BY ANDUALEM SISAY GESSESSE- Atnafu Endashaw, 12, travels on foot two hours every day from home to school. He is from the isolated Menja communities found in Sheka zone of Southern region of Ethiopia, 765 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa. Unlike the members of Sheka tribe, Menja communities are mainly marginalized because they feed on leftovers of dead animals.
“My mother told me that we (Shekas and Menjas) were brothers of the same father and mother,” says Endashaw Ayno, father of Atnafu, commenting on the origin of marginalization of Menjas from the rest of Sheka tribe.
According to the legend Endashaw’s mother told him, once upon a time, two brothers were walking back to their home through the dense forest of Sheka. Unfortunately, the two brothers split and one of them reached home that day, while his brother lost in the forest.
After seven days, the lost brother came back home and told the family members that he survived feeding on remnants of dead animals in the forest. Then, the family began isolating and finally forced him to leave the house. From that time onwards he became the forefather of Menja communities with whom the Shekas will not eat together or even salute (shake) their hands. The 5th grade boy, Atnafu, aspires to become a teacher and change such thinking from the minds of the new generation.
For hundreds of years, Menjas have been living in the dense forest and borders in order to avoid contact with the rest Sheka tribe community. They are known for making a living by producing charcoal and firewood in the desert and selling it to the Shekas and people from other parts of Ethiopia.
From Charcoal Making to Agriculture
Their pastoralist-type life style hindered the Menjas from getting basic health services and education. In addition, their way of life has also become danger to Sheka forest, one of the few dense forests of Ethiopia with wild animals such as lion and rich biodiversity.
Realizing the threat Sheka zone approached MELCA-Ethiopia, a nongovernmental organization, to contribute for the life style change of Menjas and other isolated communities. The organization which began operation in the area some five years ago has been supporting the settlement of 140 Menja households by introducing them with farming to stop them from cutting the trees.
“We provided seeds and agricultural equipments and trained them how they can farm,” says Keriya Yasin, MELCA-Ethiopia Sheka branch manager. “What excited me the most from this project is the attitude change we witnessed from both the Menja and Sheka communities,” she says.
“Let alone becoming farmers, we don’t even know how to prepare and eat what we harvested at the beginning,” says Akale Aderaro, wife of Endashaw and mother of four children including Atnafu. “After we saw our first vegetable farm, I began worrying if the Shekas are willing to buy from us. Thanks to MELCA, now people come to our farm to buy what we harvested.”
It is estimated that there are a total of 5,040 Menja households in the forest surrounding Masha town of Sheka zone. “I also want to see such a change in life style from other Menja communities,” says Endashaw who cleared two hectares of forest with his wife and began farming.
Development VS Preserving Ecology
Ethiopia with its several million people foreign food aid dependent at the moment is aggressively engaged in introducing different approaches to erase its name as example of hunger from the Oxford English dictionary.
Meanwhile the country is facing a huge challenge of balancing these developmental efforts such as settlement plan of pastoralists and the marginalized; introduction of commercial farming and industrialization with environmental protection.
The fact that the country has embarked on an ambitious plan of doubling its food production within five years and its active involvement in global climate change negotiations representing Africa even makes the challenge even worse.
For instance some of the recent land allocations for agriculture to foreign investors for tea plantation such as the Godere forest in Gambella Region, which is found next to Sheka forest, have been causing opposition from both local and international environmentalists including president of the country Girma Wolde Giorgis.
In the case of Sheka, one of the largest private Gemadro forest coffee farm, Ethio Agri – CEFT, which is owned by Ethiopian born Saudi tycoon Sheik Al Amoudi, is found in the region. Of the total 2,295 hectares of land the company acquired paying 63 birr per hectare per annum to the zone; it has only covered 1,010 hectares with coffee and shedding trees. The rest are gorges with indigenous forest trees and shrubs left to preserve the ecosystem of the area.
In addition, contrary to Ethio Agri – CEFT’s eco-friendly coffee farm, East Africa Agri Business has also covered over 1,000 hectares of land with tea plantation after clearing the forest in Chewaka area of Sheka zone.
“We gave them land based on government’s policy considering the benefit of both the community in the area and the investors,” says Wasihun Wagamogame, who spoke to journalists representing Sheka Zone’s Tourism & Government Communication Office who talked to journalists from different media after an hour of closed-door negotiation.
According to Wasihun, the lands requested for tea plantation by the company was much higher than the zone have already given them. Meanwhile, the zone refused to accept expansion plan of the company as the latter failed to meet its promise of building roads and bridges.
In addition the local administration and the community also seem to realize that clearing dense forests for non eco-friendly agricultural investments like tea plantation is not wise, according to Wasihun.
“We don’t need any investor to clear our forests,” says Dikito Atestata, Cultural leader and Elder of Ateso tribe. “We have witnessed many wild animals vanishing from the forest when our forest was given to tea plantation. We have the moral obligation to transfer the forest which we inherited from our forefathers,” he says.
Sheka zone is well-known for its production of white organic forest honey, spices, different wild animals and various types of trees some with medicinal values. Most of the indigenous communities are engaged in producing honey from the forest.
If the regional administration gave proper attention and addressed some of the infrastructure problems, the zone with its 47 percent forest coverage has a huge potential for ecotourism. At the moment one has to walk for a few hours from the capital of the zone, Masha town, which do not have asphalt road or 24 hours electricity supply, in order to meet the nearest farmer from Menja community.
“The administration can attract more tourists both from local and abroad by only providing houses to tourists who come to visit the natural attraction sites of the zone,” says Woudneh Zenebe, Journalist for The Ethiopian Reporter newspaper, who also traveled on foot for couple of hours to see the amazing Sheksheko Cave and Fountain.
He suggests that such alternative income generating activities along with forest honey and traditional medicine production linked with research firms can protect the forest from being cleared for non-eco-friendly agricultural investments.
Furthermore, countries can also get money by preserving forests from the global carbon financing scheme even though the process is often tiresome. The idea of Reduced Emission from Deforestation and forest Degradation indigenous people and benefit sharing (REDD++) is to reduce global carbon emission caused by deforestation which is estimated to contribute about 11 percent to the total emission.
In addition, forests also absorb some 20 percent of green house gas emission coming from industries and regulate global temperature, which is contributing climate change.
Meanwhile, previous carbon financing experiences show that registering forest and getting money of carbon financing is too complex. Preparing documents by employing high profile researchers takes years and unaffordable as it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Latest data shows that out of the total 3,183 Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) approved projects, which received carbon financing, Africa’s share stands at 66 of which Ethiopia gets only one.
For instance, registering the 2,728 hectares of Humbo/Sodo forest took Ethiopia several years and it wouldn’t have been possible without World Vision’s, an international nongovernmental organization, support and 200 million US dollars financing from the World Bank. For a period of 30 years Humbo forest will generate a total of 1.5 million US dollars through carbon credit by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“We have written Letter of no Objection to over 40 such projects, but none of them are able benefit from the global carbon financing except the Humbo forest because of the complexity and costly process of CDM,” says Selam Kidane, legal officer at the Environment Protection Authority of Ethiopia.
“Even after registering a forest and obtaining the carbon financing money, we don’t have a clear mechanism in place on how the money will go to the community who preserved the forest,” says Kirubel Teshome, advocacy and information program coordinator at MELCA- Ethiopia.
He argues that unless the community at the grassroots level who preserved the forest gets some kind of benefit, there is no reason for them to start cutting the trees and make money out of it.
One of the major problems in Ethiopia’s land allocation to large scale agriculture at the moment is the absence of rural land use and management policy, rules and, manuals. Regional states do not have such policy, rules and guidelines about the use and management of their land.
As a result, regions and zones of the country do not clearly specify which part of their land will be used to what kind of investment. At the moment all rural lands in every region of the country with over 1,000 hectares and suitable for agriculture, are under the authority of central government. It is the authority of Agricultural Investment Support Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture to decide on the land and allocate it for investors.
The regions have identified and submitted potential agricultural areas above 1,000 hectares to the central land bank of the directorate. In recent press briefing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia indicated that about 3 million hectares of land is ready at the bank for investors while some 300,000 hectares is already allocated.
The question is: How did the regions identified the lands suitable for commercial farming and submitted to the directorate without having appropriate land use and management policy, manual and guidelines in place?
“No one seems to tell which specific area in which region is included in this list,” says Negussu Aklilu, Director at Forum for Environment, a civil society organization registered in Ethiopia.
Besides, despite Ethiopia’s endemic poverty and food insecurity, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that large-scale investments on agriculture contribute to improved food security, according to a research by Oakland Institute “Understanding Land Investment in Africa – Country Report: Ethiopia” released in May 2011.
Absence of strong independent legal institution that identify, registers and protects the country’s forests, which at the moment covers 13 percent of the country, is also another challenge of the country in balancing investment with environmental protection.
Now, the World Bank has provided 3 million US dollars for the establishment of a new institution in charge of preserving Ethiopian forests. The institution is expected to start operation as of 2012, according to Selam.
Until then, it is likely that any forest in the country could be given to large scale farming at anytime in order to meet double food production in five years and increase foreign currency earnings by exporting cash crops and cereals such as rice.