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Putting people before trees

Deforestation is often blamed on poverty, but policy and politics can be equally culpable. In Ethiopia for example, the change of regimes in the 1970s pushed forests that had once been privately owned into limbo. They became the property of the government, but were not protected. Wide-scale deforestation followed, with rural people taking advantage of the situation while it lasted. As so often, the question of ownership lay at the heart of a natural resource crisis.

Handing over the management of government forests to local communities is a radical step. So far its most successful exponents have been in India, with Zimbabwe's Campfire programme also gaining scrutiny and praise. Eight years ago, Ethiopian forestry officers and policy makers became so attracted by the concept that they travelled to both countries to see community forest management in action. The tour was organised by FARM-Africa, a UK-based NGO with a strong reputation for practical, skills-based help and training; on their return to Ethiopia, several regional forestry offices requested FARM-Africa to help them establish similar participatory forest management schemes.

Chilimo forest, some 80km north-west of Addis Ababa is the site for one of two initial pilot projects, attempting to develop a community forest management model that will work in Ethiopia. Densely planted juniper and cypress trees, home to Colobus monkeys and baboons, cover a series of steep valleys that comprise the Chilimo watershed. Higher up is a broad plateau dotted with homesteads; the land here has been cleared for farming and is browsed by parties of goats. The agricultural expansion here, being driven by an increasing population, had led to rapid deforestation, and it was this that drew the pilot project to the area. However, when the farming community were approached by project staff, their initial reaction was one of suspicion. Had the forest been sold to foreign investors, or was the government simply going to cut down all the trees for its own benefit? The process of building trust took many months, and involved not just frequent and lengthy discussions but concrete proof that the outsiders really cared about the needs of the people, and not just the trees. In time a core of believers was established, who through their own efforts managed to convince the remaining sceptics.

Chilimo tree nurseryNegotiations over rights and responsibilities were crucial for establishing a legal basis for the management plan. While the government is still the owner of the forest, it has put management responsibility into the hands of three community co-operatives. In return for forest protection and development, the co-operative members can harvest wood and other forest products within sustainable harvest limits agreed in their management plans. Community guards are organised to prevent either community members or outsiders from stealing wood. Those who are caught doing so can be prosecuted, and recently the district council has assigned a police officer to deal exclusively with forestry cases. The community has also set up a seedling nursery, tended through a rota system, which sells tree seedlings back to community members for planting on their own land, and has established a system to prevent grazing of newly planted seedlings by livestock.

Planning and implementing these measures is time-consuming, so for the community members to make such an investment, the benefits must be worthwhile. However, if the community tried to claim all such benefits from the forest alone, it would quickly be depleted. Hence the holistic nature of the programme, which supports not only the forest, but sustainable livelihood development for the whole community. With loans channelled through a credit and saving committee, the people of Chilimo have established woodlots, invested in improved farming technologies, and started earning money from petty trading. In addition to such financial benefits, there have also been social and environmental gains. Previously the people were aware that taking from the forest made them criminals; now they are legally, lawfully harvesting forest products, with the Government's blessing, and according to their own management plan. Moreover, they have a strong feeling of pride that their forest management is protecting the watershed and its soils, and even stabilising the climate.

Zelalem Temesgen, FARM-Africa's programme manager at Chilimo, believes the pilot project has taught him some valuable lessons. Firstly, he says, a community should not be regarded as the natural enemies of a forest. Where there is conflict between forestry departments and local communities, the cause is often a failure by the forestry staff to consider the needs of the people. But where forest protection is approached in a holistic way, continuation beyond the life of a project is much more likely. As Tesema Jebova, the chairman of one of Chilimo's three co-operatives says, 'Even if FARM-Africa go away from this area we will continue to protect the forest, because the forest will not go out from here, and we and the forest will remain: we shall continue with what we have started.

*Latest news from Ethiopia is that FARM Africa has expanded and strengthened its Participatory Forest Management Programme. Recent EU Tropical Forestry Budget line funds have been secured for a new partnership programme with SOS Sahel (UK) International. The programme covers forest sites in Ethiopia and Tanzania and shows a growing impact of putting people before trees. For further information contact FARM-Africa.

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