A hundred years ago Ethiopia was a forest nation, with over 40% of its land forested. Over the decades agriculture and demand for building materials and fuelwood slowly claimed more and more trees. By the turn of the millennium just 2.3% of the country was forested.
Deforestation is a major cause of climate change, and it also has serious effects on local conditions. Trees absorb water and then release again through evaporation, which plays a critical role in cloud formation. Deforestation affects rainfall, potentially triggering a vicious circle of dryier conditions, soil erosion and desertification. Biodiversity declines, crops fail. Tensions rise.
In May of this year Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a major campaign to plant four billion trees by the end of the year, part of a larger and long term programme to reverse deforestation. And then last week the country broke the record for the most trees planted in one day – over 350 million.
It’s a neat PR moment, though in chasing the record there is the risk that more trees are planted than can actually be cared for in the coming months. If there’s no plan for caring for them and monitoring them, many of them could die, and there’s no shortage of examples of failed tree plantings schemes. But before we give it to cynicism about it, there are three reasons to think that this could be significant.
First, this is a national push that involves everyone. Civil servants and politicians took a day out of the office last week to lead by example and plant trees. In order to get four billion new trees growing, everyone in the country is being encouraged to plant 40 saplings. If the wider community gets involved, then people will have a sense of ownership over the trees and there’s a better chance of them being cared for.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that this record-setting moment comes several years into a much bigger programme that has already been very successful – I’ve written about it before here. It’s part of a national strategy of land restoration, food security, and leapfrogging past dirty industry to a clean energy system and electric urban transport. Past successes include what is probably the largest land restoration project in history in Tigray, so there is a wealth of knowledge about how to ensure trees survive and get the protection and water they need.
Finally, what’s happening in Ethiopia is not unique. There are large scale reforestation initiatives underway in the Congo, Niger, Uganda, Tanzania, and more. Rwanda has pushed forest cover from 17% to 30% in the last couple of decades. Like plastic, there is an under-reported wave of African leadership on forests. Places like England, where forest cover is just under 10%, should watch and learn.
- See the Bonn Challenge for more commitments on reforestation and land restoration.