better in times of drought.

It took a decade to implement PFM in Bale and plans to adapt this model to rangelands are complicated by the mobile nature of pastoralist communities and pressure on land from foreign investment. "It's different for pastoralist communities," Winthrop recognises, "but the exact same argument applies: that vision and ideology can help support pastoralism."

In Bale, communities are increasingly aware of their responsibility towards the forest and its wider impact. "Many rivers originate here and go to the Kenyans and Somalis," says Adem, "so we have to protect these waters." If the government can be persuaded of the benefits of extending the model for natural resource management to less resource-rich areas, it could have a decisive impact in ending the dependency of rangeland communities on food aid – even when the rain doesn't come.

This year, however, farmers continue to contend with irregular rainfall and fluctuating temperatures. Yesuf's exuberance fades as he considers the uncertain climate. "If it stays cold there will be no harvest." Flecks of sunlight dance across his weathered face as he looks up to the sky. "But I'm hopeful, because the sun is rising and the flowers are getting ready." He is not alone: millions more, pastoralists and forest dwellers alike, are looking to the sky hoping the same.