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  • Writer's pictureSamantha McCandless

Goederts in Ethiopia Week 6: The Natural Resources of Ethiopia

Native forests in Ethiopia have diminished considerably due to encroaching agriculture, livestock and the need for fuel.

One hundred years ago 45% of Ethiopia was forest, but now that has dropped to 5%. At one time there were more than 1000 tree species in Ethiopia and 125 of them were endemic. Many of the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches protect native species by preventing harvesting on the church property. These areas have become an oasis surrounded by lands cleared for human use. The Eucalyptus tree was introduced in Ethiopia in the late 1800s. It has become a favored cash crop in many areas providing wood for fuel and construction but taking up land that once was used to produce food.

The Eucalyptus tree is very fast growing and requires little care. It is hardy and grows in harsh environments while resisting disease. However, it uses a lot of water, removes soil nutrients and suppresses the growth of natural vegetation. Eucalyptus can grow 6-12 feet in a year and can reach 50’ in a few years. Trees are often harvested at around 20’ with a diameter less than six inches for construction and charcoal. It can be used as a temporary construction product like scaffolding (although I caution against it) or for the structure of a house. One of my Ph.D. students is researching the possibility of using bamboo as an alternative to Eucalyptus for scaffolding and shoring on construction projects. For me, this is mostly as a safety concern because structural failures are common and often fatal.

Charcoal is produced in many ways in different parts of the world as fuel for cooking. In Ethiopia, the trees are chopped or cut down and hauled on donkey (or horse in some areas) carts. Some carts even have dump-assist features. The charcoal production area shown in the picture to the left is just one of many in the Mecha Region about 60 miles south and west of Bahir Dar. Eucalyptus trees are seen growing in the background. Workers stack the wood mixed with straw into a cone shape. They then cover the cone with a layer of dirt leaving an opening in the top so they can light the straw. Once it is burning, they cover the opening and let the wood smolder for four days resulting in charcoal that is then broken up and stuffed into sacks. Periodically, a semi comes along to load it up and haul it into the cities. Each sack is worth about $3.00. This continues for eight months out of the year because the rainy season keeps the wood and soil too wet to accommodate production efforts.

Farmers and people in the villages may just use wood for cooking or produce their own charcoal on a smaller scale. This is so pervasive throughout the country that the smoke creates a haze like a light fog in the surrounding hills producing what would be a beautiful panorama during the sunrise and sunset were it not the result of destruction of the natural environment and a major health hazard. Even in the city, where charcoal is not produced but rather used only for cooking, smoke pervades much of our normal day. Opening our patio door to let fresh air into our unit is at the expense of the smell of smoke penetrating into our space. Clothes hung out on the patio to dry are impregnated like those of a smoker.

It seems little or nothing is being done by the government to curb these human and environmental destructive practices. These are long-lived and well-ingrained practices that have been around for a millennium. One progressive farmer near a countryside village we visited created a biodigester that he feeds with manure from his cattle. His family uses the methane produced by the digester to cook their food and light their home. He is an innovator but, it seems that in spite of his success, others have not been quick to follow.

The woman in the picture (left) shifts teff grain from the chafe which she will use in making her “injera” with a flatiron over her three-stone fire. The dark teff is high in iron and folic acid, rich in protein and gluten-free. It is used in a batter that creates a ‘sourdough’ flatbread, thinner than a pancake and thicker than a crepe. It is a bit challenging when you first start to eat injera, as it is the bread of Ethiopia and is served with every dish. Just suffice to say it is ‘bloating’!

Martha is discouraged by the nutritional status of the women who present to labor and delivery. She is aware of the severe anemia and the folic acid deficiencies evidenced by the numerous neuro-tube defects (NTDs) in the newborns. Often the babies are delivered at home (18% on average) and arrive already paralyzed because of the vaginal birth rupturing the spinal defect. It is very challenging for children to survive in Ethiopia with NTD’s and the resulting complications with mobility, bowel and bladder function and stigma. We spoke last year of work I did making wheelchairs along with a village carpenter ‘Koffi”, from local products. This work will continue now as the SIM missionaries who run the Physical Therapy Center, ‘Hidden Abilities’ have just returned from their Canadian home stay. In the end, these projects that build ‘abilities’ across disciplines and among families, are the ones we remember the most.

It seems like such a small action that our American government enacted with enriched flour with folic acid and other nutrients for bread products (as Martha says, ‘even Twinkies’) but it has reduced substantially the folic acid deficiency defects. As mentioned in the last letter, the pesticides also have a ‘anti-folate’ impact, and this is work to address contaminated water will continue if the grant gets funded that Martha and her colleagues in public health and environmental engineering submit this week. Hopefully enough brain power can see creative ways to turn around this folate deficiency. Ethiopians have the scientific know-how and research abilities; we are witness to that. Now comes the time to have a perfect storm of political will to influence the dietary intake, especially for women and children. The educational outreach must happen in the most vulnerable communities, the pastoralists and farmers. The communities are so impoverished that they sell their eggs and any valuable proteins such as goat meat.  As Martha pointed out, seeing the villager with his methane digester, “he is a positive deviant; he is just as poor but creates health and happiness, dreams, adapts, encourages others by example. Let’s hope that each of us, in some small way, becomes a positive deviant in our own community.

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