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
"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
"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
"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. …