The people of Ethiopia's forests – Mongabay.com

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Like many countries, there is money in Ethiopia’s forestry sector – both regulated and unregulated. The most recent official figures from Global Forest Watch show that the country’s forestry sector contributed $893.7 million to the economy in 2011, or about 3.2 percent of the GDP. But beyond the numbers are stories of people whose lives are connected to, supported and touched by, and dependent upon the forests of Ethiopia. They include men and women, young and old, skilled and unskilled, rich and poor.

Here are a just few of these stories, as reported by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese for Mongabay in Ethiopia.

Amone Ayesa: wood collector

Amone Ayesa collects wood in the Entoto forest outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The wood left over after household use will fetch about $2 to help feed her and her children. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Amone Ayesa collects wood in the Entoto forest outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The wood left over after household use will fetch about $2 to help feed her and her children. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Every day at 4 am in Addis Ababa, a considerable number of women leave their houses to collect fuel wood in the forests of Entoto Mountain. Amone Ayesa, mother of four, is no different.

A calm, middle-aged woman of few words, Ayesa was born to farming parents in Gamo Gofa, Ethiopia. She says that her family had no money, only food. It was this reality that prompted her to leave her village 20 years ago and come to the country’s capital city Addis Ababa in search of a better future.

But things haven’t changed much since then, she says.

Ayesa met her late husband at a construction site in Addis Ababa where she was working as a daily laborer and he as a guard. Although life was not easy after they married, she says it became even more difficult when he passed away six years ago. In order to survive and provide for her children, she had to begin regularly collecting fuel wood.

Among the Eucalyptus trees of the Entoto forest, Ayesa and her friends collect leaves and fallen tree branches and pile them up into bundles. Using a harness, each woman straps a bundle across her shoulders and down to the waist.

Then they begin the two hour journey back to the city.

After reaching her home, Ayesa uses the wood to cook for her family. Every other day, she takes a bundle to the market nearby and sells it for about $2.

The burden of carrying such a heavy bundle for several hours a week has caused many women like Ayesa to develop serious health issues, including permanent back pain and disfigurement.

There is also more immediate danger.

It is not unusual to hear stories of women who were attacked or raped by men or eaten alive by hyenas while traveling through the forest, according to a report in the Amharic version of the Ethiopian Reporter on October 23. According to the newspaper, an estimated 17,000 women make a living collecting fuel wood in the forests around Addis Ababa.

“I love my children,” Ayesa explains with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want them to end up like me. I want them to go to school and get better jobs. That’s why despite the difficulty, I struggle to give them a better future.”

Birhanu Belay: biologist and botanist

Biologist and botanist Birhanu Belay gained an early love of the natural world as a boy playing by the river and in the forests. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Biologist and botanist Birhanu Belay gained an early love of the natural world as a boy playing by the river and in the forests. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Born and raised in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Birhanu Belay, 37, is a research department coordinator and curator at the Gullele Botanic Garden in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Belay says that as a teenager in Bahir Dar he began to wander in the woods and explore plants along the shores of the Abay River and Lake Tana where he swam with friends. Later, his interest in the natural world was nurtured when he attended Bahir Dar University to study biology. He later came to Addis Ababa to study botany for his postgraduate degree.

“Through school, I was able to make many visits to different forests in the country that drew me into the world of botany,” Belay said. “Every time a person goes off to a site, their relationship with nature will become stronger.”

Belay continued his education of the natural world by focusing his Ph.D. research on plant biology and biodiversity. It was during this time that he joined the Gullele Botanic Garden in its early years by becoming a plant taxonomy researcher and research department coordinator.

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Resting on 705 hectares of land and comprised of a nature reserve forest, eco-friendly infrastructures, artificial gardens and greenhouses, the botanical garden is the first of its kind in Ethiopia. It came to be through decades of hard work and endowments from several organizations and scientists, including the late biologist Professor Ensermu Kelbesa – considered a father figure to many botanists in Ethiopia.

The garden, established about six years ago by Addis Ababa University and the city of Addis Ababa, aims to rescue threatened flora from extinction and conserve the country’s biodiversity.

“In Ethiopia, we are accustomed to visiting museums that contain old guns and clothing but this garden is a living museum and a practical teaching aid,” Belay said. “Sadly, not many people are aware of it.”

Although the garden has so far collected more than 800 different plant species, Belay feels that there is still extensive work to be done in order to facilitate reintroducing plants back to their respective environments.

Endale Mitku: professional wood cutter

Professional wood cutter Endale Mitku hopes to own his own sawmill someday. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Professional wood cutter Endale Mitku hopes to own his own sawmill someday. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Endale Mitku, 45, lives in the Addis Ababa suburb of Kolfe Keranio. The son of a working class family, he spent his early high school years half in school and the other half at work.

Mitku says that he learned wood work in the Saten Tera section of the Merkato, one of the largest open-air marketplaces in Africa. What began as a way to support his family eventually turned into a way to make a living. It’s now been 18 years since he first began his career in the wood cutting industry.

A hardworking father of two, Mitku currently works at the Zenebe and Addisu Woodwork Share Company, a sawmill and furniture making business under the auspices of the Filpose Industry Village in Addis Ababa.

The industry village was formed following the Micro and Small Enterprise Development of the Ethiopian government in 2004/2005, which aimed to reduce unemployment rates in urban areas. The wood work products division is part of the manufacturing sector which receives domestic raw material, including logs from forests around the country. Mitku said he is not certain how the wood is sourced.

A single truckload of logs sells to wood work shops like Mitku’s for between $500-1,000. After the logs are cut into lumber, the product is sold to buyers both inside and outside the industrial zone for various woodworking and carpentry purposes.

Mitku makes about $500 a month to run the enterprise and supervise 14 employees. Although his salary is on the high end compared to the average Ethiopian, Mitku aims to start his own business someday.

Yetemworq Taye: plant seedling keeper

Yetemworq Taye saw her life drastically improve after gaining employment at the Gullele Botanic Garden. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Yetemworq Taye saw her life drastically improve after getting a job at the Gullele Botanic Garden. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Yetemworq Taye is a 37 year-old single mother who lives in Addis Ababa. Although originally from the Menz District in eastern Ethiopia, when she was about nine years old she moved to Addis Ababa to live with her uncle and pursue an education.

After her uncle passed away suddenly, she had to drop out of high school in the ninth grade and ended up marrying an abusive husband. Eventually, Taye’s husband left her for another woman and took all her belongings. With no family nearby and nowhere to go, Taye had no choice but to work as a part time maid and raise her three-year-old son alone.

After three years of struggling, she landed a job at the Gullele Botanic Garden that became her career.

“I started working in the garden on February 2008,” she remembers.

She was among many women who were employed by the botanical garden that same year to work on a terracing job for soil conservation purposes. During the next five years, Taye stayed on and worked her way up to a shopkeeper and then a plant seedling keeper.

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She works both inside and outside of the garden’s greenhouse, which consists of eight chambers and was mainly built for the cultivation and preservation of various local plant species. The work is the primary function of the botanical garden.

Taye has been coming to the greenhouse every day for years now. She looks after a wide variety of plant species gathered from different parts of the country. Newly arrived plants are put in chambers that are classified by the five agro ecological zones of Ethiopia to represent major climatic regions in the country. This plays a major role in the ex-situ conservation of plant species as well as reintroduction of threatened local plants to their respective agro ecological zones of their natural habitat at a later stage.

Although she never had formal training, experience and supervision has been vital, Taye says.

Now that her son is in the eighth grade and she has a good job, Taye says she is finally happy and content – and her job at Gullele Botanic Garden has been the main contributing factor.

Tadese Sheferaw: independent carpenter

Tadese Sheferaw came up in the world through hard work as a carpenter, and two of his eight children have followed in his footsteps. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese
Tadese Sheferaw came up in the world through hard work as a carpenter, and two of his eight children have followed in his footsteps. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Tadese Sheferaw, or ‘Gash Tade’ as he’s known, was born in 1954 in the town of Wolayita Sodo, Ethiopia. He started going to school in his hometown but came to Addis Ababa at the age of ten with his mother to continue his education.

Things didn’t go as planned, though. Not long after he finished the sixth grade, his uncle (who paid his school fees) had to leave the city for police duty. Sheferaw was left helpless.

“I was in poverty but I did not want to trouble my mother,” he said. “That’s why I decided to look for a job and continue my studies in an evening program.”

Fortunately, a neighbor man named Tefera who was a carpenter offered to hire Sheferaw as an assistant and teach him the skills of carpentry. Although Sheferaw picked up the skills easily and was also able to complete high school, life was not easy. After many ups and downs, he finally decided to start his own small furniture business in 2005.

It turned out that the timing was right, as the government had just drafted the Micro and Small Enterprises Development strategy the year before. Now a father of eight children, Sheferaw was able to secure a loan of about $200 dollars which he used to start a small furniture shop at an industrial site in Addis Ababa.

“I arrived at the site with my son,” remembers Sheferaw. “We used the [money] to build a shade and start up the business. There was no established marketing network and the area was covered with forest.”

More than a decade later, Sheferaw’s friendly demeanor and quality products are well known among his many clients – mostly businessmen from around the city who buy his kitchen cabinets and cupboards.

Sheferaw makes his furniture from different wood byproducts bought from small enterprises like his that are involved in the sawmill business. He said he is not certain where the wood is sourced from.

Currently, Sheferaw makes close to $12,000 dollars a year and has 7 full-time employees. Following in his footsteps, one of his children helps in his shop and another one also owns a furniture shop.

Banner image: Amone Ayesa collects wood in the Entoto forest outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Maheder Haileselassie Tadese

Maheder Haileselassie Tadese is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. More of her work can be found here

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