Sheka Forest

Report By
Kirstin Henninger
May 1, 2008
May 1, 2008

The Sheka Forest in southwest Ethiopia, known as the last indigenous forest in Ethiopia, has long been a source of livelihoods and spiritual practices for local communities. In the southwest, the Shekacho people have developed traditional management practices based on religious taboos and customary tenure rights that have sustained the Sheka Forest for centuries. However, the future of the forest is threatened by the growth illegal logging and population pressure that has led to new settlements and urban development. Land is also being rapidly cleared for coffee and tea plantations, including those that sell products to Starbucks, limiting access for local communities. “We used to hunt and fish in there, and also we used to have honeybee hives in trees,” a Sheka man, Mikael Yatola, told a Sacramento Bee reporter. “But now we can’t do that … When we were told to remove our beehives from there, we felt deep sorrow, deep sadness.”

The Land and Its People

With more than 80 languages and around 200 distinct tribal identities, Ethiopia is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. The southwesternmost portion of the country, known as the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, is divided into 13 zones, one of which is the Sheka Zone. The 772-square-mile Sheka Zone lies nearly 400 miles south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and, as of 1994, had a population of 131,864 — a figure that has likely doubled in the past decade. As nearly half of the Sheka Zone is forest cover, the Sheka Forest has long been the major source of livelihood and spiritual practices in the area and remains one of the few Afromontane forests, supporting diverse wildlife populations.

The Shekacho people, along with Sheko, Majangir and Bench indigenous groups, have inhabited the Sheka forest for centuries. Management and use of the Sheka Forest’s resources has traditionally been tied to the Shekacho community’s religious beliefs and social system. According to local tradition, forested areas around wetlands and river corridors are forbidden to log, in addition to old-growth and specific species of trees. Much of these traditional practices are based on taboo, as well as a belief that such trees are essential to the public and the common good.

The clan and ritual leader, the gepitato, is at the heart of the land-tenure and forest-management system, as his permission is required before anyone may clear forest or acquire farming land. For example, when a resident or newcomer is looking for farmland, he must appear before the clan leader, who then consults with the clan, assesses land availability and performs rituals to purify the land before it is handed over to the new holder. According to religious beliefs, settlement or clearing for agricultural activities is never allowed on land that is in contact with forest areas, cultural places, wetlands and headwaters.

Specific rules or community bylaws also exist according to tree species. For example, the Karasho, Ororo, Shao, Woralo, Dido and Yeho trees are preserved for economic activities such as honey production, while the Omo, Bero, and Ororo are believed to be the seat of the “Spirit of God,” and are reserved solely for religious purposes. Any old-growth and big trees are also off-limits to cutting, even if they exist on a private compound. All of these management policies have traditionally been enforced by clan leaders and elders, and violators of the rules are subject to condemnation and social sanction.

Within the Sheka Forest, “cultural forests” are dense and large forest areas that are preserved as places of worship, usually close to villages or around hilly areas. Therefore, vast forest areas are protected by the religious taboos associated with ritual sites, or gudos, which exist within the cultural forests.

Apart from religious practices, the Shekacho community depends on forest resources for income, shelter and medicine. Honey production is the main source of income, providing nearly half of all households with cash income. Locals also harvest medicinal plants from the forest to cure a range of ailments from malaria to tapeworms. Agriculture and agroforestry are also practiced within the system of taboos and traditional knowledge associated with managing natural resources.

Current Challenges

Although both government and customary forest management were historically in the hands of clan leaders, national changes in government institutions and religious rights have allowed deforestation to worsen over the past decade, especially since the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 2001 led to greater decentralization of power and more government disorganization.

The Sheka regional government has leased forest tracts for development in desperate need of revenue, but communities and local nongovernmental organizations are pressuring the government to recognize the traditional forms of governance and ecological knowledge. As Ethiopia’s forest cover has declined to less than three percent, there is a critical need to preserve the Sheka Forest for biological and economic reasons. Activities related to coffee and tea farming, as well as cereal-based production by new settlers, have affected the forest’s ecological sustainability by eroding the genetic diversity of flora and fauna, which may also threaten the sustainability of agriculture in the area. In addition to affecting wildlife, loss of forest cover directly impacts the country’s water resources.

The production of coffee, an ancient cash crop for Ethiopia, is growing despite wild fluctuations in the world market value. Currently, some 15 million Ethiopians depend on coffee production for a living. Much of the country has been overfarmed, so the government encourages the establishment of coffee plantations in areas previously unfarmed or where there was minimal agriculture, predominantly in the southwest. In the Sheka Zone, the national government sold a concession in the late 1990s to Saudi entrepreneur Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, who opened the Gemadro Coffee Estate, which produces coffee for export. Gemadro sells primarily to the U.S. and European markets, including beans marketed by Starbucks as “fair trade” despite concerns over workers’ wages. The estate has expanded, now operating on nearly 4,000 acres, leading some scientists, environmentalists and journalists to publicly scrutinize local accusations of river pollution and unnecessary deforestation.

Government decentralization and Ethiopia’s recent move to a market economy have resulted in the restructuring of the government agencies responsible for forest management. According to Ethiopia’s Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action (MELCA), a local NGO, this decentralization process has happened quickly and ineffectively, due to the lack of capacity of regional agencies to enforce laws and coordinate their plans and strategies among other management agencies. Furthermore, even though there are federal laws to regulate deforestation, such as the Forestry Conservation and Development Proclamation Act of 1994, the laws lack mechanisms for enforcement, such as regulations and guidelines for private forest owners to replace the trees they utilize. Other laws, which are not enforced, include a regional requirement that investors develop land-use plans that ensure that developments will not disrupt environmental security and economic viability. Government forest-management plans continue to ignore traditional management systems and the role of the clan leader.

Some lands in Ethiopia—such as historical and religious places, land inhabited by peasants, and areas demarcated for natural-resource development and protection by government—have been legally designated as off-limits to private development. However, there is no clearly demarcated forest land in the Sheka Zone, nor is there a land-use plan that recognizes specific areas as traditionally protected forests or sacred spaces. The regional management agency, the Zonal Department of Trade, Industry and Urban Development (ZDTIUD), has thus allocated land to investors by physical observation, without adequate consent of the local community. As a consequence, most clan leaders, with a few exceptions, have not been able to exercise their right and role in controlling natural resources.

Another outcome of poorly regulated land use is that many of the Shekacho community’s medicinal plants have disappeared or are on the verge of extinction due to deforestation. Despite the establishment of an office for traditional medicine within the Ministry of Health in 1975, government respect for and interest in traditional medicine has declined. Around 9,000 healers and collectors have come together since 1987 under the banner of the Ethiopian Traditional Medicine Practitioners, but this is possibly only a fraction of the practitioners in Ethiopia.

Preservation Efforts

Recent efforts by local NGOs such as MELCA are paving the way to ensuring better environmental protection of forest areas and building community capacity to value traditional practices. Founded in 2004, MELCA, which means “river ford” in Amharic and Oromo, is dedicated to strengthening advocacy skills among locals. The organization has made great progress in facilitating workshops with multiple stakeholders regarding environmental and community rights. For example, MELCA has helped organize a workshop, “Human Rights and Environmental Laws,” which trains youth, women, clan leaders and government representatives to become eco-advocates in their communities. The trainees are then able to lead monthly workshops to teach their local community members about collective rights, the Ethiopian constitution and access to genetic resources. As of October 2007, the eco-advocates had reached out to 8,819 members of the Sheka community in the two woredas, or districts, of Masha and Anderacha.

MELCA also has trained clan leaders to develop their negotiation skills and focus on the importance of environmental impact assessments, which can serve as indicators of limitations in existing policies as well as potential ways to accommodate the interests of the community. In addition, it has held training specifically for woreda office representatives to raise their awareness of the environmental and cultural rights of the community. Further, MELCA has aided 26 Ethiopian Civil Service College students to pursue graduate work on earth jurisprudence and community ecological governance. MELCA reports that through this community-dialogue work, there has been a marked change in attitude about forest protection and traditional cultural practices.

MELCA initiated and facilitated the formation of the Sheka Forest Alliance, which advocates legal protection of the Sheka Forest by encouraging the Sheka regional government to work out the legal discrepancies over land and territory in current legislation and the Ethiopian constitution. In August 2006, an awareness-raising workshop on the political, legal and institutional systems in sustainable forest conservation was held for cabinet members of Sheka Zone and Masha and Anderacha woredas. As a result of this event, the zonal and woreda officials announced they would ask the government for more funding, which should deter the regional government from leasing the forest area for development in order to generate income.

MELCA has also researched and published an overview of the environmental impact assessment system in Ethiopia and brought together five Federal Parliament standing committees to get their feedback on the study and evaluate the committees’ past actions with respect to environmental laws and cultural rights. Another important research effort by MELCA is its “eco-mapping” training, a valuable tool for gathering information about the status of the Sheka Forest. In 2006, MELCA and a group of local elders mapped the impacts from one tea plantation, finding that chemical and plastic waste from the tea plantation leads directly to the devastation of the bee population and indirectly to a decrease in honey production and to the ruin of local peoples’ livelihoods. As a result, MELCA is extending its eco-mapping efforts to cover large areas of land in the Sheka Zone.

One major focus of NGOs working to protect the Sheka Forest is to build capacity among communities to reduce poverty by sustainably harvesting non-timber forest products such as honey, forest coffee, bamboo and spices. The Non-Timber Forest Products and Participatory Forest Management Research and Development Project is a joint effort among several European universities, Sustainable Livelihood Action and Ethio-Wetlands and Natural Resources Association, an Ethiopian NGO. This project works to support the use and production of these products by coordinating the efforts of the regional state agencies, community institutions and local traders.

What You Can Do

Contact the following organizations for more information on how you can support them in their advocacy for improved local forestry management and training in traditional knowledge and practices: MELCA, Non-Timber Forest Products and Participatory Forest Management, Ethio-Wetlands and Natural Resources Association, and WWF-Ethiopia.


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Earth Jurisprudence. CEG News No. 5, October 2006. (PDF)

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Knudson, Tom. “Investigative Report: Promises and poverty; Starbucks calls its coffee worker-friendly — but in Ethiopia, a day’s pay is a dollar.” Sacramento Bee, Nov. 7, 2007.

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