The Green Legacy: The biggest tree-planting event in recent history

 Ethiopia’s record tree-planting campaign to plant 200million tree seedlings in 24 hours, deserves appreciation and a place of honor in the annals of environmental protection. To our memory, there is no single country that has so far planted so many tree seedlings in one day. India with its billion people planted a little more than 60 million seedlings within a day. Compare this to the more than 350 million tree seedlings planted last Monday across the length and breadth of the nation. The Guinness Book of World Records that gives attention to infidel accomplishment should this time bend its rules and dedicated a page to this unprecedented event.

Recognizing Ethiopia’s achievement would not only be an honor to the tens of millions of ordinary people who have participated in the campaign. It would also serve as an inspiration to many countries, that, like Ethiopia, suffer some of the most devastating climatic crises that are shaking the world. leading to droughts, food shortages and diseases.

When we look back at history, Ethiopia’s tree planting quested started in late 19th century under Emperor Menelik who was the first visionary and modernizing monarch. Like so many good things in this country, the tree planting initiative could not be maintained and turned into a national movement. That was why the country suffered a series of apocalyptic droughts and famines climaxing in the 1984-85 crisis of Biblical proportions. There were also minor droughts and famines in between. Thus we have reached the 21st century without adequately feeding ourselves largely due to the droughts that affected larger parts of the nation.

This was largely due to our failure to stop the phenomenon known as desertification which is often followed by droughts and famines. As we write these lines about the record-breaking achievement, more than 8 million Ethiopians are still food relief dependent. That is apparently what has galvanized the entire nation into creating the biggest national tree-planting campaign. If sustainable, this gigantic endeavor is expected to be a game changer in Ethiopia’s struggle for ecological rehabilitation. If not, it would only go down in history as the biggest media hype.

This is the biggest tree-planting initiative since Emperor Menelik planted the first eucalyptus trees that were imported from Australia more than a century years ago. Emperor

 Menelik had introduced many things in his bid to modernize the country, one of which being planting trees so that the newly-founded capital of Ethiopia could meet its needs for construction material, mainly of wood, that was required for housing construction in the newly-founded capital. Menelik was not of course an environmentalist in the modern sense of the term but even then, he could grasp the virtues of tree planting. He had an instinctive feeling that in order to prevent soil erosion in the highly rugged topography of the

 nascent capital, one had to encourage tree planting to prevent soil degradation. As so many river crisscrossed Addis Ababa the urgency of planting trees was a matter of top priority for the modernizing monarch.

However Menelik’s vision was quickly abandoned as trees were extensively felled for construction purposes and as firewood. During the reigns of Emperors Menelik and Haile Sellassie. the hills surrounding Addis Ababa were green as they were extensively covered with trees. What was invisible to the naked eye was the silent process of deforestation that was taking place beneath the deceptive greenery, the combined effect of which was the creation of the naked and denuded hills we now see around the capital.

Until very recently, Addis Ababa earned the not-so-pleasant nickname of a town built in the midst of a forest. This was a description by foreign visitors who looked down at the capital from high-flying aircrafts. Nowadays, Addis Ababa has cast away its older green looks and has turned itself into a city of high rise buildings, which is not of course a good trend. Unfortunately, the glass and steel structures have led to the deterioration of the once temperate climate inside the city. The situation is even more alarming in many parts of rural Ethiopia that were once covered with trees that kept the soil from being washed up by torrential rains.

In the 20th century, deforestation and soil degradation took place at an alarming pace, turning a once forested highlands into barren territories that suffered the consequences of mindless tree felling caused by population pressure and the shrinking of arable land. According to a recent statistics, in 2018, some 12,147,482 hectares of land were covered with trees out of 113,039, 311 hectares of land area. According to the same data, the sharp decline in forest cover that occurred between 1990 and 2010 caused the loss of 18.6% of forest cover.

According to other sources, the main causes of deforestation in Ethiopia are shifting agriculture, livestock production and fuel in drier areas. Deforestation is the process of removing forest ecosystems by cutting the trees and changing the shape of the land to suit different cases. This process had taken alarming proportions in the past because of the lukewarm approach by government and all the stakeholders to avert the dangers inherent in deforestation. The present national mobilization is in fact a delayed response to a threat that could have been averted decades ago.

According to the same sources, one of the consequences of deforestation is loss of biodiversity. Deforestation also increases greenhouse gas emissions, disrupt the water cycle, increase soil erosion and decrease the natural beauty of a given area. Commenting on the national reforestation drive, the World Food Program said that the nation’s ambitious reforestation program is “critical for Ethiopia which had lost billions of trees and forest resources over the years.”

In fact the extent of deforestation can be gauged by the ongoing national reforestation drive whose ambition and reach are quite staggering. To begin with, more than 2.6 billion seedlings have been planted across Ethiopia during the past three months. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, this was part of the ongoing project to plant 4 billion seedlings across the nation. More than 60 per cent of the target has been attained earlier. The national 4 billion tree planting project kicked off by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as early as May 26 this year. Information from the Minister of Agriculture, the campaign “is set to mobilize national reforestation programs of planting 40 tree seedlings per person.”

PM Abiy has also recently launched the campaign for planting 200 million trees in a single day which is slated for July 29. Earlier last week, the Ministry of Agriculture said that the distribution of 200 million seedlings-most of which are said to be indigenous trees-was completed last Friday. Chinese news agency Xin hua reported that Ethiopia was “set to mark a new world record of planting 200 million seedlings in a single day”. Last Monday, Ethiopia has indeed written a new history in the annals of ecological protection efforts by reaching the target it set for itself earlier. In a country with more than 100 million people, this achievement may look like a stroll in the garden while the more serious challenge of protecting the seedlings until they turn into trees lies ahead.

According to Minister of Agriculture Umer Hussein, “Nationwide monitoring of planted seedlings will be conducted to ensure that the planted trees would be grown.” He went on to say that, “This will continue even in the future to identify the success rate of the planted seedlings in a bid to promote those who nurtured the planted seedlings as articulated through the national initiative.”

 Professor Legese Negash, an ecological expert and lecturer, recently told the local media that he admired, PM Abiy’s recent initiative to plant of tree seedlings in order to reverse deforestation and climatic deterioration in Addis Ababa and in the country at large. He said that the plan by the PM to plant as many tree seedlings as possible was a laudable step that he supports. However, he criticized some media journalists for failing to mention what types of tree seedlings are being planted in this campaign. “When reporting about this very important event, journalists should call the seedlings by their names so that we could identify and differentiated the locally-adopted seedlings from those that are coming from abroad.”

He said, adding that the right seedlings should be planted and we should be able to call them by their domestic names; particularly those that are endemic to Ethiopia. “This way, we would perhaps attract many foreign tourists who are attracted to those endemic trees. We should know what kind of seedlings we are planting.”

No doubt that the Green Legacy will have a big impact on Ethiopia’s quest for ecological rehabilitation. It can even be taken as a precondition for agricultural revival and higher productivity in the long run. But this has to be taken seriously and follow-up projects will have to implemented in a sustainable and passionate manner as a matter of life or death. Back in 1984- 85, Ethiopia lost more than 1 million peasants to drought and famine which is equal to a genocide perpetrated through the combined effect of government negligence, erroneous natural resource management and abuse of foreign aid.

What makes the present national tree-planting drive different from similar attempts in the past is the fact that it is apparently participatory and driven by domestic passion and resources. Yet, it is still done in a haphazard way and without a clear policy and the capacity to protect the forest resources of the country through forest laws and strong administrative measures.

Most of all, the people themselves in the rural areas in particular should be empowered so that they could look at forests as their own properties so that they could care of and make a living from. Ethiopian farmers are allegedly lacking the drive for higher productivity simply because they are not given the legal ownership rights of their plots and the benefits that would bring to them.

By the same logic, if the present tree-planting national movement is to be enduring, sustainable and productive in the long run, it has to be owned and implemented by farmers who need to be given property rights of their respective plots on which they plant trees seedlings and take care of them until they generate incomes and motivation. Otherwise, all the present media hullaballoo would only remain a short-lived public sensation and all the present figures of achievement would only turn to be hollow statistical abstracts that signify nothing.

. The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition August4/ 2019


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