Logan Kirkland

Video by Gabriel Austin

Story By Clancy Smith

A lush green forest stretches across the Bale Mountains, just outside the city of Addis Ababa. Fourteen years ago, the area was a barren wasteland.

The mountains, once brown and devoid of life, were some of the first in Ethiopia to be turned into a park where feverish conservation efforts have redeveloped the land into a forest rich with vegetation and wildlife.

“If you go for historical data, once Ethiopia’s forest was about 40 percent, some say,” said Wondwossen Girmay, the program director for the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network, a very long name for the nation’s conservation efforts. “Then it collapsed to about less than 3 percent. Now we are building from that 3 percent, and according to the official media we are reaching about 11 or 12 percent.”

It’s still a far cry from the forest’s glory days in the 15th century, when “it was very dense” and “royal kings used to come here for game,” said forestation director Shimaliis Tallilaa. But over the centuries, neglect and the country’s expanding agricultural efforts chewed up much of the greenery.

It’s hard work to regrow a forest, hard work to turn wasteland green. But the conservation office is determined.

Logan Kirkland

Places like the Bale Mountains teem with workers planting trees and shrubs, reintroducing wildlife, tending to seedlings that will eventually wind up on barren slopes, and accelerating a watershed initiative that has funneled water down the mountain in an effort to reclaim it for drinking water in Addis Ababa.

This ambitious effort in the Bale Mountains is run from a campground and a small set of offices lying inconspicuously along the dirt path leading visitors up a mountainside.

“We have 145 staff to work the 9,000-hectare (22,240-acre) forest,” Tallilaa said. “It is a very big one, and a very tedious one, and that doesn’t include the annual tree planting campaign where a number of individuals come to support and plant.”

Further up the trail stands a simple man-made fountain with crystal clear water bubbling from its opening. In addition to reintroducing plants and wildlife, the watershed initiative and its fresh drinking water show the fruits of reforestation to a populace that hasn’t always valued it.

“The waters that we drink here are because of this forest,” Tallilaa said.

Ethiopian native Dechasa Iiru dedicated his life to improving the environment at an early age. He has served as an agroforestry researcher for about 50 years and advises conservationists on the best approach to the problem in different regions.

One of the best regreening tools in conservation, Iiru said, is the small, easily cultivated Moringa tree, which provides food with high nutritional value and keeps investors happy with its ecological and economically beneficial results.

“Moringa you plant in one year and you harvest three times the first year,” Iiru said. “So it’s not like any other tree where you plant and wait for 10 years.”

Moringa also is fed to livestock, which creates quality meat and milk and better animal production for the local people.

Engaging and empowering local residents 

The benefits of the initiatives are evident, but its leaders make sure that all conservation efforts focus on the Ethiopian people.

“We’re putting people at the center of conservation,” Girmay said.

Even in this protected park, local communities have been made to feel as if they are a part of the project. Rural people residing along the edges of the mountains are educated about the conservation efforts near them. And instead of creating an initiative in an office setting, Girmay said, the organization makes an effort to get input from the communities with which the center will be working in order to make the project effective and long lasting.

“It is very critical for us in the very designing phase of the projects that we sit together with the communities,” Girmay said. “There we will learn. It is a process of learning.”

Ultimately, conservationists dream of expanding the forest even further and persuading communities to relocate to a place where they would be provided with health care and educational opportunities. However, the choice will ultimately be their own.

“It is very critical to participate in the local community, gauge their interest, and also prioritize their needs and then give them the power to decide what direction they should go,” said Dechasa Iiru, an agroforestry researcher for the conservation center. “This is very, very important.”

One issue that the conservation center is working to overcome is the lack of power and influence of women in rural communities outside larger Ethiopian cities.

“Studies show that areas where women are more empowered are usually more successful,” Girmay said.

The initiative provides women with seeds, simple farming tools and the instruction they need to grow crops for sale or use.

“Empowerment is very important,” Girmay said. “We give training to these people, that is one component, then they are able to come up with some of their own involvement and solutions.”

The center hopes that empowering women will help promote better environmental governance, management and more equitable use of natural resources.

Slow, steady progress

The Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network nestles between the hills of Mount Entoto, inside a leaf-shaped headquarters building made entirely of natural materials.

The center originated in 2006 at Addis Ababa University when the need for environmental care in Ethiopia could no longer be ignored and government officials decided that early conservation efforts needed to be expanded quickly.

“You can see it took about half a century to completely come to the bottom, and we are climbing a very steep way and it is very difficult,” Girmay said. “You can see always deforestation is very simple, but rehab takes time in terms of resources, the time and it is also very costly.”

Rehabilitation, conservation of biodiversity, climate change and adaptations are all ongoing initiatives for the center.

“We are not saying we are the ones that are going to solve all these problems, but we try to show that if things are networked, if we facilitate and promote this initiative, we can contribute significantly,” Girmay said.

A couple miles up the re-forested Bale Mountains, a campsite peeks through a leafy green canopy of trees. Often home to field trips, retreats and conferences, the campground was created to give visitors a place to escape and enjoy nature.

“People are attending here as tourists, as locals or from outside of the country so there is some kind of good economic transaction here,” Tallilaa said. “The area also has traditional and cultural values, because historically it has been recognized as the first park in Africa.”

Rows of traditional wooden cabins face a tree nursery where seedlings are nurtured until they are ready to be planted deeper in the forest. Forestation Director Tallilaa and his staff work to keep the grounds running smoothly.

“The nurseries do require laborious activities and while we are working with them we may take on temporary staff,” Tallilaa said.

Cady Herring

A small community of people border the forested area.

“People who have been living here are natural like the trees,” Tallilaa said. “They use the forest for their existence.”

While the environment is its primary concern, the government’s conservation organization also tackles troubling social issues within the country.

“There is extensive poverty, there is food insecurity,” Girmay said. “Attention must be given to this area for the people that are living here.”

Environmentalists say that the most challenging aspect of implementing a new project is changing the mindset of the people in the communities.

“The values, the attachment of human things with nature has already been degraded,” Iiru said. “In some ways we have to try to make this attachment. People must have some attachment, not only to some benefit, but a part of nature. That is the missing link in our understanding.”

Cady Herring