The tree that saved a village

Fodder, firewood, planting-cuttings, construction poles, etc., all products from a single tree. (Photo by Dr. Mulubrahn Balehegn)
Fodder, firewood, planting-cuttings, construction poles, etc., all products from a single tree. (Photo by Dr. Mulubrahn Balehegn)

I hate to do this but I have to ask you to mentally retrieve your visual memory of the horrific images of the infamous famine of the early eighties in Northern Ethiopia that caused mass starvation, death and migration. Repeated droughts during those years did not only result in exhaustion of food reserves across drought affected villages in northern Ethiopia, but also destroyed peasant’s ability to plough the land in subsequent good rainfall years, as oxen which were traditionally used for plowing the land, have already perished during the prior dry years.

Now try to imagine a village in northern Ethiopia, on those horrendous years, where farmers did not only survived the driest years in their life time, but also had no problem working their land in the subsequent good rainfall years. Yes, amidst the dry and fragile landscape of northern Ethiopia, there was a village where not only all traditional farming activities went normal, but also the village landscape was what could have been described as a green island amidst dry mountainous landscapes. Sounds surreal? May be, but, what was more surreal was that neither the villagers nor government officers planned and anticipated greenness during those driest years.

villagers in Sefe’o district of the central Tigray, were delighted to see that, a tree that was never thought to be of more value than a mere shade tree in churches and traditional meeting places, was not only thriving, but stayed green during the driest years where all other trees, even the hardiest ones such as Eucalyptus trees, were dying.

It did not take long for the villagers to try new uses for the only surviving tree. They peeled its bark and squeezed it to make water, cooked and ate its fruits, lopped its branches and offered the foliage to their starving animals. Again, to the happy surprise of the villagers, their animals have not only readily eaten their newly discovered food, but also steadily improved in their body condition and milk yield, at the time when all other animals in that ancient land were perishing.

Alas, a new use for an old tree was born! In the post drought years, farmers sung songs of praise to the tree with narrations of how it helped them escape the ills of drought. Most importantly, farmers started planting cuttings of this easily-propagated tree in masses around their homesteads, backyards, farmland boundaries, wastelands etc., despite recommendations and orders by government officers to plant other exotic and apparently ‘improved’ fodder tree species.

Inspired by this story, about five years ago, we set out to study the role of this indigenous tree, hitherto known to the world mainly as ornamental tree,  on livelihood, ecological, and climate change adaptation. We found out that this tree species, used in small scale agro-silvopastoral systems does not only provide multiple ecosystem services, and climate change adaptation, but also produce large amount of nutritious foliage which can be used to replace costly concentrate feed, while resulting in improved livestock productivity. Moreover, it has also resulted in improved soil fertility on farmlands where it is planted, through its highly decomposable foliage, and has resulted in increased wildlife numbers such as resident and migratory birds, (of more significance is the threatened white billed starling), monkeys and small rodents.

We demonstrated that while the same uses of this tree species can be realized in the other 33 African countries where it is indigenous, other indigenous species with multipurpose values can provide similar synergies between climate change adaption, mitigation and improvement of livelihoods among farming and pastoral communities. Therefore, local level adaptation strategies should focus on the use of locally available resources such as climate resilient multipurpose tree species.

Submitted by: Dr. Mulubrhan Balehegn
Affiliation: Mekelle University Department of Animal, Rangeland, and Wildlife Sciences
Country: Ethiopia

This post is entry #20 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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