Ethiopia’s tree-planting scheme needs better coordination

The Green Legacy initiative must be better managed to ensure appropriate trees are planted and maintained
<p>Fast-growing eucalyptus trees planted around Sululta near the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. An imported species, eucalyptus competes with native flora and fauna. It is also infamously thirsty, depleting the availability of water in the soil in a region suffering from years of drought. (Image: <a href="">Tiksa Negeri</a> / Dialogue Earth)</p>

Fast-growing eucalyptus trees planted around Sululta near the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. An imported species, eucalyptus competes with native flora and fauna. It is also infamously thirsty, depleting the availability of water in the soil in a region suffering from years of drought. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

Over 85% of Ethiopia’s land is considered moderately to very severely degraded, according to a 2007 estimate by the UN convention on desertification. This is a particularly acute problem in a country where 85% of people rely on agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihoods.

To halt and reverse the degradation, various measures have been taken including the Green Legacy initiative. Launched in 2019, by the end of 2022 the government said the initiative had mobilised Ethiopians to plant 25 billion seedlings. There were plans to restore an “additional 22 million hectares of degraded land by 2030,” it said, equivalent to one-fifth of the country’s land area.

man standing behind tree branches
A worker prepares an evergreen sapling in a nursery in Bishoftu ahead of tree-planting season. Ethiopia’s Green Legacy initiative promotes the planting of all sorts of tree species, including ornamentals. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)
woman watering sapplings
The initiative has made tree planting a culture among Ethiopians, with more than 30 million people taking part every year during the summer rainy season (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

The government has hailed the initiative as a success in environmental restoration, job creation and carbon sequestration. But this assessment is complicated by a lack of data transparency, the absence of a central organising office, and budget constraints.

Trees for development

Ethiopia is located in the easternmost part of the African mainland. This Horn of Africa region is currently experiencing its most severe drought on record. The drought, exacerbated by climate change, is predicted to continue, “pushing 26 million people in the region into crisis or worse level of food insecurity”, the UN Refugee Agency stated in 2023.

In Ethiopia alone, five failed rainy seasons have left up to 12 million people facing food shortages, a 2023 Save the Children report indicates. Environmental degradation is also a major driver of conflict and displacement in the region, as it is in the neighbouring Middle East and North Africa region.

barren area with dust clouds in air
A dust storm darkens the sky near Gode in the arid south-east of Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing its most severe recorded drought. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

The Green Legacy Initiative is one of the efforts to confront this crisis. It intends to increase forest cover, expand agroforestry, enable eco-tourism, green urban areas, restore degraded land, and ensure food security. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the initiative forms part of the country’s “multifaceted response to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation”.

It also forms part of the transboundary Great Green Wall initiative, which aims to combat desertification across the Sahel – a semi-arid region bordering the Sahara Desert.

Adefires Worku, the Green Legacy initiative’s technical committee chairperson, said: “The approach we followed was to grow 30% of fast-growing trees, 30% of indigenous trees and 40% of ornamental and fruit-bearing seedlings.”

These fruit-bearing trees include avocado, mango, apple and papaya, which contribute to both Ethiopia’s food security and agricultural exports, Worku added.

seedlings in temporary pots
Papaya seedlings in a nursery in Bishoftu. The Green Legacy initiative promotes the planting of fruit-bearing trees to help restore degraded land while also addressing food security. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

In the last year or so, the initiative has placed even greater emphasis on fruit trees. By May 2023, they made up 55% of the seedlings being prepared at nurseries, according to the agriculture ministry, as reported by Ethiopian Monitor.

The total planting target for 2023 was 6.5 billion seedlings, Ethiopian Herald stated. Among these, 2.2 billion would aim to contribute to forest development, and the rest would be for agro-forestry.

The Green Legacy initiative has made tree planting a culture among Ethiopians. More than 30 million participate every year, and on a single day in July 2023 the government claimed 560 million trees were planted.

In 2022, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali said the initiative had directly created more than 767,000 jobs so far. A number of local studies have found that income from forests contributes significantly to rural Ethiopian households’ income, in some cases on a par with agriculture, demonstrating how forests benefit livelihoods.

Too good to be true?

Some are sceptical about both the claimed quantity and variety of trees planted.

Dr Wubalem Tadesse works at the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute. He told Dialogue Earth: “Farmers tend to plant fast-growing trees which provide economic benefits in a shorter period of time, like eucalyptus.” Tadesse said that many smallholder farmers use eucalyptus for timber, firewood and pulpwood. Eucalyptus is, however, infamously thirsty and can have a negative impact on native flora.

woman on roadside carrying firewood
A woman walks through eucalyptus forest on the outskirts of Addis Ababa carrying firewood she has collected. Many farmers in Ethiopia favour species like eucalyptus, which is fast growing and provides economic benefits. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth

Assessing how many seedlings survive is also challenging. For the 7.5 billion the government said were planted between July 2022 and July 2023, it put the survival rate at 85%. Sources at the Environmental Commission told Dialogue Earth that the rate may not surpass 50%, however.

A bottom-up and participatory approach to tree planting could improve the mix of species and survival rates, Teshome Hundumma, a postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, has argued.

Another issue with the Green Legacy initiative is its co-existence with high rates of deforestation.

Data indicates more than 92,000 hectares of forest are destroyed every year. In contrast, the nation plants approximately 20,000 hectares each year. As a result, 70,000 hectares of forest cover are lost,” Tadesse told Dialogue Earth. “This is a significant impediment to efforts to extend national forest coverage.”

tree stumps with trees in background
Trees cut for construction and firewood in a forest on the outskirts of Addis Ababa that is considered to be the lungs of the capital. Beyond the stumps, a fence has been erected in an effort to stop further felling. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)
trees growing atop eroded plateau
An escarpment cut through the Entoto Forest on the outskirts of Addis to build a road. The construction work has led to soil erosion and the subsequent loss of additional trees. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)
forest landscape on overcast day
Harenna Forest on the southern slopes of the Bale Mountains is rich in biodiversity and one of Ethiopia’s largest natural forests. Although protected, analysis of satellite data indicates significant deforestation along roads and stream valleys in the area, mainly for small-scale agriculture or firewood and charcoal production. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

In the past, development projects sacrificed forests without replacing them. In 2022, the Ethiopian government announced plans to clear 17,000 hectares worth of forest to make space for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir.

“The annual campaigns should also include the move that halts deforestation practices. At the same time, the implementation of forest law also didn’t attain zero deforestation yet,” Tadesse said. “The law is incomplete as it doesn’t provide for obligatory restorations,” Tadesse added, referring to requiring people to re-establish damaged forest.

Institutional obstacles

The Green Legacy initiative is also hampered by overlapping responsibilities between government departments, and a lack of clarity regarding forest ownership, experts tell Dialogue Earth.

The initiative is coordinated by technical groups within three separate government bodies – the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Water and Energy, and the Climate Change Commission – which causes the effort to be disorganised and ineffective.

“Such restoration initiatives should be organised and managed by a specific office that is accountable and works with a clear and transparent strategy,” Tadesse told Dialogue Earth.

people in field harvesting cereal crop by hand
Farmers in Tefki harvest teff, a traditional cereal crop used mainly to make flour. Over 85% of Ethiopia’s land is considered degraded, directly impacting the 85% of the population who rely on agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihoods. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)
man chopping loog with axe
A farmer chops firewood from a felled tree in Tefki. As well as tackling climate change, the Green Legacy initiative aims to reap the economic benefits of land restoration, creating jobs and contributing to rural incomes through agroforestry. (Image: Tiksa Negeri / Dialogue Earth)

In addition, the initiative does not have a particular budget allocation from any of the aforementioned ministries.

“Successful reforestation requires a stronger economy,” said Adefires Worku. “In this regard, inadequate finances might make the initiative drag in achieving the intended goal.”