Preserving Culture and the Environment

Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of culture and its effect in cultivating a happy, lively and balanced society. Ethiopia, as many people know, is certainly not among the more developed nations – nor, unfortunately, even considered among the progressive nations of the developing world. Factors contributing to the state of the economy, politics and development may often seem above the level of influence of the average Joe – shall we say, average Biniyam – especially here in Ethiopia.

One thing all people can contribute to, however, is cultivating in the youth the many languages, dances, rhythms and rhymes of times gone buy and celebrating the richness of these traditions in the present. On Saturday I travelled with MELCA (Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action) to a group meeting of SEGNI clubs from local public schools just north of Addis, near Menagesha. SEGNI stands for Social Empowerment through Group and Nature Interaction, and focuses on environmental and cultural conservation.

The meeting took place in Holeta, in a grove of trees set by the club’s members. The purpose of the meeting was to gather information from the various SEGNI clubs concerning the impact of their activities. It began with a prayer and then dance performances – quite impressive, might I add – by some of the younger girls. Following the dancing, a few of the students read poems highlighting the preservation of culture and the environment. Others took the occasion to express what SEGNI has meant to them personally. Some of the teenage guys noted that the club had transformed their lives. Previously, they were into trouble often and had little regard for the environment or culture of their community. After spending time in the woods, as required by the SEGNI program, they decided to refocus their energies on preserving the environment and their traditional culture.

One of the most entertaining aspects of the morning meeting was when the students performed a skit to illustrate how poor decisions by family leaders (in this case, the father) lead to the destruction of the environment, neglect of culture and ultimately tear families apart. The acting was superb – even more so when I learned they had just put the skit together that morning. The leading man was so animated I laughed nearly constantly.

The play began with the father instructing his son to come with him to cut down a tree, which they then sold to generate income, without bothering to plant another tree in its place. Rather than investing that money in the family, the father spent it wasting away at the local pub. Thereafter, the family situation continued to deteriorate as the father looked to the pub for an escape, and income dwindled because they had not harvested their timber in a sustainable fashion. Along the way, cultural education was neglected as the man’s son could not look to his father to learn the languages, dances and parables of his local people and other tribes and ethnic groups of Ethiopia.

W/o Amasele Kebede, one of the SEGNI club leaders, made another insightful observation concerning the impact of the SEGNI clubs on the local youth. She noted that many high school aged youth often neglected the teachings of their parents because they were obtaining formal education which their parents did not have. SEGNI, however, requires that all youths respect their elders for the real-life education and knowledge they have obtained. Furthermore, SEGNI encourages them to seek wisdom and guidance from those with more worldly experience.

The event ended with a traditional coffee ceremony conducted by teenage girl members of the SEGNI club and was hosted in a traditional style hut with thatch roof – also constructed by SEGNI club members. Outside the hut the students displayed native seeds they had collected from local farmers in order to catalogue and record the varieties. Additionally, they collected traditional handicrafts from the local people to include in their collection.

As these students work to preserve cultural traditions and the environment they are also developing leadership skills and a sense of responsibility. Their efforts will collectively aid in restoring an environmentally degraded country and in preserving the rich culture and traditions so much a part of Ethiopia.


Holeta, Ethiopia

Consultative Workshop on Biofuels

On April 28, 2009 MELCA Mahiber hosted a consultative workshop on biofuels at Ethiopia Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The intent of the workshop was to enhance the capacity of Oromia Regional Government officials when making decisions concerning biofuel investments.  Workshop participants, including representatives from agriculture, rural development, environment, energy and investment sectors, donors, NGO’s and CSO’s, government research institutes, and academicians, developed the following guidelines for future interventions:

–          Biofuel development strategy of Ethiopia should require Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approval as a pre-implementation requirement.

–          All biofuel development investment proposals should pass through EIA procedures to offset the significant economic, social and environmental consequences.

–          The new investment proclamation, which overrides the EIA proclamation that asserts the necessity of implementing EIA before the granting of land for any kind of investment, should be amended.

–          The already begun effort of producing land management plans for Oromia region should continue and future allocation of land should consult this document.

–          All the concerned bodies should work to build the capacity of zonal and woreda government officials so that they have the capacity to review investment applications and enforce laws.

–          The government officials should pay periodic visits to biofuel farms and inspect whether or not the investment addresses environmental and social concerns.

–          MELCA should continue research based advocacy as it is of great importance for informed decision making.

–          Universities and research institutes should engage themselves in further studying the feedstock plants of agrofuel productions and their environmental impacts.

During the course of the workshop, four papers on biofuels were presented. The first, International Trends in Agrofuel Development: Opportunities and Risks recommended at least a five year moratorium on biofuel investment and cautioned stakeholders to ‘stop, think and act.’ Moreover, the report highlighted the fact that, according to a World Bank report from April, 2008, biofuels have triggered a 75% increase in world food prices. The demand for biofuels derives from the big three consumers, the US, Europe and China, making a political push to diversify their energy and fuel consumption sources. Developing countries are paying the price for these ill-advised political agendas by allowing investors to rapidly convert their lands to biofuel production.

Rapid Assessment of Biofuels Development in Ethiopia, provided a general context of the biofuel investment sector in Ethiopia. The paper highlighted the need to include an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to allocating land to biofuel investors and warned against allocating forest and agricultural lands for such investment. Currently, 75% of land allocated for biofuels is forest and agricultural land.

Ecological and Socio-Economic Impact of Biofuel Development: The Case of Babile/ East Hararge summarized an in-depth study of biofuel feedstock production in East Hararge Zone/ Babile of the Oromia region. Again, it was recommended that conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment and gaining project permission from the local community is absolutely vital. The current biofuel project being conducted in Babile and East Hararge is damaging the environment as well as the livelihood of the local people.

Ecological and Socio-Economic Impact of Biofuel Development: The Case of Wolaita, determined that the economic benefit of the land is greater if food crops are grown rather than if the land is used for castor/ jatropha production. Specifically, it noted that farmers lost more than 27,000 ETB per hectare planted in jatropha as opposed to yams. The report also highlighted the loss of biodiversity when farms are converted to monoculture biofuel farming, as it claimed that the typical farmer in that area grows about 22 varieties of crops, vegetables and root crops.

Obviously, biofuel investment policies in Ethiopia, or any developing nation for that matter, should be examined closely. Policy makers should assess social, environmental and economic costs when determining the viability of supporting biofuel investment.


JTV & MELCA staff
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia