Armed conflict has degraded Tigray’s forest resources

The war in Tigray destroyed decades of vegetation restoration efforts.

When Ethiopian and Eritrean Defense Forces, alongside Amhara regional forces, invaded Tigray in November 2020, the aftermath succeeded in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

A neglected element of destruction, war has degraded massively the forest resources of the region. Heavy artillery bombardment resulted in the destruction of forests and other natural resource bases throughout Tigray. Additionally, all types of tree nurseries and a forest seed center were looted and destroyed by the invading forces.

According to the Tigray Development Association (TDA) 2022 report, due to the war, only 4.5 million seedlings have been planted in Tigray so far in 2022.

The TDA also reports that clean energy sources such as the power lines that connect Tigray have been voluntarily curtailed by federal authorities, 80,000 solar home systems with a capacity of 80 to 150 watts have been looted and 3,500 tons of biogas were burned by the invaders.

As a result, the Tigrayans are strength to use firewood from exclosures and nearby natural forests despite the fact that local regulations restrict the felling of trees in these forest resources.

Marketing of firewood and manufacture of charcoal; Tigray, Ethiopia

The energy crisis in Tigray has put pressure on trees and shrubs, making visible the decline of vegetation. If these trends continue, the ability of forest ecosystems to mitigate climate change and meet basic needs such as food, water, timber and fuelwood will decline.

past destruction

Tigray is an arid and semi-arid region located in northern Ethiopia. In this moisture-stressed environment, agriculture forms the backbone of the region’s economy and workforce.

Over the years, agriculture in Tigray has been impacted by various forms of natural hazards, including droughts and floods, and man-made disasters caused by armed conflict.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Tigray was plagued by armed conflicts and recurrent droughts that led to widespread land degradation and unsustainable management of natural resources (Fig 2). Even today, these degraded agricultural lands constrain agricultural production and labor productivity.

Furthermore, as Tigray’s vegetation cover was less than 3%, fuelwood for energy and herbaceous biomass for animal feed and bee fodder were negatively affected. The use of the forest for human consumption, such as agricultural equipment and building materials, was insufficient. Additionally, in the 1980s, alternative clean energy technologies that help limit the demand for biomass for cooking were also lacking.

Due to little soil mulch and vegetation cover, the torrential rains resulted in high levels of surface runoff and low water infiltration capacity.

As a result, severe soil erosion rates varying 19 to 29 tonnes per hectare (ha) occurred, causing wide and deep gullies to form. Low crop productivity seems to be less than one tonne per ha in degraded agricultural land, leading to increased poverty levels.

Restoration period

Over the years, the Federal Government of Ethiopia, the Government of Tigray and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have made concerted efforts to address the interrelated problems of land degradation.

Conservation-based agricultural development policies, community regulations, and high political and community engagement have contributed to the effectiveness Implementation restoration programs for degraded lands in Tigray.

Ranging from twenty to forty days a year, a massive community campaign of free labor for soil and water conservation works has been mobilized over the past three decades.

According to a 2020 report from the Tigray Agriculture and Natural Resources Bureau, about 30% of the total degraded land has been treated with various types of soil and water conservation structures, resulting in improve livelihoods and the environment.

In addition, approximately 302,719 ha of degraded communal land has been restored through area exclosures and approximately 196,416 ha of land has been developed through planting schemes. In addition, more than 1,083 rangers have been mobilized to protect 260,720 ha of natural forests and 288,156 ha of state forests from human and animal interference.

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In an effort to rapidly restore and re-green forests, the government, NGOs and private companies have established 237 public nurseries, 71 community nurseries and more than 5,000 private nurseries designed to recover forest resources.

These nurseries produced and distributed 100 to 120 million quality native and exotic tree seedlings each year. A total of 459,700,000 tree seedlings were planted from 2016 to 2020, with a survival rate of 56% (257,432,000), covering 237,750 ha of land.

For rapid forest restoration, a seed center has also been established in Mekelle with the mandate to collect, certify and deliver quality seeds to various nursery sites in Tigray.

Thanks to these concerted efforts, Tigray’s vegetation cover increased from 3 to 16.8%, soil erosion rates decreased by more than 50% (29 to 14 tonnes per ha) over a 30-year period and groundwater tables have improved considerably. For example, a case study conducted at Abraha We Atsbaha found that the average depth of water in shallow wells had increased from three to fifteen meters.

In addition, crop productivity has increase from less than 1 to 1.9 tons per ha, thus reducing the level of poverty from 48 to 29% over the last thirty years.

These combined efforts have made Tigray an environmental success story. As a result, Tigray was recognized at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development for his tireless efforts to design innovative solutions to hunger.

Tigray was also a gold medalist at the Global Future Council in 2017 for the best policy to combat desertification and land degradation.

Sustainable forestry

As Tigrayans lack other sources of energy for cooking, a sustainable harvest of firewood is necessary to ensure the long-term survival of the forest.

Sustainable use of forest resources should include the following actions:

  1. Use firewood from trees that have rapid regrowth ability from private and community forest resources, such as Eucalyptus, saline acaciaand ficus.
  2. Harvest firewood by pruning multi-stemmed trees, such as acacia and baica.
  3. Use available invasive tree species, such as prosopis juliflora and lantana camarafor the preparation of charcoal and the collection of firewood.
  4. Introduce new clean energy sources and keep them available, such as solar home systems, biogas and improved biomass cookstoves.
  5. As it is impossible to grow enough seedlings for this planting season, people are advised to use vegetative propagation techniques by cutting branches and planting multipurpose trees in degraded landscapes, such as ficus thonningii.
  6. A massive awareness campaign through print and local media is needed, as other communication and forestry extension programs such as professional training, field visits and experience sharing, monitoring techniques, Internet-based assessment and support services are currently non-existent in Tigray.
  7. The protection of forests by scouts and wise management is necessary to sustainably use the wood collected from exclosures and natural forests.
  8. A strong commitment from government, local administration and the community at large is needed to save and protect Tigray’s forest resources.
International assistance

The headquarters imposed on Tigray by the Ethiopian government and its allies has now lasted for more than six hundred days. Forest degradation is one of the humanitarian crises caused by this inhumane tactic.

The Tigray government and foreign donors should include the region’s forestry sector in all future recovery and development plans. Significant funds are needed to restore the degraded environment.

Reversing the trend of deforestation and forest degradation requires institutional restoration. Looted forest extension systems, nurseries, seed centers and clean energy sources such as electricity, solar home systems and biogas need to be restored in Tigray.

External actors must pressure the Ethiopian government and its allies to end the blockade and siege, and restore social services in Tigray, including electricity and forestry institutions. They should also allocate restoration funds to reverse the degradation of Tigray’s forests caused by war.

Urgent action is needed to rehabilitate degraded lands and make Tigray a success.

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