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Ethiopia: trees, teaching and teamwork

Author:  Marco Bartolin and Ben Jones
Last Updated:  18/06/2024
Window seat view of Ethopia

Window seat view of Ethopia.

Marco Bartolini with Ben Jones and Peter Borchardt

Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. It is Africa’s oldest independent country and the birthplace of humanity (and coffee). With a 13-month calendar, a 12-hour day and 7 calendar years behind the rest of the world, it has long fuelled curiosity, adventure and exploration.

View of Ethopia

With a population of almost 120 million people, it is divided almost in two by the Rift Valley. The country is a mosaic of towns, villages, agricultural fields, savanna, forests, lakes (significantly Lake Tana) and the Blue Nile. The capital, Addis Ababa (Amharic for ‘New Flower’), is 3,000 metres above sea level and was the starting point of my incredible journey.

Pre-Covid, Ethiopia had a healthy tourist industry and was a very popular destination for a wide range of age groups. Tourism is slowly growing again but there is unrest in certain parts of the country, which understandably makes people hesitant to travel there. However, with good guides and in-country contacts, Ethiopia has so much to offer.

My arrival coincided with the annual Great Ethiopian Run: a 10 km course around the city and like no other that I have run (and I have taken part in a few around the world). The air was filled with over 48,000 voices, singing, dancing, music and plenty of happiness. It’s an event that is not really for serious runners (though you can join the elite group) but it is a spectacle to be enjoyed.

Marco Bartolini (right) and Ben Jones at the Great Ethiopian Run.

Marco Bartolini (right) and Ben Jones at the Great Ethiopian Run.

The Great Ethiopian Run.
Rosa abyssinica at Gullele Botanical Garden. The species is native to Ethiopia.

Rosa abyssinica at Gullele Botanical Garden. The species is native to Ethiopia.

Learning from staff at Gullele Botanical Garden.

Learning from staff at Gullele Botanical Garden.

Wondo Genet Arboretum.

Wondo Genet Arboretum.

With the team at Wondo Genet Arboretum.

With the team at Wondo Genet Arboretum.

Ben and Dr Talemos discuss future work at Dilla University.

Ben and Dr Talemos discuss future work at Dilla University.

Dilla University.

Knowledge sharing

Why was I in Ethiopia? Ben Jones, Arboretum Curator at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum (OBGA), invited me to work alongside him on a project that he has been involved with since 2012. OBGA carries out conservation work in Ethiopia as part of a wider programme of research into biodiversity hotspots around the world. This collaborative project promotes knowledge sharing, tree-focused conservation work and education. It supports the research and conservation work of Gullele Botanical Garden, Wondo Genet College of Forestry & Natural Resources Arboretum and Dilla University Botanical Garden, helping students to utilise the resources for their education.

Gullele Botanical Garden’s Head of Science and Research, Dr Birhanu Belay, provided the guided tour, explaining how the garden evolved and the new projects under development there, such as the ‘natural garden’, new areas of landscape and the jogging track (to encourage locals to stop and admire) which passes through. The Botanical Garden supports a significant number of indigenous and exotic species of trees and plants. A nursery grows trees for conservation of species and also for the purposes of restocking natural forests.

Wondo Genet College of Forestry & Natural Resources has an arboretum that Ben Jones and Dr Peter Borchardt restored with college staff in 2012 from a state of lapsed management. The arboretum was originally planted in 1978 by the first dean of the college, Douglas Sim. Plantings in the arboretum took place in 1978, 1982, 1989 and 2000 when 133 woody species were planted in plots in blocks of either 5 × 5 or 6 × 6. The arboretum sits at 1,890m above sea level, has an average annual temperature of 19°C and 1.1 m of rainfall annually. Its main roles are education and research. The site covers around 3 hectares and includes 95 species, of which 35 are indigenous, including Acacia abyssinica, Ehretia cymosa and Millettia ferruginea.

A church forest. (© Kieran Dodds/www.kierandodds.com)

A church forest. (© Kieran Dodds/www.kierandodds.com)

A Tewahedo Orthodox church surrounded by its forest.

A Tewahedo Orthodox church surrounded by its forest.

Wondo Genet was the catalyst for the birth of Peter and Ben’s great relationship and friendship. They first met at Istanbul airport (at Peter’s invitation) to discuss the project there and subsequently meticulously mapped, identified and labelled all the species in the arboretum and provided a management plan. It is very apparent that their intervention has left a legacy, although there is plenty of work still to do! Oxford University’s Arboretum is twinned with Wondo Genet Arboretum.

Acacia abyssinica, commonly known as flat top acacia, is a notable tree in Ethiopian landscapes. It stands out because of its distinctive flat-topped canopy and is primarily found in woodlands and grasslands. This species is vital in Ethiopia for soil conservation due to its extensive root system which helps prevent soil erosion, a significant concern in the hilly terrains of the country. Additionally, A. abyssinica is utilised in agroforestry, enhancing soil fertility through nitrogen fixation and providing necessary shade. Its wood, crucial for construction and as a source of fuel, is a critical resource for local communities. Ehretia cymosa, known as the butterfly bush, while not as prominent as other native species, plays an important role in Ethiopian ethnobotany. It is traditionally used in herbal medicine, particularly for treating stomach ailments and as a pain reliever. E. cymosa also contributes to the region’s biodiversity and is found in diverse habitats, including forests and savannas. Millettia ferruginea, often referred to as the umbrella tree or ironwood, is renowned in Ethiopia for its extremely hard wood, which makes it ideal for durable furniture and construction materials. Beyond its practical uses, M. ferruginea holds cultural significance in some Ethiopian communities, being associated with traditional rituals and beliefs. It is often found in sacred groves and used in various cultural practices. Like Acacia abyssinica, it plays a role in maintaining ecological balance by contributing to soil stability and regional biodiversity. These trees, with their unique characteristics and uses, are integral to the ecological diversity, cultural heritage and livelihoods of Ethiopian communities. Their preservation is essential for sustaining both biodiversity and the cultural traditions intimately connected to them.

At Dilla University Botanical Garden, Dr Talemos Setas, the Director, welcomed our group and guided us through the seven-year-old garden. Despite its youth, it has 130 species of plants and trees, plus a nursery for propagation. The Botanical Garden provides a learning space for students and also offers ecotourism opportunities for visitors and local people.

Church forests

As an integral part of the visit to Ethiopia, we took part in additional work which involved the third member of our team, Dr Peter Borchardt. We joined him at Addis Ababa airport where we took an internal flight south towards the border with Kenya.

Peter is a German national who lives in Kenya with his family. He is an advisor for the Kenyan Catholic Church, a keen botanist, a project manager and is employed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to project manage and oversee the regeneration of church forests, which are the last remnants of the country’s native forests and surround 35,000 Tewahedo Orthodox church buildings in the north of the country. Peter is an expert in growing trees, planning and managing projects. Using his experience, he is assisting various organisations, including Plant-for-the-Planet as a reviewer and advisor, and managing the project called Plant-for-Ethiopia.

Peter has been involved in various restoration and conservation projects in eastern Africa for over 15 years. During this time he always had an idea of a church forest ‘project’ implemented by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church itself, and not by an NGO or university as so many have been in the past. That became a reality in 2016.

Seen by their guardians as sacred, Ethiopia’s church forests are protected and cared for by their priests and their communities. However, agricultural pressure has pushed them almost to extinction. Now, with the help of a team of passionate and dedicated people including Mitiku Ketema from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development Interchurch Aid Commission (EOCDICAC) and Derese Kochena of the Kondo Development Association, and with Peter’s support, some of these dying forests have been transformed into ‘gardens of Eden’. (You can find out more at www.churchforests.org.)

Alongside OBGA’s project, we joined Peter and his team to visit a number of church forests. I was asked to provide woodland management advice. Demand for fuelwood and construction material has led to large-scale deforestation and is an ever-increasing threat. More than 90% of the total energy of Ethiopia and Eritrea comes from biomass, with fuelwood being the highest component, either seasoned timber or charcoal production. It is sustainable with the correct management. However, illegal felling, agricultural practices and an expanding population have reduced 90% of the canopy cover over the past century. In addition, Ethiopia has the largest population of livestock in Africa; thus, grazing pressure has increased the rate at which tree and shrub species are becoming scarcer.

The introduction of eucalyptus trees during the reign of Emperor Menilek II (1889–1913) was intended to supply fuel wood and construction wood to the new and growing capital city and the tree is now common across the country. Grevillea robusta is a popular agroforestry crop tree that is used for the fast production of timber, and so the church forests are protected by buffer plantations of Grevillea alongside eucalyptus.

I also offered assistance with the ecological and biodiversity enhancement of the sites. Encouraging local industry through collaboration with the village community means that the value of any products sold is shared 50/50 between the church and village. Small village industries provide an opportunity for further education about how to grow sustainable products such as firewood and food, whilst also passing on new skills such as beekeeping. By carrying out the work in a cooperation with the church, the locals can make a living selling the goods they grow, create or produce through community workshops. Bees pollinate the fruit trees and vegetable crops and also provide honey. Milk, fruit and honey are prime examples of good income sources for the church and villagers.

Attending the palace with Chief Kalla Gezahegn.

Attending the palace with Chief Kalla Gezahegn.

Ethiopia: trees, teaching and teamwork

Ethiopia: trees, teaching and teamwork

Throughout the trip, Ben’s knowledge and expertise were called upon to advise on pruning techniques, planting materials, seed collection, propagation and conservation of species. This knowledge was shared with the arboreta, nurseries, botanical gardens, church forest managers and gardeners. We both attended meetings with the dean of Dilla University, the director of Gullele Botanical Garden and Dilla Botanical Garden, and Peter invited us to attend meetings with church forest project managers and the Konso Development Association (KDA), a local NGO in the deep south of the country.

As a distraction, and rekindling my army experience and training, I was presented with a challenge. Could I repair a Land Rover Defender that had not moved in over three years? I had an hour! Preliminary checks completed, the electrical system fixed and the ignition system operating, we tried to bump start the vehicle within the hour. Admittedly it didn’t run, but with the engine now lubricated and clutch working fine, I left the owners with the task of getting the engine running. I’m waiting to hear from KDA general manager for an update.

The two weeks passed in a blink of an eye. The days were long, often spent travelling long distances across terrain which has not been developed, or along tarmac roads that screamed for repair and through regular traffic jams of donkeys, cattle or goats (and people) that use these transit routes. Accommodation varied from a city hotel with hot water and a flushing toilet to a room with a bucket of water. 

There were so many highlights, including an invitation to the palace of Chief Kalla Gezahegn who is one of the nine Konso clan chiefs. In addition, travelling to visit botanical gardens, arboreta, universities and colleges and having an opportunity to learn from the local people was enlightening. The list goes on … Gaining an insight into the church forest project and passing on knowledge was rewarding. Encountering indigenous wildlife and viewing massive trees. Meeting inspirational people and drinking coffee that was laced with ginger, chilli, pepper and salt. A ‘hairs on the back of your neck’ moment meeting Lucy, the skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 which proved that our early human relatives walked on two legs. For me, exploring a new country is always a delightful adventure. Of course, running the Great Ethiopian Run for the first time with my good friend Ben Jones was an eye-opener as we were just 2 of over 48,000 runners!!

I left satisfied that I have learned from experts, passed on knowledge, part fixed a Land Rover, helped poverty-stricken people and made new friends. Finally, Ethiopia is a beautiful country, full of wonderful caring people. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity.

I left with the feeling that the ‘job’ is incomplete and there’s much more to do!

Whilst this story is about conservation, restoration and educational work in Ethiopia, it also highlights to those in, or joining, our industry that opportunities for advanced learning, travel and cooperation exist and it is not always desk or field work locally that keeps you employed. Trees exist across the whole world and if you want something, then you can reach it by perseverance, enthusiasm – and some luck.

Marco Bartolini is a military veteran, arboricultural consultant, ecologist and adventurer. He is the official tree tour guide of the Italian Garden, Ipplepen, provides tree talks to tree enthusiasts and is the Arbor Day UK cordinator.

Ben Jones is Arboretum Curator at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum. He is a member of the IUCN Global Tree Specialist Group and Seed Conservation Specialist Group, and his research focuses on bioquality hotspots within the Ethiopian and Japanese floristic regions.

Dr Peter Borchardt has been involved in various restoration and conservation projects in Eastern Africa for over 15 years. He is an expert in growing trees, planning, and managing projects.

For more information

Church Forests of Ethiopia: www.churchforests.org

Dilla University Botanical and Ecotourism Garden: www.du.edu.et/DUBEG

Gullele Botanic Garden: gullelebotanicgarden.yolasite.com

Konso Development Association: www.konsoda.org

This article was taken from Issue 205 Summer 2024 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.