The sheltering shade of tree planting

Ethiopia claimed a record tree planting this week to stem erosion and climate change. Yet trees also play into a new leader’s imagery to remake the nation.

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Donkeys rest under a tree during a drought emergency in 2017 in Melkaselah Village, Somali Region, Ethiopia.

As world records go, this one has roots: Ethiopia claims it planted 353 million trees in just one day on July 29. Tens of thousands of people, from civil servants to students to farmers, took shovel to dirt and set saplings to earth in just 12 hours.

The one-day feat amounts to more than three plantings per person in Africa’s second-most populous country. And it beat the previous record, which was set in India two years ago when 66 million trees were planted in a single day.

One reason for this latest mass planting of trees is that Ethiopia, where 80% of people work in agriculture, is severely deforested, a result of high demand for fuel wood and land for grazing. Without enough trees and other vegetation, rainwater is not retained. Soil is easily washed away.

In addition, droughts are made worse. In a 1984 drought, Ethiopia was hit with famine and became the focus of a global rescue campaign that included the money-raising hit single “We Are the World.” Even today more than 8 million people remain food insecure.

Ethiopia also wants to do its part to reverse global warming. In 2011, along with dozens of other countries, it signed on to the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to reforest barren land. Yet its previous mass plantings have not gone well. The government did not engage local people well enough for them to keep tending the young trees. The efforts at forest restoration were too top-down.

A new leader since last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has brought a different approach. He not only plans to have 4 billion trees planted this year – or 40 saplings per person – officials will also track the progress of the trees. Local people are more involved.

Just as important, Mr. Abiy has elevated the appreciation of trees and tree planting as a metaphor for peace and cooperation in a country that strains to hold together some 80 ethnic groups.

He refers to his reforestation campaign as “Green Legacy,” or a gift to future generations. After the assassination of five government officials in early July, he planted olive seedlings at the National Palace in their memory. In his peacemaking diplomacy in Africa, he often employs the image of an olive branch or plants a tree with visiting foreign leaders.

He is also frequently shown tending to young trees in an obvious appeal for people to tend to each other in his divided and poor country.

“We will manage to reach the stage of development which we have always aspired to reach, by loving each other and casting away the spirit of hatred and revenge,” he said in a speech last year.

“Let’s differentiate between individuals and the people. Let’s remove the thorns from the roses. We should not cut all trees because of one twisted tree. Let’s understand that the only way to win is to follow the path of forgiveness.”

All this tree imagery is not lost on Ethiopians. One of their great poets, Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, wrote a poem that was later used for the anthem of the 54-nation African Union. The words include this line: “All sons and daughters of Africa ... Let us make Africa the tree of life.”

It was not hard for Mr. Abiy to find enough tree planters last Monday.

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