Africa: When Funds Are Stolen, Peasants Piss On Seedlings

Last Monday, Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in 12 hours, in what almost certainly was a world record.

India had until then held the tree-planting bragging rights, with volunteers having in 2017 planted 66 million trees in 12 hours.

For Ethiopia, this is about more than trees to help tackle climate change. It's survival. Ethiopia's forested land has decreased from almost a third of the country at the start of the 20th century, to less than four per cent today.

With its large and fast-growing population, waste lands, disappearing water resources, Ethiopia is plagued by drought, increasingly deadly conflict over land, and meagre economic opportunities.

While it is Africa's fastest-growing economies, hundreds of its young people still make the deadly trek through Yemen trying to reach the Gulf, and as far as Libya to gamble on the perilous trip on rickety, overcrowded boats over the Mediterranean to Europe.

Having already grown 2.6 billion trees, the plan is to bring that to 4 billion-and possibly more. That's remarkable indeed, as in 2017 it was estimated that 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees are cut down in the world each year. While that will do great good for the environment, perhaps their most significant impact will to be save the Ethiopian state.

Ethiopia is not alone in losing its forest. In the past 100 years, experts say, West Africa has lost about 90 per cent of its forest cover.

In places like Ghana and the Ivory Coast, there are no forests left outside the reserves, and the ones in reserves are being hacked down by encroachers and loggers.

Somalia is all but a wasteland, and Uganda is following it there fast, with its forest cover having fallen from 64 per cent in 1900 to 9 per cent today.

However, growing trees depends on the two things most African governments struggle with: First, you need to have low to zero levels of corruption. Second, you need trust or sufficient levels of political credibility.

The former means that when money is released to buy seedlings and support tree planting, it goes to trees. In many parts of Africa, tree money has been eaten.

In Kenya not too long ago, a massive tree planting effort ended with reports claiming that corrupt officials were buying seedlings, which should be the price of a banana or two, for the price of a goat. Where there's corruption, you can't grow billions of trees.

For the latter, because you need millions of volunteers to be involved, as in Ethiopia, people will not come out in those numbers if they don't trust the government or if they hate the president or prime minister.

And even if the government could terrify them into planting trees, in classic peasant passive resistance, they would still sabotage the trees, by letting their cows and goats eat them.

Or, as has been reported dating back from the colonial times, peasants returning from the local bars at night, would urinate on them. Seedlings desperately need watering, but not that of that kind.

Successful tree-planting, much like Rwanda-style communal cleaning of towns and the city, therefore don't reveal how much a people are green fingered. They mostly tell you something about the state of the political market, and how honest a broker people think the state is.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs.

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