Saving Ethiopia's Forest, and Its Cutters ; an Effort to Help Women Abandon Illegal Harvesting Is Expanding, Teaching New Skills and Forest Management

By Scott Baldauf writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

Saving Ethiopia's Forest, and Its Cutters ; an Effort to Help Women Abandon Illegal Harvesting Is Expanding, Teaching New Skills and Forest Management


Scott Baldauf writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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