Churches protect forest spaces in Ethiopia

What you need to know about Ethiopia’s environment

As Plant With Purpose prepares to begin its work in Ethiopia, our international team has spent time learning from local leaders and experts about its environment. The East African nation has seen a number of changes over the past year, including a new prime minister, its first female president, as well as the end of a longstanding war. As the country enters a new season of change, its people also have the opportunity to take a new look at its ecological challenges.

Here are a few of the key things we’ve learned throughout our mission help Ethiopians restore their environment.

Food insecurity in East Africa, map by World Vision
Food insecurity in East Africa, map by World Vision

Ethiopia and its neighbors are at risk of hunger

Between 2011-2013, a severe food shortage swept through Eastern Africa. Ethiopia, along with Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea were the countries most badly affected by the lack of food. The shortage not only caused an immediate spike in hunger, but food prices also became unstable, affecting the countries’ economies.

While things have gotten a bit better in recent years, the country is still geographically prone to drought and food shortages. An especially severe famine killed close to half a million people between 1983-1985. The lack of nutrients in Ethiopia’s soil is one of the main culprits. With undernourished crops, the absence of rain for a prolonged period of time can trigger a food crisis that affects millions.

Silvopasture practices may reduce the burden created by overgrazing.
Silvopasture practices may reduce the burden created by overgrazing.

Overgrazing is one of the key factors behind deforestation

One of the reasons why Ethiopia’s soil is in its present condition is due to deforestation. The lack of trees to protect water flow and preserve nutrients in the soil causes significant depletion. Trees are cleared for many reasons, such as expanding the size of farmable land as coping for food shortage. Local construction efforts also frequently use certain timber materials.

Many tribes and people groups in Ethiopia also follow a pastoral tradition. The keeping of large herds of cattle is a particularly common activity in the Ethiopian highlands. When these activities become oversaturated in certain areas, grasslands are quickly consumed and turned bare. One of Plant With Purpose’s aims is to promote silvopasture to better integrate traditional livelihoods with environmental concerns.

Coffee beans are a major export.
Coffee beans are a major export.

The country’s agricultural sector is critical

About 80% of Ethiopia’s population are rural subsistence farmers. They typically live from harvest-to-harvest and are among the most vulnerable to food shortages. A report from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development describes: “Agriculture remains central to the Ethiopian economy and is critical to the success of Ethiopia’s agricultural-development-led industrialisation strategy. Yet agriculture is dependent on soil and land quality, which are highly degraded.”

The coffee industry in Ethiopia is a significant one, however farmers would benefit from an overall practice of crop diversification. Plant With Purpose aims to use proven peer-to-peer methods as a way to engage farmers in environmental restoration.

Desertification results in water scarcity.
Desertification results in water scarcity.

Water scarcity is a significant issue

About 61 million people in Ethiopia lack access to clean and safe water. Estimates by Lifewater suggests that around 8% of the world’s water crisis is located within Ethiopia. In rural villages, women as well as children typically do the majority of water collection. This can take two to three hours each day, affecting their ability to earn an income, manage businesses, or go to school. In certain areas, the journey to water presents a safety risk.

Plant With Purpose’s program reduces the amount of time it takes to collect water by about one-third, on average. This is accomplished through cistern construction, along with water source protection. Trees are an especially valuable instrument in protecting natural water sources from drying up.

A church in St. Minas' forest.
A church in St. Minas’ forest.

The church plays an active role in forest preservation

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the largest denominations in the world, and the majority of its practitioners reside in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian church has a particularly distinct tradition of protecting and caring for forests as a spiritual discipline.

Visible from above in Ethiopia are circular patches of forests in barren landscapes. These almost always indicate the presence of a church in the center. These forests also reveal what the land could look like without the impact of deforestation. In these forests, churches hold a number of ceremonies, including prayer gatherings and burials.

Pollution is a growing concern

As a country full of valleys with limited rain, Ethiopia’s air easily becomes concentrated with trapped particles and other pollutants.

Ethiopia’s economy is also steadily rising, and its urban population in centers like Addis Ababa continues to grow. As more and more of its population gain access to cars and other industrial tools, its air quality is put in jeopardy. An increase in trees, however, may be the most potent way to absorb and offset rising emissions.

Ethiopia is a land full of promise, as its church forests indicate. We are excited to begin working there and to take you along for the journey. Interested in contributing to environmental restoration in Ethiopia? Learn more about becoming a Purpose Partner!

Philippe Lazaro

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