Ethiopia’s forest farmers work for a sweeter future: case studies


Four insights into life in the resource-rich region
theguardian.comFriday 22 November 2013 
IDJ Ethiopia Tahir

Tahir Malim Selia is a coffee farmer in the Bale forest. Photograph: Lisa Murray

Quality control: training reaps international rewards

Tahir Malim Selia studies the branch in front of him, carefully plucking red berries and dropping them, one by one, into a raffia basket. “For many years we took coffee from the forest,” he says, his eyes fixed on the fruit. “But we weren’t aware of the importance of quality.”

Until recently farmers collected both red and green berries, drying them on the earth. “Now we collect only the red berries, and we dry them on that wire mesh drying bed, and we use a plastic sheet to protect the coffee in the night-time.” Selia looks up before concluding authoritatively: “It is for the quality.”

The Bale forest produces some of the most genetically rich coffee in the world, meaning that no plants need to be introduced from elsewhere. With climate change and deforestation accelerating, it is increasingly important to protect this resource. “We could have stuck a big fence up and protected it that way,” suggests Michelle Winthrop, country director of Farm Africa Ethiopia. “But building people’s meaningful relationship with that coffee and creating high-value opportunities – like access to international coffee markets – is much more powerful.”

After receiving training, Selia was able to grow a better crop. He is now part of a co-operative that recently began to supply European markets through the Slow Food movement, an international campaign to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and local farming techniques. The value of his coffee has risen almost threefold.

Selia beckons his children: “I sent my five children to school. Now it is no problem for me to buy books and uniforms. And I constructed this new house – with an iron roof.”  It looks as though Bale’s coffee is in safe hands.

Savings co-operatives: women plan for the future

Fatuma Sh'aden in a plantation

Fatuma Sh’aden in the plantation she funded througha local woman’s co-operative. Photograph: Lisa Murray


On the edge of the Bale forest, Fatuma Sh’aden stands in her lush plantation. “I used the money to plant seedlings,” she proclaims, gesturing in a sweeping arc to her avocados, bananas, mangos, lemons and coffee trees. “In terms of food, I’m self-sufficient.”

Recognising the stark gender inequality within forest communities, Farm Africa’s intervention in Bale is informed by “gender mainstreaming”. Among other measures, locally organised women’s savings and credit co-operatives (WSCC) present women with an unprecedented opportunity for economic independence.

Sh’aden has profited wildly. “I borrowed 1,000 birr (£33) and started a business selling butter and honey,” she says. “Then I got the benefit and bought a donkey so I could take my goods to the town.” She paid back the loan, increased her turnover and purchased a cart, then an ox and finally she planted 6,000 seedlings. “All this I did within four years!”

Gadise Tadesse, chairperson of the WSCC, describes the co-operative’s transformative effect: “Before women looked to the hand of their husband. Now we are deciding for ourselves what to do.”

Indeed, Sh’aden believes that women have already overtaken men in business. “Women are more effective,” she grins. “Men use money for khat [a local stimulant] or smoking, but women use it for their family.”

Sh’aden has sent eight of her children to school and has begun planning for the future. She shows me her eucalyptus plantation, which will mature in a few years. “Still we are dependent on the natural forest,” she acknowledges. “This will be a means for additional income for my children. That is my plan.”

Local investment: how a community took charge of its ecosystem

Aliyi Gilo

Aliyi Gilo, second from right, chair of Birbirsa Joint Forest Management Committee. Photograph: Lisa Murray 

“Before the forest belonged to the government,” explains Aliyi Gilo, chairperson of Birbirsa Joint Forest Management Committee, “so we didn’t care about protecting it.” Forest fire, illegal logging and encroachment ensued, as population growth exacerbated poverty and individuals took what they could. State-employed armed guards struggled to stem the exploitation of forest resources.

In 2007, the government adopted a new approach to conservation, by signing agreements with locally organised co-operatives that shifted the responsibility for protecting the forest to communities. Initially people were suspicious: “they said that the government is going to sell the forest to ferengi people from outside,” Gilo recalls. “We didn’t think the forest could be transferred to us.” Tesfaye Gonfa, who oversees the project for the Oromia government, emphasises the role of NGOs in educating communities about forest management and facilitating this unique state-community partnership. “Now there is a much better relationship between the two,” he explains. “Now communities are aware about their ecological roles and are also getting financial incentives.”

The agreement establishes communities’ rights to access forest resources, based on a sustainable management plan. “If you embed ownership of the forest with communities, it’s much more sustainable,” says Michelle Winthrop, country director of Farm Africa Ethiopia.

The approach has transformed communities’ relationships with the forest. “Now we are managing with the government, so we are responsible and feel ownership,” Gilo says. “And we have the right to take coffee and fuelwood, so the whole co-operative has benefitted.” Some illegal activities continue, he admits, but collective responsibility is rooting them out: “We patrol twice a week so no-one can escape!”

Participatory forest management: when governments and forest dwellers work together

Community managed forest

Community managed forest for sustainable timber production. Photograph: Lisa Murray 

Tesfaye Gonfa leans over his desk to ensure his message is understood. Slowly and deliberately he declares: “Participatory Forest Management (PFM) is a vehicle for REDD+ [the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme] implementation.” In this three-way collaboration there are different incentives for each party. NGOs focus on alleviating poverty and deforestation in Bale; local communities gain legal rights to the forest, as well as improved livelihoods. On this evidence, the Oromia government is motivated by the financial incentives of the UN’s REDD+ initiative.

According to Gonfa, the Bale initiative is “on the finish line” for implementing REDD+, which will enable the government to generate revenue from forest conservation through the sale of carbon credits. Estimates indicate that the project will return $5.75m per annum for the next 20 years.

The potential income from REDD+ could guarantee the sustainability of state-community collaboration on forest conservation in Bale. “But it’s important that that money gets reinvested in the system,” warns Michelle Winthrop of Farm Africa.

Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise (OFWE) has set a precedent for “benefit sharing” on resources, such as fuelwood and timber. $5.75m represents a huge increase in the project’s current income, but Gonfa acknowledges that a mutually beneficial relationship must continue if REDD+ is to be successful. “The day-to-day administration of the forest is carried out by the people,” he explains, “so unless we involve the communities, we will not get the amount of emission reduction we are targeting.”

Exactly how the income from carbon credits will be distributed is yet to be defined. But by recognising its interdependent relationship with local communities, the government appears ready to reinvest carbon credits in Bale, safeguarding the future of the forest and its inhabitants.

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