Deforestation’s ripple effects: Wildlife to Climate
Forests are diminishing in many parts of the world, and while changes in the climate contribute to this issue, it is not the sole cause. Rainforests and smaller woodlands are being converted into agricultural land. One might ask, what could be wrong with that? Isn’t there widespread hunger in the world that compels us to do everything possible to feed the poorest population? However, this solution brings about numerous problems at the local and national levels.
We often resort to short-term measures that appear beneficial and necessary in the moment, but they can worsen the situation in the long run. The history of Eritrea during the time of the Axum Empire serves as an example of the consequences of overexploiting forests.
Eritrea was once prosperous and fertile, and its population grew rapidly. To meet the challenges this growth posed, a significant amount of wood was required for construction, cooking, and heating homes during colder seasons. Consequently, forests were decimated.
This overexploitation had severe consequences. People were forced to migrate southward in search of sustenance, gradually eroding the power and control of the Axumite rulers. Eventually, the kingdom fell to populations further south. These events, meticulously chronicled by John Reader in his work on the African continent, serve as a stark reminder of the perils of unchecked deforestation.
Eritrea finds itself on the brink of drought once again due to the encroachment of the Sahel. Accordingto recent discussions on the possibility of combatting increasing desertification in the borderlands with a Swedish expert, M. Ståhl, itcould be feasible to halt the Sahel’s progression, but it would require sustained and dedicated efforts from the government, supported by international organizations. Unfortunately, not enough has been done in this regard.
The alarm bells have been ringing for some time now, not only in Africa but across the globe, warning us about the alarming rate of deforestation. Fortunately, we have recently witnessed positive steps taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who launched a much-needed reforestation program in Ethiopia. This initiative, which has already yielded impressive results, is a testament to the power of proactive measures.
However, it is essential to recognize that the problem of deforestation is not new.
Governments in Ethiopia have collaborated with aid organizations and United Nations agencies, notably UNICEF and UNEP, for several decades to address this pressing issue. One such initiative involved the development of fuel-efficient ovens to reduce the reliance on firewood for cooking.
A “basic technology center” was established in Burayu, near Addis Ababa, with the primary objective of designing and promoting these stoves. Despite the program’s success, changing deep-rooted habits proved challenging. Many households received these modern and efficient stoves free of charge, yet few opted to use them, perpetuating the overuse of forest resources.
One of the key barriers identified was that igniting fires in the new stoves was more troublesome than in traditional open fires. To overcome this resistance, it is crucial to highlight the time-saving benefits that these stoves can offer, particularly for the women and girls tasked with wood-gathering responsibilities.
Promoting the use of fuel-efficient stoves is just one step towards solving the larger problem. As firewood collection has historically been the responsibility of women and girls, organizations like UNICEF, dedicated to assisting families with children, must focus on addressing the challenges faced by women and girls in this regard.
Household duties are already demanding and arduous, and the need to travel longer distances for firewood collection as forests recede only adds to their burdens. Improved stoves can greatly alleviate these challenges, offering a compelling motivation for more housewives to embrace their usage.
Looking back to earlier times, the overuse of trees in Ethiopian towns, particularly Addis Ababa, nearly led to a crisis during the reign of Emperor Minilik II (1889-1913). Wood scarcity became so severe that there were even plans to relocate the capital. However, a timely solution was found – the importation and widespread planting of eucalyptus trees from Australia. The rapid growth of these trees had an immediate impact, eliminating the need to relocate the capital. The success of this tree-planting initiative can still be observed in and around Addis Ababa today.
However, these efforts were limited to specific regions. Drought is increasingly becoming a problem in many parts of Ethiopia, and relying solely on intensive short-term measures do not suffice. It requires comprehensive long-term planning and sustained efforts. Fortunately, the country has now undertaken such initiatives.
The current nationwide effort to plant millions of trees holds immense importance, especially if it is executed as a sustained initiative. Deforestation has far-reaching consequences.
Forests play a crucial role in attracting rainfall and maintaining soil moisture. Deforestation disrupts this delicate balance, leading to reduced water supply. This burden falls heavily on those responsible for collecting water, predominantly women and girls, for domestic use and agricultural purposes.
UNICEF has been involved in constructing rainwater collection tanks to alleviate the need for long journeys to fetch water during the rainy season. While this initiative has provided some relief, it does not fully address the water requirements of farmers who rely on substantial amounts of water for their fields. Irrigation can be a solution, but it necessitates suitable water sources, presenting a long-term challenge. Temporary measures, such as accessing water sources at a distance for “kitchen gardens,” may be implemented if sufficient manpower is available. However, such measures are unlikely to suffice in the long run.
Reforestation efforts in Ethiopia must not only focus on the quantity but also the quality of trees planted. While eucalyptus trees served a critical purpose during a time of urgent need, it is essential to identify tree species that are better suited for Ethiopia’s long-term challenges. Valuable catalogues have been published, offering guidance on selecting trees and plants that thrive in Ethiopia’s diverse soil and climate conditions.
In addition to reforestation, supplementary measures are necessary. While the development of fuel-efficient stoves remains a priority, it is insufficient if housewives are reluctant to adopt them. Demonstrations and a nationwide information campaign are imperative to encourage households to install such stoves. Establishing school-kitchens where students, particularly girls, can learn to utilize these stoves effectively will promote wider adoption. Financial incentives may also incentivize more housewives to embrace fuel-efficient stoves, alongside the provision of cost-free stoves, which should continue as long as it benefits the country.
Another area where significant wood savings can be achieved is in house construction. Ethiopia possesses ample suitable clay that can be used as an alternative to wood or without the need for reinforcing walls with branches. In many traditional clay houses, sticks and straw are used to fortify the mud or clay, ensuring wall stability. By creating solid and large bricks from suitable mud, houses can be built without the necessity of wooden supports, reducing the demand for wood and enhancing sustainability.
However, having innovative ideas and appropriate technology is insufficient unless they are widely implemented and embraced, preferably by the majority of the population. Therefore, the development of information and training programs that reach the people is crucial. Schools and mass media can play a significant role in disseminating knowledge. Incentives and certain pressures may also be necessary, and local institutions and organizations can assume responsibility for such initiatives.
Monetary incentives or appeals to modernity and progress may motivate some individuals, although caution should be exercised as appeals to tradition may deter those who value established practices, especially in rural areas. While punitive measures are not advisable, appeals to national pride and patriotism are likely to yield positive results. Additionally, competition for resources can escalate into severe conflicts and nationwide unrest.
Trees attract rainfall, and in times of drought, life becomes precarious for many communities. Pastoralists often find themselves competing for scarce resources, leading to armed conflicts over grazing grounds and water sources. Such conflicts have occurred repeatedly in regions like Ogadén, where pastoralists form a significant, if not a majority, portion of the population.
Water scarcity also drives pastoralists into areas predominantly inhabited by agriculturalists, resulting in conflicts between these two groups.
The drought experienced in the early 1970s resulted in widespread conflicts and resource scarcity, particularly affecting regions like Wello and others. It is crucial for the government to acknowledge and address the damage inflicted upon local populations rather than ignore or conceal the situation. During the final years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, the government’s failure to address the crisis may have contributed to their downfall.
As a media professional during that time, we frequently broadcasted reports about the drought, appealing to private individuals traveling through affected areas to bring extra food to assist those in need.
Representatives of the Ministry of Information regularly visited me, objecting to our broadcasts. When I questioned their objections to our encouragement of aiding those in need, they could not provide a satisfactory response. Consequently, we continued to broadcast as before, shedding light on the issue. Ironically, it was those who tried to ignore the crisis—the government—who ultimately suffered the most.
During my visits to pastoralist areas and regions where pastoralists and agriculturalists coexist, I encountered large groups of pastoralists who had migrated to higher grounds in search of sustainable livelihoods due to the drought. However, they faced hostility when settling in areas inhabited by agriculturalists. Through their leaders, they expressed their willingness to transition to agriculture if provided with land and training. Unfortunately, no assistance was provided to these individuals. To avoid unrest and potential armed conflicts among different population groups in such areas, it is crucial not to repeat the mistake of neglecting their needs.
Scarce resources can also lead to conflicts among agriculturalists themselves. In an effort to retain ownership of their land, families may temporarily relocate from drought-affected areas, leaving one member, usually the husband or a fit male, behind to tend to the farm in hopes of better times.
However, if these lands are temporarily abandoned, others may seize the opportunity to claim ownership, leading to bitter conflicts often involving the use of weapons. This fear of permanent destitution and the loss of their land compels farmers to be hesitant about completely abandoning their plots, even during dire circumstances. They only leave when survival on their own land becomes impossible.
Displaced individuals from drought-affected areas often migrate to urban centers, particularly larger towns and the capital city. The influx of migrants creates challenges as they struggle to find employment and means of survival. Many end up working as underpaid or unpaid maids in bars and eateries, often resorting to prostitution in hopes of receiving favors from customers. This situation can lead to tensions, with regular prostitutes expressing concerns about reduced prices. Others, predominantly women, may resort to begging, becoming a burden on the resident population. They often go door-to-door in residential compounds, seeking assistance.
Owners, who themselves struggle to feed their families, often complain about the presence of “intruders” and argue that theft increases as a result. Additionally, opportunistic individuals exploit vulnerable women and girls, treating them as inexpensive labor and objects of pleasure.
The influx of destitute people from drought-stricken regions can exacerbate urban unrest during times of hardship and competition for shelter. Accommodation becomes scarce, leading to numerous problems.
In more severe cases, such situations can also trigger political unrest. Impoverished individuals are easily recruited into discontented movements, and there are always those who seek to profit from these circumstances. This was probably evident during the Derg’s rise to power in 1974 when drought and widespread dissatisfaction prevailed among the population. They seized the opportunity and held onto power until their eventual overthrow in 1991.
The imperial government remained inactive during the drought, making it easy for “revolutionaries” to rally supporters for change. “Cadres” were present throughout the country, particularly in the capital, and the path to power was smoothed by the desperate need of drought-affected citizens who clung to any hope of improving their situation. However, they were not alone in this endeavor. There were many committed revolutionaries, including idealists and genuine patriots, who patiently awaited their chance to seize power.
These individuals were willing to employ any means necessary to transform society. Among them was MengistuHailemariam, who fought a losing battle for Ethiopia’s integrity, while his successor, MelesZenawi, turned Ethiopia into a landlocked country by granting Eritrea the port of Aseb (Assab) and a corridor to the sea, despite Eritrea never making such demands.
A nationwide tree-planting campaign can also breed dissatisfaction if it lacks fairness. Some individuals will inevitably feel excluded if one region is prioritized over another, potentially leading to ethnic or tribal discrimination and subsequent unrest.
Deforestation affects certain parts of the country more than others, making it crucial to address both local and regional needs while ensuring fairness. Past grievances rooted in perceived unfair treatment based on sectional differences have caused friction. Therefore, it is essential to chart the needs of the entire country to prevent unnecessary conflicts or even armed clashes if fair and equally distributed remedies are not implemented. Although this problem is not new, its severity may escalate over time.
In recent years, religious denominations in Ethiopia have engaged in subtle battles or at least competitions to prove their progressiveness.
This, too, can contribute to dissatisfaction.
To avoid such conflicts, it is crucial for everyone to contribute according to their capacity. Religion, like development, has historically been a potential source of grudges and divisions. Instead, it should foster greater cooperation, integration, and unity. Unfortunately, it has often been manipulated to incite opposition against those with slightly different interpretations of what is best for the community. Open dialogue among people can help mitigate and potentially avoid these issues.
A self-proclaimed atheist, who had worked in Ethiopia for many years, recently wrote that if he wanted things to be done quickly and properly, he would employ only committed Christians, as they were the most reliable and hardworking individuals he encountered in the country. This observation may also apply to tree-planting efforts.
Concern for the climate has long been a priority. The Rio Conference in 1992 brought together nearly 200 high-ranking politicians and representatives from numerous NGOs concerned about climate change and its consequences. Since then, these discussions have continued in various forms and forums. In August 2019, representatives from 180 countries gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, to deliberate on measures to halt environmental depletion and the extinction of endangered species.
The perilous state of our natural world extends beyond animals, as trees and plants face the looming threat of extinction. Rampant poaching and the illegal trade of animal parts for traditional medicine contribute to the assault on fauna and flora. However, the depletion of forests emerges as a key factor driving the decline of various species.
In Africa, including Ethiopia, the populations of elephants, giraffes, and other animals are dwindling at an alarming rate, primarily due to habitat destruction. Urgent action is required to address this crisis and safeguard our planet’s biodiversity.
Vanishing giants and silent extinction:
The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) reports paint a grim picture, revealing that a mere 400,000 African elephants remain today, a stark decline from the millions that roamed the continent just a few decades ago.
Giraffes, victims of habitat loss, civil unrest, illegal hunting, and international trade in body parts, have experienced a staggering 40 percent decrease in numbers over the past 30 years. These shocking figures underscore the urgent need to protect their habitats and reverse the devastating trend.
Beyond fauna: The far-reaching impact:
Deforestation not only imperils animal species but also disrupts entire ecosystems. Fruit-eating birds, essential for seed dispersal, are vanishing alongside receding forests. As agricultural expansion encroaches on trees, insects find reduced access to vital flowers and plants, leading to diminished nectar production and a decline in fruit tree pollination. This loss of biodiversity threatens the survival of numerous species and undermines the availability of nutrient-rich fruits, crucial for human diets and overall well-being.
The world is gradually awakening to the perils of deforestation and the urgent need for collective action. Wealthier nations have attempted to mitigate this crisis by financially supporting distant governments in preserving rainforests, as evidenced in Brazil, Indonesia, and beyond.
While such efforts have shown some success, precarious situations like food shortages or economic slowdowns can sway governments to prioritize agricultural land expansion, resulting in forest reduction and, in severe cases, decimation. Reports of diminishing rainforests not only in Indonesia and Brazil but also in Africa highlight the pressing need to safeguard these vital ecosystems often referred to as the lungs of our planet.
Efforts and Hope: Ethiopia’s Example
Governments worldwide are increasingly recognizing the dire consequences of deforestation and initiating commendable measures to combat its deleterious effects on development. Ethiopia stands as an exemplary nation that has embarked on an ambitious tree-planting campaign, planting hundreds of millions of trees in a relatively short period.
However, this endeavor must be an ongoing, sustained effort rather than a temporary solution. If the momentum persists and the campaign remains steadfast, it holds the potential to significantly impact the welfare and prosperity of millions of Ethiopians and inspire similar actions globally.
Reidulf Molvaer, is an author of several books on Ethiopia. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Contributed by Reidulf Molvaer