Braving a heavy downpour, hundreds of farmers spent a full day planting 20,000 acacia seedlings on a barren hillside outside the town of Buee in southern Ethiopia last year.
They were responding to a call last July from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who wanted his countrymen to plant 200 million trees in a single day, shattering the world record.
But while the farmers had “great expectations”, they say that nearly a year later — as Ethiopia gears up to celebrate World Environment Day on Friday — the results in Buee are a disappointment.
Rainfall immediately washed away more than one-third of the seedlings, and those that remain have struggled to grow out of hastily-dug holes filled with poor soil, said Ewnatu Kornen, a local environment official.
The farmers’ ordeal points to the potential pitfalls of mass-planting drives, which are central to Abiy’s “Green Legacy” campaign to promote ecotourism and transform Ethiopia into an environmentally-friendly economy.
Some 353 million seedlings — 153 million more than the initial goal — went into the ground nationwide during last year’s daylong mass-planting, according to official figures.That’s a mere fraction of the four billion trees reportedly planted during the entire 2019 rainy season, which in Ethiopia runs from June to September.
This year’s mass-planting has yet to be scheduled, but Abiy has declared Friday to be the launch of a push for five billion new trees to be planted this rainy season.
Outside Ethiopia, debate has swirled over the credibility of these eye-popping figures.
Yet local experts say there are more important questions: Has the planting been properly organised, and has there been enough follow-up to keep the trees alive?
“It’s not really about the numbers,” said Negash Teklu, head of a group of NGOs known as the Population Health & Environment Ethiopia Consortium.
“It’s about the effectiveness of the tree-planting scheme.”
Belaynesh Zewdie, a forestry expert with the UN Development Programme in Buee, has seen firsthand how projects that lack community buy-in can go awry.
In the late 1980s, under the communist Derg regime, she was involved in a scheme to plant one million acacia trees in the northern Amhara region.
But the scheme was top-down and “forced”, she recalls, and once the regime fell in 1991 angry residents cleared the trees to plough the land. —AFP