Work on a timber plantation in Ethiopia is tough, with low wages, poor conditions and little security – but at least it’s a living.
And in a country with high demand for wood products and widespread rural poverty and youth unemployment, industrial timber plantations offer a lot of promise, according to an analysis by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“The government is committed to promoting reforestation and afforestation, but our observations show that realizing the promise will take some major changes,” he added.
As Ethiopia’s population increases – already 95 million and counting – the demand for wood for construction, paper products and, especially, fuel is also rising.
As a result, the country spends over $100 million a year to import wood, mostly timber and paper products, Kassa says.
“Wood self-sufficiency has become such a top priority for the government that it’s been written into the national development plan,” he said.
“But the implications of expanding industrial timber plantations deserve scrutiny, especially given that plantations around the world tend to be characterized by poor working conditions.”
The CIFOR study used surveys with 120 workers at Shashemene Forest and Wildlife Enterprise, a branch of the government-owned Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise, which manages natural and plantation forests in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. The study then compared the findings with data from the literature on timber plantations around the world.
A day’s pay averages about 17 Birr, or less than a dollar, for forest guards and people working in the nursery; sawmill workers receive only a few Birr more. This amount is barely enough to live on, with nothing left over for savings or investments. By comparison, road construction crews make 35 Birr a day. Nevertheless, as most employees live with their families, the work remains attractive to many job seekers.
For the vast majority, wages from the plantation appear to be the only source of income
Wages are often late by a month or more, according to the survey respondents, and they don’t receive any compensation for working more than the 48 hours in the standard six-day workweek.
Little if any safety training or equipment is provided. Job security is another issue, with most of the labor force working under temporary contract agreements. Furthermore, men hold most of the positions, with few apparent opportunities for women.
But the plantation does help address the staggering need for jobs in rural areas, at least to some degree, the study found.
“While a few laborers used the cash they earned to supplement profits from their farms, we found that 87 percent of the workers surveyed don’t own land,” Kassa said.
“For the vast majority then, wages from the plantation appear to be the only source of income.”
Given Ethiopia’s largely young population and limited job opportunities, increasing employment is a government priority. But while industrial timber plantations could support this goal, the study found that the sector needs significant development if it is going to make a meaningful contribution to employment and income generation for the rural poor.
“Plantation forestry in Ethiopia is so underdeveloped that mainly government enterprises are engaged in plantation forests,” Kassa said.
“So the sector’s impact on the country’s economy right now is negligible.”
Large government enterprises were also found to have low productivity and erratic production, thus undermining profitability. The few private plantations that are in place are run by smallholders.
“It seems to me that smallholders are much more efficient than enterprises, which indicates a huge need for enterprises to seriously examine the way they manage their plantations,” Kassa said.
Plantations could benefit by fine-tuning seed selection to get the best quality, species, and varieties, as well as selecting more advantageous places to plant, the researchers found.
In addition, a shift toward private, large-scale investment in timber plantations would likely translate into greater gains in efficiency and in import substitution Kassa said.
“If the government could create enabling conditions, like mapping out the areas where plantation forests can go or simplifying the procedures to get land for private investment on plantations, that would encourage the growth of timber plantations in Ethiopia,” Kassa said.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. This study was supported by the UK Department for International Development through the KnowFor project.