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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 21:54 GMT
Ethiopia's forests face extinction
Forests destroyed by fire
Flora and fauna face total destruction in Ethiopia
Marcus George Nita Bhalla

Ethiopia could have no natural forests left by 2020, according to the author of a new UN report on forest fires in Ethiopia.

Mr Dechassa Lemessa, co-author of the report "Forest Fires in Ethiopia" complied for the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE), says that as a result of decades of devastating forest fires, less than 3% of the entire country is now covered with trees - prompting fears of an impending environmental disaster.

"Four decades ago, 40% of Ethiopia was covered by forests, now this has dropped to only 2.7%," says agriculturist Mr Lemessa.

"The decrease of Ethiopia's natural forests is happening at an alarming and furious rate.

"Ethiopia is currently losing 200,000 hectares every year as a result of forest fires.

And he warns: "If something is not done soon, we estimate that there will be no forest land in 15 to 20 years."

Forests degradation

According to the four-month study conducted by Mr Lemessa and Mr Matthew Perault, human interference mainly for subsistence and economic reasons, is the most important reason for the fast depletion and serious degradation of natural forests.

Frequent fires cause irreparable ecological harm

"Ethiopian farmers have been using fire as a means of production and a farming tool for a long time", says Lemessa. "Every year, just before the start of the rainy season, when farmers start preparing their land, it is common to see deliberately set fires."

Although the farmers generally control the fires, there have been many fires that have broken out on a much larger scale and brought serious economic, political, social and environmental shock and devastation in Ethiopia.

Nature in blazes

In January 2000, forest fires raged for over three months in Ethiopia's south-western forests of Bale and Borena.

More than 15,000 people nationally and internationally were mobilised to fight the fires and officials estimate that 169,589 work days were lost in attempts to stop the fierce blaze.

Despite all the efforts, more than 300,000 hectares of natural forest land was consumed by the rampaging fires.

Beside the highland forest, the fires also burned food and cash crops like coffee.

Livestock and endemic wildlife were killed or fled the area, and flora and fauna were destroyed.

But this is just a small fraction of the damage caused by wildfires.

Irreparable ecological harm

According to the UN report, forest fires represent a serious threat to the country's most vital natural resources and the elimination of the indigenous species does "irreparable ecological harm".

"Forest fires affect soils physically, biologically and chemically.

"Fires may radically change the environment, which significantly affects an ecosystem's biodiversity because they have such a comprehensive impact on soils", Mr Lemessa says.

The report also estimates the economic repercussions of forest fires are devastating for the country.

The total cost of the damage of the Bale and Borena fires was approximately US $39 million, too much for a poor country like Ethiopia.

Economic loss

In a country almost exclusively dependent on subsistence agriculture for economic sustenance, the report's authors say large fires and the destruction of many critical highland forests means a substantial loss of economic potential.

burning forests
Farmers cannot control all the fires they start when preparing the land

According to the report, the tiny fraction of forested land left contributes more than 2% to Ethiopia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), proving its value as an asset to be preserved.

The report describes the government's attempts at trying prevent forest depletion as "futile and unsuccessful" and states that even after the Bale and Borena fires, Ethiopia "does not give adequate attention to efficiently protecting its last natural forest resources".

The authors believe one way is providing farmers with conservation techniques that also increase production.

They say increasing local awareness of the long-term benefits of environmental conservation could be one solution.

Mission impossible

The findings show that preventing the destruction of all of Ethiopia's forests may be impossible as "Ethiopia's forest fires are primarily human in origin, the prevention of future fires is a difficult, daunting task."

Forest fires affect soils physically, biologically and chemically.

Dechassa Lemessa
UN report co-author

Mr Lemessa and Mr Perault believe that one way of preventing the fires is to provide farmers with conservation techniques that also increase production.

They say increasing local understanding of the long-term benefits of environmental conservation could be one solution.

"We can improve traditional practices and help the rural communities benefit from the tourism that is drawn to forested areas", says Mr Lemessa.

Land tenure

The report authors call for more roads to allow access to remote areas to tackle the fires and firebreaks and towers as an additional safety measure.

Land tenure is perhaps the single most important factor in natural resources management, environmental degradation and fire use

Dechassa Lemessa

But the key, they say, is taking the land, which is state owned and giving it to local communities who would then have a greater incentive and responsibility to care for the land.

"Land tenure is perhaps the single most important factor in natural resources management, environmental degradation and fire use.

"Without changing ownership either literally or symbolically to give local communities a greater sense of investment in the land, environmental disasters will continue and the 2.7% of the country that is forested will rapidly diminish".

See also:

07 Mar 00 | Africa
Ethiopian fires 'out of control'
10 Mar 00 | Africa
SA to fight Ethiopian fires
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