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Turning the tide of deforestation in Bale

03 September 2013

Turning the tide of deforestation in Bale

Farm Africa’s Senior Communications Officer, Matt Whitticase, is travelling all this week In Ethiopia’s beautiful Bale Mountain Region, visiting Farm Africa’s Forestry Project there. He is in Ethiopia with Ben Thurman, one of twelve aspiring journalists shortlisted by The Guardian for the final of its International Development Journalism Awards. Ben will be reporting on Farm Africa’s work in Bale in a special supplement to be published by The Guardian later this year.

In this postcard from Bale, Matt describes life on the road as he meets communities who are learning to farm the forest’s natural resources more sustainably.

After an hour spent inching our way forward through chaotic Addis Ababa traffic, our car finally emerges on to the open highway that heads south-east from Addis into Oromia, one of Ethiopia’s fourteen federal states. And as the road begins its gradual ascent up into the hills, the landscape becomes increasingly lush and fertile. It’s the rainy season here in Ethiopia and the fields glisten a vivid emerald green.

We’re off to the staggeringly beautiful Bale Mountains, a region of forests rich in natural resources like wild coffee. The forest circles a vast upland massif which hosts Africa’s principal Afro-Alpine habitat. It’s an area of remarkable bio-diversity, ranging from juniper trees to one of the world’s rarest canines, the Ethiopian wolf.

But in recent decades a rising tide of deforestation has threatened this precious environment. Communities have moved further and further into the forest, chopping down trees to sell as timber and to clear land for their livestock to graze on.

We arrive at Dello, a small town on the edge of the forest. It’s one of the places where Farm Africa has been pioneering Participatory Forest Management (PFM), an innovative approach designed to slow down deforestation. The idea is simple and is proving highly effective. Communities are offered powerful incentives to stop burning and chopping down trees for charcoal and timber. These incentives take the form of being trained in new and sustainable ways to make a living from the forest that do not cause deforestation. The reason these new activities have proved so popular is plain to see in everyone we meet: they generate more money than the more traditional timber and charcoal businesses.

Over the last few days we’ve been meeting farmers and co-operatives who’ve learned how to collect and produce better quality coffee that sells for significantly improved prices. We’ve also met beekeepers able to produce greater quantities of better quality honey, all thanks to training and improved equipment like beekeeping suits and modern hives received from Farm Africa.

Take coffee farmer Tahrir Malima who told us his story over a cup of stunningly good coffee. Until recently he wasn’t able to make much at all from the wild coffee he was collecting from the forest. But his fortunes began to change when his co-operative signed a PFM agreement. He received Farm Africa training and investment in the form of a long wire mesh on which he could dry his coffee beans before selling them, adding hugely to their value.

Tahrir picking wild coffee berries on his plot of land near Dello

He now sells coffee at up to 50 Ethiopian birr per kilo, whereas before he could only make 20-30 birr per kilo. This means he no longer needs to cut trees to supplement the money he makes from coffee. And instead he has been investing his additional income in his children’s education. And Tahrir positively beams with pride as he shows us the new home he has built with a corrugated iron roof that affords far greater protection from the elements.

In return for their training, equipment and improved incomes, farmer co-operatives sign a PFM contract with the local government. The contract sets out which forestry resources can be farmed and where. It also sets strict limits on the small amount of trees that can be felled for business purposes, with the strict proviso that these trees must be replaced by planting new saplings.

The best bit in all of this is that the PFM agreements put areas of the forest under the farmers’ own management, giving them a sense of responsibility for the forests for the very first time. They know they have to look after the forest and help reverse years of deforestation because their newfound coffee and honey businesses depend on it. Time and again we speak to farmers who say that before they did not care about illegal logging, but that now they are constantly on the lookout for any activities that might harm the forest and their livelihoods.

And the great news is that it’s working. Farm Africa staff proudly show us detailed maps produced from satellite imagery. The maps show the forest’s reach at different stages over the last 30 years, demonstrating clearly where the forest is beginning to expand back into the areas that until recently had suffered from clearances and deforestation.

All of which makes the extraordinary Bale coffee taste that little bit sweeter.

Read Matt's second postcard from Bale on women's savings and credit groups.