How low-tech Ethiopian environmentalism is saving the planet and creating jobs

A rural Ethiopian village has been fighting climate change with a low-tech, innovative practice and selling carbon credits to fund local businesses.

The woreda (district) of Humbo lies about 420 kilometres southwest of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Lush green mountains loom over an expansive plain. However, just 10 years ago, the area looked completely different. Threatened by desertification and devoid of trees after years of deforestation, Humbo’s hillsides, which suffered from massive erosion and decreased agricultural productivity due to nutrient loss from soil run off, looked like the scarred surface of another planet.

Desertification is a major problem in parts of Ethiopia. As the impacts of global climate change become more pronounced, each year African countries that incorporate or border the vast Sahara loose more and more arable land to an ever-encroaching desert. Growing populations require more land for agriculture, and forest that could act as a bulwark against desertification are cut down to make way for farming. Though the country’s government boasts of restoring the country’s forest coverage to a little over 10 per cent, some reports suggest that Ethiopia has under 3 per cent of its native forest cover, while over 70 per cent of its land is threatened by desertification. Deforestation also exacerbates drought and flooding by reducing the land’s ability to absorb water. The result is increasingly vicious cycles of unpredictable flooding and drought, which further hamper local crop production and increase food insecurity.

For Ergana Soresa, a local farmer, and many of the other residents in the Humbo woreda, the economic consequences of environmental degradation are real. Humbo recorded just over 125,000 inhabitants in its most recent census, over 85 per cent of which live in poverty. Soresa remembers clearly the 2006 rainy season, when a flood wiped out crops on his farmland and destroyed his house.

“I lost many of my belongings and it took me several years to get back on my feet,” Soresa said.

It is highly likely that there would have been less damage had more of the area’s original vegetation remained intact.

Over the last nine years, Soresa and his community have conducted forest restoration in conjunction with the international NGO, World Vision, and the World Bank. Now, they can call the threats from floods history. The environmental conservation effort has even created additional income sources through the sale of carbon credits that the community has used to finance other business ventures.

Soresa and the other 903 people in his vicinity have created a cooperative that conducts Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), or the restoration of clear-cut original growth local vegetation on depleted forestland. Their efforts aim to organize seven different village cooperatives to regenerate 2,728 hectares of land in the Humbo woreda.

FMNR was developed by an Australian agronomist and World Vision senior advisor, Tony Rinaudo, who spent the early part of his career working for the NGO Mardi International, combating desertification in Niger Republic’s harsh climates by planting imported saplings from more temperate regions.

“I spent 17 years in Niger Republic, where tree planting is very costly and has a very low success rate. I realised that vast, seemingly treeless tracts of land in fact conceal an ‘underground forest’,” he said.

According to Rinaudo, forests that have been cut down leave root stumps and seeds stored in the soil, many of which possess the capacity to grow into large trees. All you need is a knife to prune them back to life.

“The beauty of it is the very poorest people can do this without World Vision or another organisation providing any tools or any inputs from outside,” he said.

Though it was initially difficult to convince people to adopt FMNR, the practice has increased in popularity. Currently, millions of hectares of old farmland across Africa have been recovered with forests through FMNR. Experts consider the practice’s simplicity, low cost and early returns as a major contributor to its success.

Rinaudo was also involved in designing the Humbo project.

“I first visited Humbo in 1999 and was saddened to see the deforested hills,” he said. “And yet, it was very obvious to me that the majority of the ‘bushes’ growing on the hills were in fact stems growing from tree stumps.”

The area of Humbo designated for the FMNR work is fenced in by thorny plants to prevent animals from eating the young vegetation. The undisturbed trees and grass grow rapidly.

But perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Humbo project is the sale and trade of carbon credits as a result of the green house gasses sequestered by the increased vegetation, which started in 2006 as a collaboration between the Ethiopian Government, the local community, World Vision and the World Bank.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, mechanisms were established to provide countries with an economic benefit for activities that reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. Forests act as carbon sinks and forest developers can earn carbon credits for each ton of carbon dioxide equivalent “sequestered” or absorbed by their forest. These credits can then be exchanged for cash.

In Humbo there are 85 identified spots where samples are being taken to measure the level of carbon sequestering. “Nature is copious,” says Demess Lemma, forestry expert and FMNR projects officer at World Vision Ethiopia. “She gives you back, if you give her.”

Humbo’s FMNR work is similar to projects in China and Moldova, which seek to involve communities in carbon sequestration and credit trading. Thus far, carbon trading has generated $383,514 for seven village cooperatives involved in the project.

Humbo locals are reaping the economic benefits of their new environmentalism, with the lives of many farmers such as Soresa changing dramatically for the better. More land has been set aside for FMNR work and even more businesses are slated to receive money generated by carbon sequestration.

“Our lives have been changed because of this project. At first the idea of selling air made us laugh,” said local resident Beyene Agebo.

The project will collaborate with the World Bank’s carbon fund to sell 165,000 tons of carbon at an average price of $4.40 per ton until the end of its first phase in 2017. Humbo’s farmers expect to see at least $726,000 over the duration of the project, which is expected to sequester more than 800,000 tons of carbon over its 30-year lifetime.

According to World Vision, Ethiopia’s government has taken note of Humbo’s success with FMNR and called for a scale up to 15 million hectares of land. The Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity estimates the country has the potential to generate $3.3 billion annually from carbon sequestration through regenerated forests.

This article was originally published on Ventures Africa. Images from World Vision.