Ethiopians Move Forward With Restoration of Church Forests

Perimeter of Debresena church near Debretabor, Ethiopia. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese for Mongabay.

At a tree nursery in Ethiopia’s Meket district, young men and women pack small plastic bags with soil. The indigenous and exotic species grown here were previously sown directly into the earth, but the growth efficiency was less than 50 percent, according to Melak Dagnew, a forest development project coordinator in the country’s Meket district.

With the introduction of the plastic bags, into which the seedlings are first planted, and a consistent regimen of post-plantation care — watering, weeding, adding compost — the efficiency rate has risen to 93 percent, Dagnew says, and the trees have grown as much as 5 meters (16 feet) in just a year.

“Soil erosion, land degradation and, as a result, a reduction of productivity were observed widely,” says Dagnew. Meket is one of the four districts in Ethiopia’s Amhara National Regional State (ANRS) where land restoration pilot projects are being carried out.

“The lack of forest products like fuelwood, wood for fencing and housing purposes for the community were observed because of population increase followed by the consumption of natural forests in a short period of time,” he said.

Known for its densely populated highlands and rain-dependent agriculture, the ANRS is one of the more severely deforested and degraded regions in the country. Recent studies show that out of 157,000 square kilometers (60,600 square miles) of land, less than 2 percent is covered by forest.

An analysis of forest coverage by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change found that nearly 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) of forest — an area half the size of the island of Sicily — was lost between 2000 and 2013.

Only 2,460 square kilometers (950 square miles) of forest cover was gained, making the forest sector one of the top contributors to domestic greenhouse gas emissions. By pledging to restore 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) of its degraded and deforested land by 2025, an area half the size of Arizona, Ethiopia has joined the global movement toward forest landscape restoration, or FLR.

Just over a fifth of that figure, or 34,000 square kilometers (13,100 square miles), has recently been identified as suitable for reforestation.

The landscape in Meket district is rugged and highly degraded, and ranges in altitude from 1,200 to 3,000 meters (3,900 to 9,800 feet). Since 2016, it’s been among the districts where forestry sector development projects have been implemented in the form of short rotation planting and rehabilitation of degraded lands.

The species planted here include the naturally occurring African juniper (Juniperus procera), wild olive (Olea africana) and flat top acacia (Acacia abyssinica). Non-native varieties include Tasmanian bluegum (Eucalyptus globulus), river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica).

Of the indigenous seedlings that are planted, 35 percent are fast-growing species and 30 percent are slow-growth varieties. Despite the considerable effort being invested to promote native plants, farmers who need fuelwood for income and for construction purposes favor non-native plants like eucalyptus, which reach maturity for cutting quickly and can grow back up to four times faster than some native species after the initial cut.

But this expediency comes at a cost. Eucalyptus trees are known to affect soil conditions, groundwater and the overall biological diversity of the areas in which they occur. Yet despite this, studies show that 90 percent of plantations in Ethiopia are covered by these species, favored for their fast-growing nature, rotation periods and market demand.

Tree selection isn’t the only challenge facing the reforestation effort. Other factors identified by researchers earlier this year include weed infestations and the spread of grazing and farmland. Shallow soil depths and scarcity of moisture in Meket district have also been obstacles.

On the other hand, the reforestation projects have hindered the free movement of area locals and their livestock herds.

In total, 165 square kilometers (64 square miles) from four restoration sites and 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles) from half a dozen plantation sites have been undertaken in the last two to three years in Meket district alone. After the progress here and in other forestry sector development projects, the scope has grown. An initial slate of nine projects has expanded to 54 nationwide. The Amhara region remains at the forefront, with 24 reforestation projects.

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SOURCE: Urban Faith; Mongabay, Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

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