A Sense of Ownership: local communities are empowered to act on deforestation
An edited version of this article first appeared on TruthAtlas.
BALE, ETHIOPIA–In the dappled shade of his eucalyptus plantation, Munir Adem recollects. “Before, the forest belonged to the government. There was an enemy relationship between the natural forest and the community”.
Over the last two decades, deforestation in the Bale region of southern Ethiopia reached alarming levels of 8% per annum. “It all comes back to poverty”, argues Michelle Winthrop, Country Director of Farm Africa Ethiopia. With no viable alternatives for income, communities encroached on the protected forest area to harvest wood and graze livestock–“because they’re desperate and have no other livelihood options”.
For those living in the forest, environmental degradation disturbed the ecosystems on which their livelihoods depend, further compounding poverty stress. “There was a shortage of rainfall”, Adem recounts. “As a result, there was a decrease in coffee yields and some water points dried up”.
Despite escalating deforestation in Bale, Winthrop always believed that “people and forests can be consistent with each other”. And 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.
In 2007, Winthrop and Farm Africa pioneered an innovative approach to arrest environmental degradation in Bale: they placed the responsibility for protecting the forest in the hands of local communities. Forest communities were organized into cooperatives, which allowed the government to sign legal agreements that transferred the responsibility for conservation to those communities.
This was a dramatic shift for communities whose rights to forest resources had been denied for so long; and the government’s faith has been rewarded. “You can stick up a big fence around the forest”, Winthrop suggests, “but people climb fences. 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, 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 reveals. “But now we are managing with the government, so we feel ownership responsibility”.
The condition of the forest has markedly improved. Because the majority of forest dwellers are members of the cooperative, people no longer cut down trees for fuel or livestock grazing–and if they do, Gilo warns, “there is no escape”! Forest fires and illegal logging have been eliminated, and indigenous tree species, flora and fauna, are now returning. “The whole cooperative has benefitted”, he proclaims.
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But this unique transfer of power was only part of the solution. Poverty drove communities to encroach on the forest; therefore to protect Bale’s resources, it was vital to address the poverty question. As Winthrop stresses, “we had to find a way to replace those unsustainable ways of earning incomes”.
Bale is rich in natural resources. Forest dwellers have traditionally harvested coffee and honey, which are both environmentally sustainable and high in value. But until recently, local farmers had neither the technical expertise, nor the access to markets to harvest and sell their produce.
At the same time as transferring power to forest communities, Farm Africa provided agricultural expertise and equipment to ensure that farmers were able to produce high-value crops; and they connected communities with more lucrative market opportunities.
“We built people’s relationship with that coffee and helped them understand that a small amount of it, carefully harvested, is important both for their own pockets and also the condition of the forest”, says Winthrop. Today, farmers in Birbissa receive a premium rate for their produce, 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, exhibiting his changing fortunes. “They gave us this mesh wire and taught us how to harvest the coffee”, he beams. “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 emphatically: “It is for the quality purpose”.
Ismael’s story is repeated throughout the region: the introduction of “modern techniques” has enabled families to as much as triple the income generated from harvesting traditional crops. “Now the management and production of coffee and honey has improved”, Gilo effervesces. “This has really changed the lives of communities”.
Agricultural innovation did not stop with traditional crops: “there’s a whole load of other resources that you canextract sustainably from the forest”, Winthrop reveals. In the last five years, Farm Africa has widened the possibilities for income generation from natural forest products.
In a neighboring district, a group of women strain under hefty sacks of eucalyptus leaves, which are weighed and sold at a government-run processing plant that turns out eucalyptus oil. At the same plant, bamboo is collected to make charcoal briquettes–an alternative fuel that reduces household dependency on timber. The processing plant also produces soap and cosmetics from natural forest products; and local communities are monetizing traditional handicrafts, including bamboo furniture and raffia weaving. All these products reach national markets, which is having a transformative effect on local livelihoods.
New employment opportunities have also enabled women to enter the workforce. Like many women, Meselech used to work “only in the home” and depended on her husband–“I didn’t have anything”, she says. But since starting to collect eucalyptus leaves 12 months ago, she has earned her own income and set aside a portion of her income each month. “Now I have my own money and we decide together how to spend our savings”, she exclaims, boasting that her income had gone towards buying a cow for her family.
This was a key outcome for Farm Africa who recognized that the position of women in Bale was “particularly low”. The NGO’s efforts are underpinned by “gender mainstreaming”: new income-generating activities and women’s savings cooperatives have afforded women unprecedented economic and social independence. Gender equality will not be achieved overnight, but Meselech believes that a “change of attitude” is already evident: “now men realize that women too can make money”.
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New and improved opportunities for forest dwellers have lifted the burden of poverty in Bale and cemented communities’ “sense of ownership” over the forest. Lives have changed: iron roofs replace thatch, and sending children to school is now the norm rather than the exception. And with clear financial benefits, communities have developed a deeper understanding of the importance of conserving the forest’s natural resources.
“Unlike the Arab countries who have oil petroleum in the ground, we only have our forest for our livelihood”, muses Gilo. “So we must continue to conserve that forest”. It has been a long journey, Winthrop admits, from first piloting the initiative 11 years ago. But gradually the environmental impact is becoming evident: water points are restored and crop yields are growing. The benefits of this regeneration will sustainthe momentum for sustainable forest management in Bale, for the benefit of indigenous species, coffee drinkers worldwide and future generations in the forests.
Photos by Lisa Murray.