Each Of Us Planting A Tree
The Monitor (Addis Ababa)- July 1, 2000
Addis Ababa - Wow! you might exclaim, that would translate into 50 million trees.
Yes indeed, it would, even after excluding the very young and the very old.
But hold on. Actually, seedling numbers have never been the real bottleneck in
afforestation in Ethiopia.
Individual regions have been able to fulfill that kind of yearly quota in their annual
planting program. If the problem doesn't lie with shortage of planting material
(seedlings), what is it then? What goes amiss in the attempt? But first why plant
trees? Of all of people's activities, there is perhaps nothing more harmless and
benign than planting trees.
No harmful side effects either to man or to land. No physical or mental danger has
ever been reported in connection either with planting or growing trees.
Even crops, vitally necessary as they are for human sustenance, arguably have
some side effects. Side effects like inducing soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion
due to repeated cultivation.
Trees, on the other hand, have none of these questionable attributes and when you
tally all the benefits that accrue from planting them, one wonders why on earth
people are happier to cut trees than to plant them. Besides, almost anybody out of
their toddler suits are capable of planting trees.
The saga of the depletion of Ethiopia's forest resources is long and a sad one.
Outside travelers of past centuries mention of treeless Ethiopian highland horizons
in their writings, which indicates, by the way, that deforestation in Ethiopia is not
just 40 or 50 years old.
What is more revealing about these dairies is that no mention was made (to my
knowledge) about any attempts at reafforestation. Over the centuries then
Ethiopians have been needlessly cutting their forests and now we are reaping the
harvest of our past misdeeds.
The result: diminutive forest area, widespread soil erosion on our cultivated fields,
and water shortages. Why have past attempts at reafforestation only partially
succeeded? After all figures show that billions of seedlings have been planted in
the last couple of decades.
The facts on the ground, however, tell a different story. Theories abound as to the
reasons for much, much less number of trees alive than the inflated figures show.
Many experts in the field tell us that the problem lies not with the technique, but
with land tenure regimes. If so it will be up to us to identify them and try to rectify
the situation a soon as possible.
After all we may not have eternity. One view as regards forest tenure in Ethiopia
to-day is that the lingering concept that communal ownership of forest land, under
the aegis of the government if the best way is, the dominant concept.
On the contrary, in the minds of many people, including farmers perhaps,
communally owned trees end up having no real owners, and no real "caretakers".
The necessary incentives that foster entrepreunership, day-to-day attention and
follow up are found to be missing in a communal arrangement.
What you end up with instead, is benign neglect. And in time of some crisis, and
this has been seen on several occasions, the first people to abuse the forests are
the so-called community tree owners themselves.
This shortcoming in communal ownership has been critiqued in many instances
and studies, including those undertaken by government. So far, lip service only has
been given to it.
Most regions seem to postpone the matter indefinitely. In few places tentative
attempts have been made at privatizing future forest sites.
But even here the move remains just tentative. We hope the next five years will
show a substantial degree of policy shift as regards tree ownership.
The key is perhaps that each region identify where the drawbacks lie. In some
regions, shortage of experienced foresters could be the bottleneck.
In others, it could be that nobody gives a damn! Now that the rains are here, let all
of us plant at least a tree each. Never mind even if it isn't our own.