ADDIS ABABA, 7 Jan 2002 (IRIN) - Almost all the forests in Ethiopia have been destroyed in the last 40 years, according to a study by the United Nations. Less than three percent of the entire country is now covered with trees - prompting fears of an impending environmental disaster - and the problem is only going to get worse. Wild fires, which in 2000 caused more than US $39 million of damage in the southern Bale and Borana regions alone, have destroyed many of the forested areas of the country.
"Ethiopia is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world," geographer Yves Guinand, who helped compile the report, told IRIN. "It is the home of coffee. There are many indigenous species and plants. There are trees that only exist here. But all these could be lost forever. What a fire may destroy in minutes may be impossible - or take hundreds of years – to replace."
The four-month study carried out on behalf of the UN Emergency Unit for Ethiopia has some startling results. The report's authors Dechassa Lemessa and Matthew Perault say the estimated financial cost is only a fraction of the true cost because it only covers those two regions.
At least 169,589 workdays were lost by people drafted in to help fight the fires. According to the report, the tiny fraction of forested land left contributes more than two percent to Ethiopia's Gross Domestic Product, proving its value as an asset to be preserved. But the authors argue that farmers and the ever-increasing demand for firewood and building material cause most of the damage.
"Human interference, mainly for subsistence and economic reasons, is the most important reason for the fast depletion and serious degradation of natural resources in Ethiopia," Lemessa said. He describes the current system of protecting state forests as "futile and unsuccessful".
The authors warn that fires - used for centuries by farmers to prepare their land - are wreaking havoc. "Ethiopia is still not prepared and does not give adequate attention to efficiently protect its last natural forest resources," Lemessa added. The report believes the temperature has already increased because of the lack of trees placing a still greater burden on the fragile environment and the communities living there. Soil erosion in some areas is now so severe that many non-governmental organisations are funding projects to terrace the terrain.
The team behind the research is also pessimistic about improving the environmental conditions in Ethiopia - believing the country faces far more pressing concerns. Guinand, who works with the EUE, said that the majority of forests now lie in southwest Ethiopia. "If you go up north to the Highlands it is very difficult to find any forested areas," he said. "People are planting trees like the eucalyptus for commercials reasons - for scaffolding or building - there are very few remaining forests. Those that do remain are not even natural forests they are secondary."
He said the huge population of Ethiopia - around 65 million - also takes its toll as wood is used for cooking fires. "There has also been an obvious climatic change in the last 30 or 40 years," he said. "The microclimate will change if you don't have forests. If you talk to older farmers they tell you that their areas were covered in forests. They also tell you that the temperatures have gone up and now there are few rains if any."
Guinand explained that the environment was changing from forests to bush to savannah and then becoming semi-arid. He argues for a coordinated environmental and forestry policy that is well policed and has the full backing of the government. "But Ethiopia has so many problems, other more urgent problems, so it is very unlikely that this will happen," he noted.
Lemessa and Perault agree that preventing the destruction of all of Ethiopia's forests may be impossible. "Because Ethiopia's forest fires are primarily human in origin, the prevention of future fires is a difficult, daunting task." They believe one way is through local communities by improving traditional practices and helping the rural communities benefit from the tourism that is drawn to forested areas.
The authors also call for more roads to allow access to remote areas to tackle the fires and firebreaks and towers as an additional safety measure. But the key, they say, is taking the land from the government and giving it to local communities who would then have a greater incentive to care for the land.