Ethiopia unites in planting for the future

Oromia region
A woman walks past an Odaa tree in the town of Dukem, Oromia region, Ethiopia November 1

The people of Ethiopia planted over 350 million trees in just 12 hours on Monday, setting a new unofficial world record.

The government-led Monday 29 July challenge initially aimed at planting 200m trees, about two trees for each Ethiopian. The campaign is part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s #GreenLegacy Initiative. The Ethiopian government acknowledges that #GreenLegacy, which set a target in May to plant 4bn trees by October, is “an ambitious undertaking”.

Green society challenge

According to the Prime Minister’s office, the Monday challenge was meant to “show [Ethiopia’s] efforts to become a green society by planting various types of eco-friendly seedling to combat environmental degradation”.

“I think we demonstrated the capacity for people to come together collectively and deliver on a shared vision,” Billene Seyoum, Abiy’s press secretary, told AFP.

  • Government infographics identified sites and areas in each of the nine federal states, with goals for the number of trees to be planted per state.
  • Oromia, for example, was meant to plant 126m seedlings in 53 sites across 106 areas. People in the region ended up planting nearly 212m trees on Monday, followed by Amhara at 70m, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples state with 51m.

According to a report from Fana Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), the #GreenLegacy project committee reported a total of 353,633,660 trees planted across Ethiopia.

Act of unity

The tree-planting exercise was a rare act of unity between the many different sides of Ethiopia’s politics and society.

  • Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed planted a tree in Wolaita, southern Ethiopia, while on a working visit.
  • President Sahlework Zewde planted a tree in Gonder, where she was also on a working visit.
  • The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Mathia, planted one in Jijiga in Somali region.

It also attracted the diplomatic community.

Differences of opinion

The reforestation exercise also bridged Ethiopia’s political divisions, despite some dissenting remarks. One opposition leader, Zelalem Worqagegnehu, told the AFP that he doubted “that we planted this much,” but added that he and other opposition members also planted trees. “We took this is a good opportunity to show solidarity with the citizens,” he said.

The tree-planting effort attracted criticism for its top-down approach and because it doesn’t address the primary causes of deforestation and the probable loss of biodiversity.

Dwindling forest cover

According to Global Forest Watch, Ethiopia had 11% forest cover in 2010, and lost 384,000ha of tree cover between 2001 and 2018.

Forest cover has been dwindling for decades as the country’s population has grown, with trees providing much-needed firewood and construction wood. Previous administrations also tried to tackle the problem. In 2007, for example, a government-led reforestation project set a goal to plant 52m trees in one season. Ethiopia ended up planting nearly 700m trees that year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

  • One of Emperor Menelik II’s biggest challenges, after installing Addis Ababa as the new capital, was the dwindling forest cover, occasioned by the demand for construction and firewood.
    In 1904, he led a tree-planting campaign with imported turpentine and eucalyptus trees, which now cover Mount Entoto, the highest peak on the mountains that overlook the metropolis.
  • In May, Abiy hosted a glitzy $173,000 a plate dinner to fundraise for another of his pet projects: beautifying Addis Ababa. The project, known as “Beautifying Sheger”, is intended to revitalise the capital by cleaning the rivers, preventing flooding and building new recreational parks, bicycle paths, walkways and other public spaces.

Unlike Beautifying Sheger, the #GreenLegacy Initiative is a national project for which the PM’s office said in May it would “mobilise national reforestation at 40 trees per head”.

The bottom line: Even though Monday’s numbers are self-reported and hence controversial, restoring the East African country’s forest cover is a step in the right direction. If for nothing else, it is one of the few things that Ethiopians, especially the political class, can agree on.

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