Since she was six years old, Maselech Mercho has hiked up into the lush Entoto hills near Addis Ababa to gather wood, illegally, from the protected eucalyptus forests. She has no tools but her hands, so she pulls the branches she can reach, and carries out some 65 lbs. of firewood on her back.
For her efforts, Maselech may earn a bit less than $1 in the local market, which she uses for food and school fees. If she is spotted by forest guards, she earns nothing, and may get beaten or raped.
"When the guards find us with wood, they beat us hard," says Maselech, who is now 10. "If we give them money, they leave us alone. If they get drunk, they try to rape us. We will scream for help, but when we scream in these forests, there is nobody to lend us a hand."
For many in Ethiopia, however, this is nice work if you can get it. The annual per capita income here is about $120 a year – about half of what Maselech might earn in a good year.
But some 15,000 women and girls gather fuel from Entoto – destroying Addis Ababa's last bits of forestland in the process.
For nearly two decades, the Former Women Fuel Wood Carriers Association (WFC) has tried to give the young carriers alternatives, teaching them skills such as weaving baskets, scarves, and carpets.
But now, the group is set to expand its reach, targeting an estimated 30,000 women across Ethiopia who collect wood and offering a broader range of skills, including forestry management and the marketing of crafts and portable stoves. Fueled by a World Bank grant of more than $2 million, the hope is to achieve two goals simultaneously: uplifting the lives of poor women and protecting the environment.
"Once the grant activity is completed, the WFC members are expected to have become self-sustaining entrepreneurs," wrote Boris Utria, project coordinator for the World Bank in a report issued in January 2007.
"It is fully expected that the project will result in an effective empowerment and an irreversible process of social change among the WFC, whereby they will not accept reverting to the previous situation," the report says.
Established in 1994 as a self-help group with a seed grant from the International Labor Organization and the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor Affairs, the wood carriers' association of 155 members gradually became self-sufficient and has relied on local trade fairs and sales to members of the Ethiopian diaspora to keep going.
The new money will allow them to focus on wood carriers' rights and incomes. Given the number of women in the trade, and the extreme poverty these women come from, the World Bank and the government realize that they cannot stop illegal wood-gathering entirely. Given that, the government will try to improve women's access to legal eucalyptus plantations where wood chopping is allowed. World Bank officials will help the women find better modes of transport, such as push carts or cargo tricycles, so that they can get their wood to markets where prices are better.
The World Bank also hopes to train up to 500 women per year in sustainable forestry practices, to prevent depletion of forests and help steer some women out of the more grueling aspects of the fuel-wood trade into marketing and sales. Some women may be encouraged, for instance, to start selling more efficient wood stoves door to door.
World Bank officials applaud the association for its methods, but say that its impact was too limited. But old-timers like Wubalem Tefera say the association has given her something more than just a life skill – respect.
"The public didn't respect us as wood carriers," says Ms. Tefera, a former wood-carrier and now bookkeeper at the association's shop, which sells scarves and baskets made on site. "If we ran out of money, no shopkeeper would let us buy something on credit. But now, we can buy anything we want from the store on credit."
Members say they recognize that their previous work was destroying the fragile eucalyptus forests around Addis Ababa. The trees, originally from Australia, were planted in the 1880s by Emperor Menelik II to provide fuel and building material for his new capital.
Etenesh Ayele, manager of the association branch in the Addis Ababa neighborhood of Shiromeda, says that she cried when she registered to become a member nearly two decades ago. She had been detained by local authorities for illegally chopping wood, and was afraid that she would be sent to the Somali war front by the then-military government of President Mengistu.
"We were considered troublemakers, and it is true that we cut down trees, but we had to make a living," says Ms. Ayele, who is now married, with two children. She was elected manager because she had completed high school. She says that women faced the prospect of sexual assault even 20 years ago.
"One day, when I was in eighth grade, I went into the forest with some friends," she recalls. "Guards ran after us, and they caught one of my friends, and they raped her. She got pregnant, and she dropped out of school."
In the shadow of the Entoto Hills, the association members ply their new trade at a dozen looms in a concrete-floored workshop in Shiromeda.
At one of the looms, Abebech Gurmu weaves a mint-colored scarf and recalls the financial distress that sent her into the forests in the early 1970s. A widow with two children, Mrs. Gurmu remarried and had four more children with a man who is now a guard for a local government council. "It was challenging to feed all those children, so I had to go to the forest," she says.
"Thank God we have quit that work, and now we are doing this," she adds, passing a shuttlecock of green thread through the warp of the loom. "But every day, young girls are going to the forests and are being beaten and raped."