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Forest Conservation, More Urgent than Ever

March 23 , 2019
By Justin Irvine ( Justin Irvine, Ethiopia country director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society )

As the world’s population climbs, more attention needs to be given to forests for the sake of the prosperity of economies and the resilience of ecosystems that livelihoods depend on, writes Justin Irvine, Ethiopia country director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. 

The world marked the International Day of Forests on March 21. The occasion was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests.

On each annual celebration of this day, countries around the world are encouraged to undertake various efforts to organise activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns. For Ethiopia and other countries in the region, the challenge of ensuring that the countries' forest cover is enhanced and protected for the benefit of future generations cannot be overestimated.

Some progress has been made in this regard but, given the rate at which the global climate is changing, rapid population growth, and economic development needs, more still needs to be done, not just to protect species but also to guarantee food security especially in poor and vulnerable countries.

This task is even more urgent given that a seven percent forest cover in Ethiopia equates to just 67 trees a person, compared to the global average of 420, according to the International Tree Foundation. Unquestionably, the task ahead is highly challenging, requiring greater collaboration nationally, regionally and globally.

Take the Bale Mountain ecosystem. It represents a water tower, storing water during the wet season and releasing it into the rivers that supply water to approximately 12 million people in the lowlands of southern Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. The livelihoods of these people depend on this water for their crops and livestock. If this vital ecosystem service is compromised through degradation and loss of the forest it leads to water shortages and this is often the source of cross-ethnic and cross-border conflicts.

What this tells us is that protecting our forests is not just about nature; it is also about social, political and economic justice as well as harmony among communities and nations. We believe that the International Day of Forests provides a great opportunity for regional governments and other stakeholders to create awareness and explore collaborative ways of protecting forests, especially those around water towers. They should also be more pro-active in encouraging and facilitating the conservation of these native forests and the planting of more trees in areas where human activities have depleted this important resource.

This year’s theme “Forests and Education,” offers an opportune moment to teach children the importance of trees and the vital role that they play in mitigating some of the biggest challenges the world faces today, such as climate change, hunger and keeping urban and rural communities sustainable through carbon storage and as sources of livelihoods and wellbeing. Forests will be more critical than ever as the world population climbs to 8.5 billion by 2030, as the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) points out.

Healthy forests mean healthy, resilient communities, and prosperous economies. Helping children connect with nature creates future generations conscious of the benefits of trees and forests and the need to manage them sustainably.

Healthy forests will also help us to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals, by supporting the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest communities and conserving biodiversity. Our work at the Frankfurt Zoological Society [of which the author of this piece is the Country Director] in Bale Mountains National Park, a protected area of approximately 2,150 square kilometres in the Ethiopian highlands, has affirmed this principle.

It has been possible to make significant strides in responding to the drivers of ecosystem degradation to protect the area that is home to some species that are unique or endemic in the region or Ethiopia.

This has been made possible by designing and implementing new community-based systems for natural resource management, sustainable energy initiatives, and land use planning to manage the threats to the park. These initiatives are underpinned by conservation covenants – where communities agree to not undertake any activities detrimental to the natural resources and conservation of the protected area in return for the benefits they obtain.

To achieve these goals, local communities had to be engaged to develop their ability to regulate resource use so that it is more sustainable. For instance, community-based organisations have been supported by FZS and other NGOs - such as Farm Africa and SOS-Sahel - working with government authorities to undertake participatory forest management of over half a million hectares of native woodland and participatory rangeland management over 420,000ha of pastoral land in the Bale eco-region.

Furthermore, the introduction of fuel-efficient stoves has been effective at almost halving fuelwood consumption to 28.5kg a week for a household on average. The development of policies and guidelines for ecotourism in the park as well as developing the capacity and opportunities of communities to deliver tourism services have as shown progressand will increasingly benefit communities in this era of increasing political stability

It has also been possible to officially gazette the park and this landmark regulation by the Council of Ministers now provides a secure legal basis for this protected area.

With more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, and with this number expected to rise to 70pc by 2050, people are increasingly disconnected from nature and lack the awareness and understanding of forests and their benefits and the need to manage them sustainably. This makes it essential to enhance awareness among those whose livelihoods depend on the services provided by ecosystems such as Bale and its forests, but also to reinforce this message to the policymakers who can support local people to maintain these forests for generations to come.

That is why the successes notched in areas like Bale must not be allowed to dissipate under a cloud of indifference.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 23,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 986]

Justin Irvine, Ethiopia country director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society

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