Ethiopian Communities Work Together to Conserve Forests

Forest conservation is getting more attention in Ethiopia, from the highest level of government to the community level. As part of these efforts, the EfD center in Ethiopia, Environmental Economics Policy Forum for Ethiopia (EEPFE), based at the Ethiopian Development Research Institute (EDRI), has been addressing the issue for long period of time and reflected its ideas in different forums.

In December 2012, the EEPFE held a workshop that stressed the role of forests in sustaining livelihoods and storing carbon. The structure of the government ministries and the low attention given to the forestry sector was one of the main issues discussed by participants at the workshop. A new Ministry of Environment and Forest was created in 2013. “Now we can see forestry in the name of the ministry,” said Alemu Mekonnen, director of the EEPFE. While this organizational change was taking place, EfD researchers were busy gathering data on how forests are managed at the community level.

“Control over forests has been shifting to the local level for several years,” explained Zenebe Gebreegziabher, deputy director for research and policy interaction of EfD Ethiopia. “Communities in Ethiopia are being asked to manage forest resources, not only for livelihood needs, but also to keep in place healthy forests that can act as carbon sinks.”

Most of the population of Ethiopia lives in rural areas and depends on fuel wood for cooking and heating. These immediate needs have contributed to a deforestation rate of 0.8% per year. Although most forests in Ethiopia are publicly owned, they have traditionally been more or less “open access” resources: everyone can use them, and there is no incentive for conservation. EfD researchers have been evaluating whether the policy of “devolving” forest management rights from government agencies to local communities has resulted in healthier forests.

“We found that restrictive measures that were laid out by the government with the intent of protecting forests did not always translate well in small communities,” said EfD Research Fellow Dr. Abebe Damte. “Community-controlled forests, on the other hand, tend to have clear rules and sanctions and community participation, and are well-monitored. As a result, community forests tend to be healthier and store more carbon than government managed forests,” he concluded. “This shouldn’t surprise us,” added Dr.Gebreegziabher. “Ethiopians have a centuries-old tradition of collective action.”

These results were somewhat unexpected, however, because village leaders surveyed in 2009 had provided optimistic reports about the implementation of top-down forestry restrictions. “Perhaps some leaders attempted to portray their villages in a more positive light when reporting to the government,” suggested Dr. Damte. To get around this problem, EfD researchers collected their data directly from heads of households in the 2013 survey. They also used satellite imagery, combined with on-the-ground carbon estimates. “This data can benefit policy makers, as it is generally more comprehensive as well as more accurate,” said Dr. Damte.

The next question was to determine the conditions where community management worked best.Using data from 110 community forests, the research team found that local forest management worked better in communities that had low infrastructure, such as low access to main roads, as well as clear and enforceable rules about access to forests. “It is especially important for forest users to see that the benefits they get from forest management match the sacrifices they make,” said Dr. Gebreegziabher, “and for government agencies to respect the management decisions made locally.”

The same concern for forest health has brought Ethiopian officials and EfD researchers together in a conversation about stoves. “Fuel-efficient cook stoves can reduce the need to gather fire wood,” explained Dr. Mekonnen. “With the newer stoves, families can cook with smaller amounts of fuel wood.” A reduced need for fire wood collection can not only protect forests but can also reduce the burden on women and free up children’s time for school, while cleaner stoves provide a healthier indoor environment. Although fairly inexpensive stoves exist in Ethiopia, they are in short supply. EfD is planning a workshop for late 2014 to disseminate research results and work with officials to promote the use of fuel-efficient and cleaner stoves.

Story | 28 November 2013