“A Forest and Foundation of Our Lives”

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Yasim Mushik, a farmer who benefits from the Halaba mountain project, says he can “grow more food” now.

1989-96 food-for-work project leaves a lasting legacy

 To a Canadian, it doesn’t look like much of a forest—more a like large scrubby wood.

There are no tall. soaring fir trees, no tall maples, no densely-packed aspens or birches. But to the people who live below Ethiopia’s Halaba Mountain, it is forest-enough—and a life-saver instead of a threat to their farms and livelihoods.

The mountain—more like a big hill, truth be told—rises protectively above the small farms below. But almost 30 years ago, it was a malevolent and destructive neighbour.

Back, then, the mountain had been stripped bare of trees by people seeking firewood for cooking fires. When it rained, water would rush down the sides, through the farms and houses below, a torrential flood washing away precious topsoil and, with it, the hopes of the farmers that depended on their farms for food and livelihoods.

But not in 1989. That year it didn’t rain. The Halaba region, located about 270 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, was caught in a terrible drought.

With matching funds from the Canadian government, Canadian Foodgrains Bank responded through it is member, World Renew, and local partner Food for the Hungry Ethiopia, offering a food-for-work project to rehabilitate the forest that once stood on the mountain.

“It saved our lives,” says Haji Temam Nurye of the aid provided with assistance from the Canadian government.

Sitting in a small opening among the trees, Nurye recalls how, from 1989-96, community members survived by planting trees, terracing the hillside and digging basins to collect and hold water during rainfall.

Today Nurye is head of the committee that manages the 600-hectare forest.

“It was almost bare land when we started,” he says of the mountain. “Now, as you can see, it is a forest and the foundation of our lives.”

Through careful management, the committee harvests some trees for sale for use in construction, and also sells the grass that now also grows on the mountain for livestock feed.

Money earned is put back into their community; to date they have worked with local government bodies to build 20 schools, five health clinics, four agricultural training centres, 12 mosques, and 50 new bridges.

The committee has also hired agricultural extension workers to help local farmers, and provided funds to rebuild homes of community members lost to wildfires.

“These are all the benefits of this forest,” Nurye states, adding that the committee is hoping to apply for a government-sponsored carbon credit to earn more for the community.

While the food-for-work project saved their lives many years ago, today the reforested mountain saves their farms during the rainy seasons—now the trees and grasses hold back the water so it no longer roars down in torrents, washing away valuable top soil in the farms below and flooding homes.

One of the farmers who appreciates this change is Zinedin, a farmer who lives in the mountain’s shadow.

“Before, the water would wash over my farm,” he says. “But now my soil is protected.”

Along with being protected from erosion, “the land is now more fertile,” adds Yasim, another farmer. As a result, “I can grow more food,” he says.

For Sam Vander Ende, the Foodgrains Bank’s field representative based in Ethiopia, this community-owned and managed tree planting project is an example of good development.

“The goal is always to leave something strong behind that is sustainable, that is owned and implemented by local people, something that doesn’t need us or our help anymore,” he says.

As a bonus, “not only did the project benefit many people, it is also protecting the environment,” he adds.

As visitors from the Foodgrains Bank prepare to depart his farm yard, Yasim says: “To the people of Canada we say thank-you, and express deep gratitude from our heart. We can never repay them for all they did for us.”