Ethiopia: Why Ethiopia's Greening Initiative Is a Matter of Survival

The government of Ethiopia has been implementing large scale tree plantation campaigns during the last three years. Under the campaigns, the government has carried out the plantation of billions of seedlings of various types of trees and vegetation throughout the country. The trees planted are not mere trees but can be used as cash crops.

By doing so the government can hit two targets at once. In addition to earning revenue through the sale of the products like fruits, it is also possible to give sustainable solution to environmental problems that hamper the safety natural resources. The degradation of natural resources is a main factor behind the series of natural disasters that affected the lives of millions of Ethiopians for decades.

Drought induced famine used to be a regular disaster in Ethiopia some decades ago. It is especially remembered for the catastrophe it caused when it occurred every ten years since 1974. The degradation of natural resources due to many factors was behind the disaster.

But according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there was no government policy on soil resource management in Ethiopia Prior to 1974. The 1974-75 famine was the turning point in Ethiopian History in terms of establishing a linkage between degradation of natural resources and famine.

According to a study by Simachew Bantigegn, Ethiopia is gifted with abundant natural resources of adequate landmass, fertile soil, favorable climate, water, wildlife, and others. Many of its resources are not properly identified, well managed, and fully exploited. The concern of this review is collating the current state of knowledge about the status of land, water, forest, rangeland and wildlife resources, and hence, assesses their degradation tendencies.

In Ethiopia, natural resources are under the influence of various interconnected factors like population pressure, agricultural expansion, migration, rapid urbanization, resettlement, climate change, and environmental pollution. Its huge population number had been putting a great burden on the sustainability of almost all types of natural resources. There is, therefore, serious degradation of land, water, forest, rangeland, and wildlife resources that appear to feed off each other. This results in severe soil loss, low vegetative cover, unsustainable farming practice, continuous use of dung and crop residues for fuel, overgrazing, and destruction and/or migration of wildlife, which again are intensifying the degradation of available resources in a vicious circle. The process ends with amplified environmental consequences such as water quality deterioration, biodiversity decline, and averts ecosystem services. It further recapitulates towards diverse socio-economic problems, political instability, marginalization, poverty, and recurrent natural hazards. The Ethiopian governments have taken several steps to address these problems like launching soil and water conservation campaign, tree planting programs, and others; success to date, however, has been limited.

There was a more direct linkage in the public eye between the highly degraded land and those afflicted by drought and famine in the Ethiopian highlands. In 1978, a highly publicized article, which circulated in Addis Ababa, pointed out that about one billion tonnes of top soils were being lost every year in the famine stricken Ethiopian highlands (Brown & Wolf, 1978). This, and a similar effort by others, raised awareness of the threat of soil erosion to the viability of smallholder agriculture. In 1981, the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Bern (with the support of the Swiss Government) initiated the Soil Conservation Research Project (SCRP), which generated one of the first systematic data sets on the magnitude and the severity of erosion. In 1983, the Ethiopian Highland Reclamation Study (EHRS) was carried out by national and international experts, which reviewed the main reasons for drought and proposed for Conservation Based Strategy to address it (Constable et al, 1985).

Awareness has also led to action and the Government of Ethiopia (supported by various donors, international agencies and NGOs), has made largescale investment in soil conservation and land rehabilitation measures. The rehabilitation of degraded lands, which started through food-for-work relief assistance following the 1974-1975 famine, has become a major component of the Government's approach to mitigate the impact of soil degradation in many regions of Ethiopia.

In spite of the weakness in strategies and, approaches and implementation used to address land degradation, there is a consensus (among international and local experts and policy-makers) that soil erosion and degradation are major causes for low productivity and vulnerability of smallholders. However, against this general consensus a World Bank economist has come up with one of the most astonishing claim, based on a brief visit to Addis Ababa, that soil erosion in Ethiopia has been overly estimated, and the cost of soil erosion is estimated at US$2 million and another US$100 million for nutrient loss (Bojo and Cassels, 1995).

The authors compared the financial loss of soil erosion only due to its impact on production. They ignored the nutrient value of soil loss due to erosion from farmer's fields production each year, which is estimated 100 to 1 000 times larger than the estimated production loss of the US$2 million. Furthermore, in the drought-prone Ethiopian highlands, where soils are shallow, accelerating erosion (unless effectively checked) will soon result in total economic loss in production, since the productive capacity of the soil will be irreversibly lost once a threshold value of soil depth is reached (anywhere below 20 cm). The study also considered eroded soil from farmers field and deposited elsewhere as having no negative effect on production. Crop residue, a major source of livestock feed in smallholder agriculture, was considered as nutrient loss. The key issue here is that the authors (unfamiliar with the technical issues and the complex landscape) have rushed to a conclusion that gravely underestimates the threat of soil erosion, which is one of the culprits of the recurrent drought and famine that is ravaging the country. In terms of public policy, such downplaying of the problem of soil degradation could also be counterproductive to the urgent need for increased political commitment by the Government of Ethiopia and international alliance to address this problem.


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