1 February 2006

Ethiopia: Yes, Money Grows On Trees


Addis Ababa — A good number of countries, perhaps because they can afford other forms of energy other than that from fuel wood, see the importance of forests more in terms of the role they play in helping keep the countryside unspoiled. That in itself is, of course, a worthy characteristics of forests that even energy- challenged countries could perhaps appreciate and make their own.

Nevertheless, forests are money, which poor developing countries can quite easily cash in. It is perhaps long overdue that countries like Ethiopia that have widely ranging climates and are therefore, reasonably ideal for forestry, try and stop giving the sector the short shrift and give it due attention.

We mistakenly assume that by going through the motions of preventing people from cutting trees (it hardly works), we can substitute for aggressive re-planting. That might be why, for instance, come Christmas; we spend more time haranguing people to avoid decorating their homes with Christmas trees, on religious and cultural holidays, festivals...

What we should have done is encourage people to plant more Tid seedlings than they cut. Major highways are interspersed with checkpoints that confiscate loads of charcoal, which we end up cheaply to select people anyway. While it seems that there is no better alternative at present than interdiction, that alone cannot take care of all that is hurting the sector.

In the opinion of some people, the cash cow aspect of forests, and their potential in this respect, is so compelling that they put their argument starkly as to suggest, "it is the greenback stupid, and not the green peace".

In other words, the money motive holds the key. Besides, they say, money being the universal language, why not use it as the lingua franca for reforestation.

The emphasis on money as the bottom-line of forestry might be too crass and distasteful to many environmental and natural resource enthusiasts, (which everyone else should be, frankly), but if that is the type of incentive which better motivates individuals and communities to plant more, why not go that route.

Establishing woodlots or planting few trees with the motive to make money at a future date commercially is no novel idea and is as old as forestry itself. Small-scale farmers throughout the country have been doing it forever. Before socialism happened here, landlords planted the outskirts of Addis Ababa with eucalyptus trees, not for aesthetic or ecological reasons but to make money, period.

And we have reason to believe that they made more money from the sale of trees than they did from food crops from their agricultural farms elsewhere. Those people, or most of them, are no longer here, of course, but the eucalyptus forests remain; testimony to the power of lucre.

So actually, what is old is new again. Therefore, let the word go henceforth that, indeed, money grows on trees and to put one's hands on that treasure trove is neither forbidden nor difficult. Individuals don't have to have under their belts diplomas in business management or governments do not require trillions in investment money.

In any case, however we cut it, forests are of vital necessity to our country. And if we can make money out of them, even lots of money, may be, why can't we embark on nationwide and extensive reforestation? By the way, if "export' and "hard currency" and "greenback' are music to your ears, trees can provide that, too. For once, it is nice to be located just across the Sahara, where trees are as scarce as water.

Highly degraded areas, which in the past used to be productive farms, but are not anymore, are still being coaxed, as it were, to produce measly yields. It comes as no surprise now that we are finding this to be a losing proposition.

We need not look further than the settlement projects that are going on at present. The areas that are being abandoned have all their juice sucked out of them. For all practical purposes, they are sterile lands as far as food production goes now. Written? large on them is a culture of one- way street in farming: take all you can, give nothing back and let the future be damned.

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