Ethiopia: Deforestation

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The theme of least developed countries (LDCs) and developing countries is important within the globalisation debate – they are often considered to be more-or-less passive spectators to, and some might say victims of, global economic development fuelled by the predominant growth-at-all-costs and market-driven economic paradigm. Forestry and agriculture naturally continue to be the primary source of resources and income for people living in LDCs, yet are subject to huge pressure from the forces of globalisation whether in the form of planetary environmental challenges, access to international finance and markets, the emphasis on cashcropping ahead of internal food security, global conflict, and acceptance of aid and Structural Adjustment Programmes, among others. Ethiopia and the state of its forests is a case where we can see these pressures played out.


This is a complex phenomenon and can be viewed from different (disciplinary) perspectives. Our viewpoint is that it has a direct impact at the local level – on the quality of life in diverse parts of the world.

Economics is the driving force of globalisation processes. However, the economy looks different from a global as opposed to the local perspective: due to on-going trade liberalisation and increasing opportunities for investment across national borders, the global production and distribution network has become even more interconnected, its efficiency has (arguably) increased, and it no longer takes heed of boundaries and borders; the globalised economic maximizes its profit but also delivers cheap goods to underdeveloped regions. However, from the local perspective, globalised economic processes might hinder local initiatives as it neglects the local specific context – social, cultural and political conditions, and of course the traditional economy based on those same conditions. In the past, tariffs would have been imposed on imports to developing countries in order to nurture and incubate local industry and hence protect it from foreign competition, just as new industries had once been protected in developed societies, but the demands of the global economy and the World Trade Organization require the opening up of markets in developing nations to the full force of global competition. Globalisation in a certain sense means universalization, and its economic imperatives can destroy local diversity, which often means neglecting local consumption needs or patterns. Something of this phenomenon can be perceived in the situation as it pertains today to the state of forest cover in Ethiopia, although other global themes are present also, not the least of which include the effect of global conflict and population growth.

The problem of poverty and deforestation in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its poverty and land and resource degradation seem to be part and parcel of the same vicious circle. The supreme irony is that Ethiopia is actually a country with a very diverse environment and rich biodiversity and unique ecosystems (the Ethiopian Highlands, for example, elevate the country, which lies close the equator, to give an unexpectedly temperate climate, so although it lies in tropical altitudes, its climate varies between cool in the highlands and warm in the lowlands). "Ethiopia relies on its diverse biological resources for its socio-economic development, and these resources are now under severe pressure."[1]

The Ethiopian Highlands

Thirty-nine percent of the population lives below the poverty line, only 34% of the rural population has access to an adequate water source, and the average life expectancy is a low 59 years (although these figures have been improving in recent years thanks in part to a relatively high GDP growth rate of 7.5%). Agriculture accounts for about 46% percent of GDP, of which forestry plays a part, although some estimates put direct losses of productivity from deforestation and land degradation at at least 3 percent of agriculture GDP.[2] With a population estimated in 2012 at over 84 million[3] (making it the 14th largest country in the world) and a growth rate of 2.1 percent this is a critically important figure.

Deforestation and the resulting environmental degradation is a major problem in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and a key factor challenging food security, community livelihood and sustainable development. In the late nineteenth century, approximately 30 percent of the country was covered with forest.[4] But the clearing of land for agricultural use and the logging of trees for fuel slowly changed the look of the country’s forest cover and which sped up considerably as the 20th century progressed. Between 1955 and 1979, over 77 percent of the country’s forested area disappeared and it continues to lose 8 percent or 140,000 hectares of its remaining forests annually. [5] Deforestation and the resulting environmental degradation is a major problem in Ethiopia and a key factor challenging food security, community livelihood and sustainable development, especially since 94% of the population relies on wood-based and biomass fuel for household energy. [1] For example, despite the importance of the forest economy to subsistence livelihoods through the provision of timber, fruit, honey and bush meat products, extreme poverty leads subsistence farmers (especially those displaced through war) to clear trees in search of arable land. This in turn leads loss of shade required for many agricultural products, changes to local weather patterns, and decreases in agricultural productivity resulting from decreased retention of water in the soil and decreased streamflow[6] In the late nineteenth century, approximately 30 percent[4] to 40 percent[7] of the country was covered with forest. But the clearing of land for agricultural use and the logging of trees for building materials and fuel slowly changed the look of the country’s forest cover and which sped up considerably as the 20th century progressed. By the 1950s, only 16% of land area was covered by forests, and during the 1980s about 15.4 million hectares of tropical forest disappeared each year[8], leading to depleted forest cover of only 2.7% in the 1990s.[7] Between 1955 and 1979, over 77 percent of the country’s forested area disappeared and it continues to lose 8 percent or 140,000 hectares of its remaining forests annually. [5]

Ethiopia located on the globe
Ethiopia in its region
Map of Ethiopia

Why are forests so important?

Humans benefit from and are very often reliant upon forests for the ecosystem services they make available, including regulating and supporting cultural and provisional services. Humans exploit their timber products for fuel and building purposes, although non-timber resources provided by forests are also hugely important as a means of survival during times of stress and scarcity, e.g. wild fruits, bee keeping, fodder and grazing.[5] However, all across the globe the expanse of forest areas is declining for very many reasons, but largely as a result of logging activities and the conversion of forest habitats to croplands; for example, agricultural expansion accounts for up to 43 percent of tropical forest losses.[9]

There is a very wide array of forested landscapes in Africa. Many of these forests are under incredible pressure from people as local populations expanded almost exponentially over the course of the last century: nearly everywhere the forested landscapes show clear signs of human impact. How they look today is a result of both environmental and human factors, but is the latter which have had the most negative impact. Humans interact with the forested landscape through collection of forest products, shifting cultivation, permanent of semi-permanent agriculture, and many different kinds of agroforestry systems. The issues of deforestation and accompanying land degradation is high on national and international agendas, but still poses a large challenge at the local level, as is the case in Ethiopia. [10]

Deforestation in Ethiopia takes place in both forests and farm woodlands and is recognized as the most severe environmental problem there. Deforestation and land degradation are impairing the capacity of forests and the land to contribute to food security and to provide other benefits such as fuel wood and fodder. The National Conservation Strategy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) identifies deforestation as a major problem not only in the forest proper, but also in how it impacts upon other sectors such as crop farming, animal husbandry, water resources, and wildlife habitat.[1]

Specific examples of the benefits forests bring to the local population – 85% of which is reliant on the land for their livelihood – include a source of fuel and building materials, as well as non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such herbs and spices and traditional medicaments, and natural food products like nuts, honey, fruit and edible fungi, plus they provide cover and food sources for domesticated animal populations. Forests provide the invaluable natural ecosystems that house the wide range of tree and plant species and the fauna that rely on them for their survival that otherwise would not survive in typical manmade monocultural habitats, and of course they also act as conservators and regenerators of soil and filtration systems for natural water catchments and hence protect waterways from damaging effluent run-off from chemical fertilisers and rapid evaporation from constant exposure to the sun.

Why then, if the overwhelming majority of the population is so reliant upon the benefits that forests bring, have they shrunk to a mere fraction of their past glory? The causes of Ethiopian deforestation are manifold and have been recorded through Ethiopian history in association with settlement patterns and agricultural practices. “Unprecedented deforestation, however, has spread since the beginning of the twentieth century as a result of dynamic demographic, political, economic and social conditions”.[7] Therefore, before looking at the specific reasons for the current state of affairs, it is important to understand the historical context in which Ethiopian society has developed over the modern era.

Recent History

Ethiopia has a rich and varied history, but its modern history which arguably laid the foundations of its long and bloody conflict in the late 20th century and its current position as one of the poorest nations on the planet began with the first overt European interference in the country’s affairs in the mid-19th century. Until 1936, Ethiopia had avoided the fate of most other African nations during the Europeans’ scramble for African colonies, although it was subject to military attacks, first by the British during an 1868 expedition to Abyssinia to rescue British nationals imprisoned by King Tewodros II, and then the Italians, who were desperate to keep up with the British, French, Belgians by carving out their own little piece of empire on the continent. Italian companies acquired land in Eritrea on the Red Sea board of Ethiopia in the 1870s and 1880s and then occupied it with Italian soldiers in 1888. Under Emperor Menelik II, the Ethiopians signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians in 1889, granting them part of Northern Ethiopia in return for guns and ammunition to help fight the Egyptian Sudanese. Eritrea was effectively recognised by Ethiopia as an Italian colony from this date (and up until Mussolini assumed power in Italy in 1922, when the new administration stressed the racial and political superiority of Italians, "[t]he local population shared in the benefits conferred under Italian colonial administration, especially through newly created medical services, agricultural improvements, and the provision of urban amenities...").[4] However, the Italians said this also gave them power over all Ethiopia, but Menelik demurred, saying the native Amharic language version of the treaty said no such thing. Tensions came to a head in 1896 when the two nations went to war and the Italians were completely defeated at the Battle of Adowa – the first time a European army had ever been beaten by an African military force. The Italians recognised the full independence of Ethiopia as a result, although they never forgot their humiliation and returned to militarily intervene in Ethiopia again in 1936 under Mussolini.

Menelik was followed in quick succession by his grandson Lyasu V in 1913, who was deposed by the Ethiopian Christian nobility three years later because of his Muslim ties, and then Menelik’s daughter Zauditu, while her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was made regent and heir apparent. After the death of Empress Zauditu in 1930, Ras Tafari succeeded to the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie I (Haile Selassie is worshipped as the reincarnation of Jesus by adherents of Rastafarianism).

Emperor Haile Selassie

In 1935, the Italians, who had been waiting for an opportunity to take revenge for Adowa, invaded. Haile Selassie, as the only independent black monarch in Africa, appealed to the League of Nations for aid, but the western powers failed to help and Ethiopia was formerly annexed by Italy in 1936, with Selassie going into exile. He returned in 1941 after the British defeated Italian forces in Africa during World War Two.

In a spurt of energy after the war, Selassie promoted the modernisation of Ethiopia. He opened the first university in Addis Ababa in 1950, introduced a constitution in 1955 that expanded the powers of parliament and improved relations with other African nations by helping to establish the Organisation of African Unity. Unfortunately, Ethiopia became caught up in a war from 1961 with the province of Eritrea, which had been an Italian colony for many decades and which had then been annexed by Ethiopia in 1943. It had been self-governing under a federal system until 1961, when its parliament was shut down by Selassie and the Ethiopian language Amharic made compulsory at all Eritrean schools. This war lasted more than 30 years until Eritrea gained full independence in 1993.

Selassie’s advancing age, his increasing distance from the daily life of his subjects, and the sense among a growing number of Marxist-oriented Ethiopians during the climate of the Cold War that the conflict with Eritrea was imperialist in nature all helped to undermine Selassie’s regime. Inflation, corruption and famine added to the growing unrest in the country and eventually a military coup was staged by Marxist officers in the army under Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974. The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was murdered in 1975.

Power was assumed in 1974 by a provisional administrative council of soldiers known as the [wikipedia:en:Derg|Derg], with Mengistu as head of the newly Marxist state and Derg chairman. This triggered the Ethiopian Civil War that was to last until 1991, with the Derg imprisoning or exterminating many thousands of its political opponents, and continuing to prosecute the Emperor’s war against the rebel province of Eritrea, as well as the province of Tigray. Under the Derg, Ethiopia became a client state of the Soviet Union, and as a result also became the most militarised state in the region. It was thanks to military aid from the Soviet Union, Libya, GDR and North Korea, and 17,000 professional soldiers from Cuba that Ethiopia was able to fight off an invasion by Somali forces in 1977.

At the same time, the Derg attempted to follow through on its Marxist philosophy by redistributing land to the peasants. However, mismanagement, corruption, and wholesale hostility to the Derg's violent rule combined with the debilitating effects of constant warfare resulted in a precipitous fall in agricultural production, and it is during this period that deforestation in Ethiopia began to rapidly escalate. Although Ethiopia has generally long been prone to drought, few were prepared for the scale of drought and famine that hit the country in the mid-1980s, in which up to eight million were affected and one million may have died.

A T-62 main battle tank guards an intersection following seizure of government control by rebel factions, 1991.

Mengistu was finally overthrown in 1991 when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front captured Addis Ababa and the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev failed to intervene on the Marxist government's behalf. Under a transitional government, a new constitution was written in 1994 that established a bicameral legislature and judicial system. The first ever multi-party elections then took place in 1995 with Meles Zenawi elected Prime Minister.

Democracy was not, however, accompanied by a permanent peace. A border dispute with Eritrea in May 1998 led to a war that neither side could afford and which lasted until 2000, the same year that new elections were held that resulted in only 12 seats being won by the opposition. New elections in 2005 were greated disputed, and those in 2010 again returned Meles Zenawi as Prime Minister. In mid-2011, after the rainy season failed two years in a row, East Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years.

Specific causes of deforestation

Conflict and forced migration

Violent conflict generally does not directly cause loss of forest cover, but it does provide the conditions in which more specific causes can rapidly accelerate. As this very brief history of recent Ethiopian history shows, the country and its people have had to contend with the mayhem caused by almost constant conflict throughout much of the 20th century, and even into the early 21st century, thanks to its attempted colonisation by the Italians and then decades of either repression of Eritrea following its annexation or open internecine warfare triggered by the Marxist putsch of 1974. As if this was not enough, there were then border wars with the newly independent Eritrea at the close of last century. Not only have those wars killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, they have also led to the destruction or undermining of national infrastructure and institutions that regulated and policed natural resource use, including forests, disrupted traditional forest husbandry and commercial activities based on cultivation of forest products, reduced local populations to extreme poverty so that they are forced to exploit land and forest resources far beyond their natural capacity to regenerate themselves, and contributed to devastating droughts that seriously eroded forestry ecosystems.

It has become a popular aphorism that modern day famines tend to be manmade, and this was certainly the case in the infamous mid-1980s famine that sparked Western humanitarian efforts, such as Live Aid. While other African countries (Kenya and Botswana) had faced drought conditions and the potential for famine at the same time, a humanitarian disaster was created in Ethiopia by the social disruption triggered by the ill-conceived efforts of the revolutionary Marxist regime to promote affirmative policies, such as administration of the rural sector through military, state and party structures, collectivisation of agriculture, diversion of scarce resources to state and collective farms at the expense of small-scale farmers, and the resolution of conflict through military means, etc.[11] The subsequent famine prompted the survival mechanism among Ethiopian subsistence farmers to migrate from the north to Southwest Ethiopia in search of not only humanitarian aid camps, but also arable land where they could continue to maintain agricultural output. However, as all the readily accessible land in lower elevations was already occupied, the new immigrants had no choice but to settle in remote locations at higher elevations and clear the land of trees to make a living where the profits to be made from farming are much lower due to the lower soil quality and greater transportation costs.[8] Moreover, migrating subsistence farmers driven by conflict and poverty come into conflict with forest farmers that collect natural coffee, spices and honey from natural forests.[8]

Times of extreme violence and security vacuums resulting from regime breakdown also lead to accelerated deforestation. In their study of deforestation in the South Central Rift Valley Region of Ethiopia, Dessie and Kleman[6] identified two periods in particular of abrupt change that correspond with the two most recent changes of governments in Ethiopia: the collapse of the old order of Haile Sellasie in 1974-75 and the crumbling of Mengistu’s Marxist regime in 1991-92. Farmers interviewed by Dessie and Kleman reported that during periods of disorder and transition between governments, more trees are felled and more forestland settled. Presumably this is the result of either greater forced migration pressures induced by the dying regimes’ final violent death throes and/or the catastrophic breakdown in authority that eliminates all physical and legal protection of forested land.

Population pressure

As noted above, Ethiopia has a population estimated at over 84 million, making it one of the largest in Africa and the 14th largest in the world. Large population increases over the last century have put huge pressure on the land and have resulted in extensive forest clearing for agricultural use and grazing, and exploitation of existing forests for fuel wood, fodder, and construction materials. Population pressures have also added to north-south migration and settlement, and clearance of forested land previously seen as unsuitable for farming. In their study of deforestation in the moist evergreen Afromontane forests of Southwest Ethiopia, Getahun et al.[8]noted that the forest transitions from a phase of net deforestation to net reforestation recorded in many parts of tropical areas in Southeast Asia and Latin America have generally not been seen in Africa. One of the possible reasons Getahun at al give for this observed delay is the ongoing exponential population growth, the large proportion of people who are employed in subsistence farming and the slow adoption of modern farming techniques. According to Ethiopian Tree Fund Foundation[12], “the high population growth, low agricultural productivity, and the poor economic performance of the country so far are important push factors that have accelerated the deforestation process in the country”.

Fuel wood

In a low technology and poverty-stricken society like Ethiopia, the main source of fuel for cooking and heat is wood or charcoal made from wood, and this is one of the chief causes of deforestation. Wood is the primary source of household energy consumption in most rural areas and in poorer households in urban areas. It is used for cooking, heating, lighting, brewing and smithing. Even relatively modern facilities can be dependent on fuel wood. For example, Assefa and Bork[7] report that hotels and higher educational institutions and schools in the Chencha and Arbaminch areas in Southern Ethiopia use wood for energy, mainly for catering. In these areas wood is cheaper than electricity and is readily available in comparison with the unreliability of electricity supplies.

Population increases have also contributed to higher demand for both fuel wood and construction wood and it is surrounding natural forests that tend to be the main source of timber production. Consequently, the sale of wood is an important source of income for many people and is used to supplement income from agricultural production rural areas.

Agricultural practices

Forest clearance to facilitate expansion of agricultural land is driven not only by population increases, but also low agricultural production rates. In some areas the majority of farming households cultivate plots less than 0.5 ha in size, which is usually insufficient for providing nutrition all year round, and which in turn drives the clearance of even more marginal land. Low productivity combined with further declines in soil fertility from lack of forest cover, soil erosion, erratic rainfall, pests and diseases, and an inability to purchase fertilisers and improved seed because of a lack of off-farm employment further compounds the problem.[7] This dearth of fertile land and alternative employment to supplement farm income is critical in continuing deforestation practices. Traditionally, subsistence or smallholder farmers farmed only the most suitable land in relatively flat areas with access to nearby roads and near settlements with complementary job opportunities. War and internal forced migration from the mid-1970s onwards, however, led to the reclamation of farmland on less suitable areas, especially in the hitherto less populated south, including steep hillside slopes and in more remote locations. As Getahun et al.[8] note “[e]ven after three decades these immigrants were on average not able to obtain the living standards of the original farmers because the profits they can generate with their farming activities are much lower due to a lower soil quality and higher transportation costs” (p.179). The long years of violent conflict are also responsible for a lack of investment in the infrastructure that would create jobs and support more sustainable agriculture and use of existing forest resources by local communities. For example, the lack of development means there are few roads and hence easy access to markets to sell agricultural or forest products. The result is on-going poverty in the most inaccessible regions and hence over-exploitation of forest resources or clearance for the basic needs of survival.

One of the contributing factors to the decline in soil fertility is the use of animal dung as fuel in times of scarcity and stress (caused by war or drought) when it should be used as a fertiliser on cultivated land, thus further forcing encroachment on to forested areas. In addition, as agricultural technology was slow to develop in Africa, farming systems were perpetuated that relied on slash-and-burn cultivation.

The advent of cash cropping has also played a hand in deforestation. In some areas industrial-style agriculture was introduced to supply export markets for cash to fund modernisation projects, e.g. coffee, resulting in the clearing of large areas of forest and the introduction of intensive, often non-sustainable agricultural practices. Cash crops also reduce the amount of cultivated land available for subsistence farming and hence encourage migration into more marginal areas or the settling of evicted smallholder farmers in forest settlements which leads to further clear felling.[6]

Misdirected foreign aid and de-emphasis of indigenous knowledge

This goes hand-in-hand with the rise of cash cropping, as well-intentioned aid foreign programmes and World Bank-imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes have laid stress on modernising the Ethiopian economy and incorporating it into the global economy through the farming of monocultural crops for world markets, such as the aforementioned coffee, and cereal crops for export. This has exacerbated forest clearance for fresh fertile land that is in many cases quickly exhausted without the liberal application of chemical fertilisers. The same process also tends to de-emphasise customary agricultural and forestry practices through which some equilibrium between livelihood, environmental sustainability and resource exploitation was maintained in the past.

Over-exploitation of non-timber forest products (NTFPs)

Where forest cover still exists and is preserved by the local population there is still the acute danger of over-exploitation of forest products. Whether for subsistence or commercial purposes, intense extraction of these products can have a negative impact on the population dynamics of the plants being exploited. Such impacts may lead to changes in the forest community structure. The impact depends on the parts of plants that are harvested in NTFPs. Harvesting of some NTFPs like leaves and fruits, may have a negligible effect on the plant population being exploited, depending on the intensity of the harvest. Harvesting of bark, roots or bulbs, however, usually kills or fatally weakens the plant species used. For other products, such as palm heart, trees have to be cut to be able to harvest the product. An important group of NTFP in East Africa is gums and resins or Acaica, Boswellia and Commiphora species that produce gum Arabic, frankincense and myrrh. [1]

Lack of governance and land tenure issues

Ethiopia has seen a number of changes in the regulatory frameworks governing land ownership which continue to provide uncertainty to the farmer and to rural communities. Up until the late 19th century land ownership was generally ruled by a caste system, but as Ethiopia adapted to the Western notion of the nation-state and various territories were incorporated into the country different land tenure systems began to be used. Assefa and Bork[7] discuss the introduction of the “gabar” system in the south-west through which land was provided to central government officials, priests, civil servants and the high-ranking military officers. The sources of land were forest tracts that were then cleared and used for agriculture. Nation-building, the establishment of a standing army and the infrastructure and roads needed to facilitate the two also exerted pressure on the natural forests. During their occupation of the country from 1938 to 1943, the Italians tried to curry favour among the local people by revoking the “gabar” system and giving the land to those who had previous served the “gabars” (landowners). Those who had legal permits to extend their land did so by felling trees.

Once the Italians left, private individuals took over many of the forests in Ethiopia, which led the way to large-scale mechanized agriculture, resulting in the wholesale clearance of forests. But following the ascendance of the Marxist regime in 1974-75, the land tenure system changed dramatically when all land became the property of the state and farmers were left with only usufruct rights. Farmers thus had no incentive to invest in long-term land development “and therefore they did not plant trees for fear that the land might be appropriated by the government and redistributed to others”. [7] Before 1974 about half of the forestland was privately owned or claimed, and approximately half was held by the government, though there was next to no government control of forestry operations prior to the revolution. The 1975 land reform under the Marxist government nationalised forestland and sawmills, which were concentrated in the south. The government controlled harvesting of forestland, and in some cases individuals had to obtain permits from local peasant associations to cut trees. But this measure encouraged illegal logging and expedited the destruction of Ethiopia's forests.[4] In addition, the Derg regime’s management of land was so resented by farmers that once the government collapsed in 1991 the farming population vented their anger by clearing trees that had been planted as part of an afforestation programme promoted by the former regime. The intentions of this programme had been well-placed and had been instituted in response to the massive famine of the mid-1980s, resulting in tree planting on 400,000 ha of land. But it was a top-down initiative that lacked genuine community participation and had largely been undertaken on land previously used for grazing purposes.[7] Thus it had no popular support which led to the removal of those forests and poor management of existing forests by extremely weak institutions and legal frameworks during the tumult of the 1991 regime change.


The negative impacts of deforestation are numerous. Soil erosion and nutrient depletion from the removal of trees and over-grazing on cleared areas are the main reasons for loss of agricultural production and increased food insecurity. The loss of vegetation through over-grazing exacerbates soil erosion by water and lowers retention of nutrients in the soil. In addition, cattle tracks seal the soil which in turn prevents infiltration that causes high surface run-off during heavy rains, which again further erodes the soil.[7]

Flowers and branches of the Boswellia sacra tree, the species from which most frankincense is derived

Biodiversity has been adversely affected. Indigenous trees have become endangered. ‘’Cordia Africana’’, for example, has become rare. Its wood is used to make coffins, roof supports, agricultural sheds and its wood provides the raw material needed in the timber industry. Bamboo is another tree species that is fast disappearing and which is used for house construction and fences. Previously, bamboo was left to grow for a long period, which allowed the construction of larger dwellings, but now that early felling is so common, houses are consequently smaller.[7] In addition, thanks to the lack of bamboo and long, hard grasses, rectangular houses made of corrugated iron are taking the place of the traditional upturned-basket form of houses. This disappearance of rare tree species also leads to destruction and fragmentation of natural habitats and hence additional loss of biodiversity. For example, the mountain nyala, a mammal endemic to Ethiopia, became extinct in the South Central Rift Valley in the 1980s.[7]

The inability of soils cleared of trees to retain water leads to a reduction in the amount of available underground water. Decreases in surface water have also been reported. For example, Lake Cheleleka dried up between 1972 and 2000, as have a number of streams that previously fed the lake, which is most probably related to reduced streamflow resulting from deforestation and increased use of stream water for irrigation purposes. [6] Deforestation has also been linked to increased sedimentation in rivers which obstruct hydropower plants considered to be of great importance to the economic development of Ethiopia.[8]

Existing stands of forest

Despite the many problems of deforestation in Ethiopia, there are still examples of well-managed and preserved forests and trees in various parts of the country. The Orthodox Church, for example, has maintained forest cover on its property for a long period of time. There are also sacred forests in parts of Ethiopia mostly found on the summits of mountains and the plateaus of ridges. They are where sacrificial functions take place to ensure a good year in which the land will provide a bountiful harvest and women will give birth. Some of these sacred forests are used to a very limited extent as a source of firewood and construction materials, strictly policed by spiritual leaders, while in other sacred forests there is a taboo on cutting trees and collecting firewood.[7] There are also stands of old trees along lakeshores and near springs in the lowlands which play a vital role in regulating water fluxes and the movement of sediment. Furthermore, there are still woodlands along the escarpment in the rift valley that are used as a source of firewood collection. They are, however, over-exploited and are used to provide grazing for cattle from the surrounding countryside with all its attendant problems. This has led to high surface run-off and flooding that affects the lowlands during the rainy season and is the subject of conflict between highlanders who look upon the escarpment woodlands as a source of firewood, while lowland farmers look upon the woodland as something that needs to be preserved to protect lowland farmland from gullying and flooding.[7]

Afforestation efforts

As noted above, the Mengistu regime had attempted large-scale afforestation in the 1980s, although without proper public consultation and participatory processes most farmers had a negative view of the campaign because it reduced the amount of pasture land available to them. Moreover, the planting of exotic, mostly eucalyptus trees did not facilitate the undergrowth of herbs and grasses suitable for cattle grazing. As the planting failed to allow for community participation it was not able to address the main problems of rural and farming communities.

On the other hand, trees are planted at the individual household level, usually on degraded steep slopes with poorer soil quality that are no longer used for cropping or grazing, or along paths and roads. However, the general tendency is to plant mostly exotic varieties – eucalyptus and juniper. The former became predominant in the 1980s when they were encouraged by the government and eucalyptus seedlings were supplied for free. They also have certain advantages over indigenous types in the eyes of farmers: there is a short period between harvests (eucalyptuses are coppiced each third year), they do not require much care and they can grow in poorer soils.[7] There are disadvantages, however, as they require large amounts of water and grass rarely grows at their base, thus limiting grazing potential.


Ethiopia has suffered a catastrophic reduction in forest cover over the past century to between an estimated 2% to 3% of its original forest area as a result of farming practices, violent conflict, high population growth, and land tenure regimes. Deforestation has resulted in a precipitous fall in the quality of land used for agricultural purposes, even though the vast majority of the population relies on agriculture for subsistence needs. It also has negative impacts on eco-system provisional services, such as loss of water retention and the drying up of lakes and waterways. Decades of civil war have exacerbated forest clearance by forcing the internal migration of huge numbers of Ethiopians from the heavily populated north to the comparatively sparsely populated climes of the south which were once relatively well forested. Well-intentioned but ill-advised top-down afforestation campaigns and the breakdown in government authority during regime change placed further pressure on the remaining old stands of trees.

We can see a number of relationships at work between various actors involved in the issues that lie behind deforestation in Ethiopia. To name but a few, they include the historic relationships between the former tribal aristocracies and the lower castes, inter-tribal relations and their different conceptions of and attitudes toward the land, the creation of the Ethiopian nation-state and the dynamic that led to the imposition of alien land tenure regimes in different parts of the country, the creation of a new upper social class alongside the new state and its monarchy and its attendant demands, the occupation by European invading forces and their efforts to suppress national customs or curry favour with specific groups, the conflict between different users of the land, e.g. farmers versus the growing urban population, religious customs versus economic and population pressures, the state and its agents versus the people, especially during the bedlam of regime change in the 1970s and the 1990s, and the external demands of foreign financial institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) or well-meaning foreign NGOs. Just from this brief enumeration of the relationships between various actors it is clear that one set of highly unequal relationships follows another. The potential for more inclusive and participatory processes that heed the needs of all actors would therefore seem to be a logical way forward in the struggle to retain and increase forest cover in Ethiopia. Deeper research into analysing different actors, their resources and influence on other actors also logically warrants further attention.


Documentary films

Academic articles

  • Bishaw, B. (2001). Deforestation and Land Degredation in the Ethiopian Highlands: A Strategy for Physical Recovery. Northeast African Studies, 8(1), 7-25.
  • Bongers, F., & Tennigkeit, T. (Eds.). (2010). Degraded Forests in Eastern Africa: management and restoration. Earthscan.
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  Author: Andrew George Barton. This article was published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. How to cite the article: Andrew George Barton. (2. 10. 2022). Ethiopia: Deforestation. VCSEWiki. Retrieved 13:28 2. 10. 2022) from: <>.

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