Q & A: Lessons from Ethiopia for forest landscape restoration

An interview with CIFOR Scientist Habtemariam Kassa
Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and depend on landscapes, including gum collected from acacia trees and sorted for export.
Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and depend on landscapes, including gum collected from acacia trees and sorted for export. Olivier Girard/CIFOR

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This interview is Part III of a three-part series on forest landscape restoration to coincide with the IUCN World Conservation Congress, held from 1-10 September in Hawai’i, USA.

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) will be represented in various panels and sessions at the event as part of the KNOWFOR partnership with the World Bank Program on Forests (PROFOR) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Habtemariam Kassa, CIFOR Scientist, spoke with Forests News ahead of the event:

What research has CIFOR being doing on forest landscapes restoration in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia aims to restore 15 million hectares of degraded lands and forests over the next 10 years, which will involve scaling up the restoration programs that have already been going in the country for about 20 years.

In Ethiopia there are two main kinds of landscape restoration: ‘Area exclosure’ which involves excluding people and livestock from completely deforested areas so the landscape can rehabilitate, and ‘participatory forest management’ which involves communities managing natural forests that are degrading.

We have evaluated the experience in the country of these two approaches over the last two decades, identified the strengths and limitations, and suggested improvements that that the government is now seriously considering. The findings of our study have also been used to informing the efforts of the government in revising the national forestry law– the law hasn’t yet been enacted, though we hope it will be soon. In that new law, there has been a major shift from a protection-focussed management of forest to one where community rights to forests have been recognised very clearly, without compromising ecological services.

What lessons can Ethiopia offer to other countries planning to implement forest landscapes restoration programs?

Ethiopia has particular lessons in terms of mobilising and engaging communities in landscape restoration. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and depend on the landscape. For last few years, during the dry season soon after the harvest, smallholder farmers are expected to provide 20 to 30 days of free labour for restoration of agricultural or forest land.

So communities have participated in the restoration, but the focus was on conservation, with little emphasis on options to maintain and enhance people’s livelihoods from restored landscapes. Most of the costs of restoration have been borne by the community in terms of their labour. Now the communities are demanding more economic benefit and increased control over the land restored.

If that doesn’t change, the risk is that the communities will simply disengage after some time and the degradation will continue. If the government is going to scale these programs up nationally, we have suggested that there should be a serious consultation of communities, and a genuine engagement in terms of clearly articulated objectives that maximize the benefits of landscapes to people and balance economic gains with conservation outcomes.

Clarity about land ownership is also critical. At the moment, restored land still remains state land, and the state can reallocate to other users after say 15 to 20 years of restoration effort by a given community. So this has created huge tenure uncertainty, and communities trying not to invest so much in landscape restoration because they fear it could be taken from them at any time.

So when you are rehabilitating community forest, community rights and tenure need to be laid out very clearly. Until recently, only two kinds of land ownership were recognized in Ethiopia – private forests and state forests. The good news is the draft forest law has recognized a third type of ownership – community ownership over forest. We have a good working relationship with the government and we were happy to contribute to revising the forestry law. If the law is passed, some of the limitations I have talked about could potentially be addressed.

Finally, Ethiopia offers a warning about the importance of proper planning. Despite planting millions and millions of trees annually through mobilizing communities under these landscape restoration initiatives, the follow-up is poor. So I think the key thing to learn is how to do tree planting in a more systematic, knowledge-based way.

Every year trees are planted, but nobody comes and looks at their survival rate – and in fact our quick assessment indicated that trees planted by smallholder framers themselves on their own land had a much higher survival rates while tree planted through state-led tree planting campaigns showed very low survival rates. The government reports every year that billions of tree seedlings are being planted on communal lands. But because tenure remains unclear, they belong to nobody! So soon after planting, often times livestock could be seen grazing on planted fields.

When you are rehabilitating community forest, community rights and tenure need to be laid out very clearly

Habtemariam Kassa

It is therefore important that careful planning proceeds to identify what trees to plant where, for what objectives, and who is responsible to oversee that seedlings get the requires care and follow so that the survival rate improves and planted seedlings would become trees. This also requires clarifying tenure and net benefit sharing arrangements between the state and other actors notably communities managing and using these lands on which trees are planted. So these are the issues we are trying to raise with the ministry.

I feel that this is a huge lost opportunity because you can’t actually mobilize people for years and years with little success.

Ethiopia has important lessons to share in terms of convincing communities to invest labour in managing their landscape and agreeing to do something communally. But the lack of ensuring that the trees they plant survive is a miserable failure that needs to be addressed.

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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