This blog interviews Dr. Alemayehu Assefa, Climate Smart Conservation and Eco-tourism Program Chief of HRF. This interview is for a blog series that reflects upon the role of HRF in promoting climate-smart conservation & eco-tourism in Ethiopia.

Why HRF has chosen biodiversity conservation as its flagship program?

HRF is a CSO established to support the development endeavors of government, NGOs, and communities by using its unique convening potential. HRF understands that Ethiopia’s problems are not only rooted in economic poverty, but also in the environmental degradation that took many years and became one of the prime causes of deep-rooted economic poverty. Hence, within the framework of sustainable development, intervening in environmental conservation would be of major impact on alleviating poverty. Most rural people are dependent on fragile ecosystems for resource extraction; they depend much on the ecosystem goods and services being rendered by the natural system around them. As the stock of these resources undergoes continuous degradation due to unsustainable use, the livelihoods of the rural poor people undergo a precarious situation while the resulting natural imbalance further complicates their socio-economic situations (drought, flooding, soil erosion, scarcity of water and vegetation, etc.).

Thus, HRF’s strategic interventions have focused on key areas that could contribute immensely to the alleviation of socio-economic and environmental problems. Accordingly, we opted to focus on biodiversity conservation towards ensuring the sustainability of the natural environment, sustainable livelihoods, and alleviating economic poverty. HRF strongly believes that the biodiversity resources we have, if sustainably and scientifically managed, would render sufficient ecosystem services and cater for sustainable livelihoods to pastoral and agro-pastoral populations located in approximately more than half of the land mass of Ethiopia. This is indicative that, by conserving our biodiversity resources, flora, fauna, and different ecosystems, we can simply address the socio-economic demands of millions of pastorals and agro-pastoral households who suffer from penury, engage in resource-based conflict,  and cause a continued degradation of the resources to support their lives.

Why is Ethiopia considered to be the country most vulnerable to climate change?  

Although climate change is a global problem, poor people and poor countries are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. They are especially vulnerable because they rely on natural resources and have inadequate capacity to deal with climatic variability and extremes. Weak economies, weak institutions, and poorly designed governance structures all contribute to this limited adaptive capacity. Similarly, the vulnerability of Ethiopia to climate change and variability impacts is exacerbated by a high reliance on climate-sensitive sectors for livelihoods, poor infrastructure, widespread environmental degradation, and fragile ecosystems, as well as limited national scientific, technological, financial, and institutional capacity. These environmental changes endanger agricultural productivity, health, water supply, and other aspects. Since Ethiopia’s economy is mainly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and the vast majority of its population supports its livelihood from agriculture-related activities, the negative impact of climate change is highly evident by affecting the agricultural productivity with recurrent droughts, soil erosion, water scarcity, and crop failure further exacerbating the social and ecological vulnerability to climate-induced shocks and lasting changes. Thus, poor economies and poor people lack the adaptive capacity to the effects of climate change and that is how Ethiopia is considered as one of the countries that have been severely affected by the impacts of climate change. Therefore, it requires policy responses in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change, which are both global and local strategies in their nature.

The first phase of HRF’s CSCET intervention has focused on peripheral areas of the country. What is the justification for such a choice of intervention areas?

Our country’s biodiversity is under threat due to high population densities and unsustainable agriculture in the highlands, and what little remains can only be found in the lowlands and remote regions where pastoralists have settled. Because the highlands have been densely populated and natural resource degradation is so high, there is no choice for the country other than endeavoring on saving the fragments of its biodiversity, which have already been pushed to the periphery locations where there is a sparse population and relatively better stock of biodiversity resources.

The Hailemariam & Roman Foundation (HRF) recognized that preserving the remaining biodiversity resources in these peripheral areas is a matter of survival, and also an emergency response. As a result, in collaboration with the pertinent stakeholders, we developed a strategy based on supporting and stabilizing the livelihoods of the pastoralist communities in these areas, who are the most disadvantaged and face severe social and economic hardships. Pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in these locations have, at least, been able to live in harmony with the resources, experienced co-existence with the wildlife, and developed a lifestyle that is relatively considered to be sustainable when compared to the sedentary agricultural communities. However, there have been poor policy responses towards alleviating the recent problems that these people are facing due to climate change and the increasing encroachment of the areas for economic extraction by various entities. Thus, saving the vestiges of our biodiversity (the iconic wildlife and their habitats as well as the ecosystems where the people and wildlife co-exist) strongly calls for concerted efforts toward engaging the local communities in these peripheral areas by bringing them on board in terms of conservation while ensuring sustainable benefits and secure livelihoods.

To this end, seven national parks most of which are located in the peripheral areas including, Omo National Park, Mago National Park, Gambella National Park, Chebera-Churchura National Park, Nech Sar National Park, and Maze National Park were chosen as the first phase of our intervention where the foundation could add value in ensuring restoration and sustainable conservation of the resources in these protected areas and promoting nature-based tourism while creating a conducive environment for alternative community livelihoods.

What strategies do you have in working with the pastoral communities whose livelihoods have been so precarious?  

We believe that the pastoral areas of Ethiopia constitute the vast size of land and stock of biodiversity resources as well as a livestock economy whose contribution to the national economy is undisputed. It is also obvious that these people, with little or no support, have long been able to co-exist with their natural endowments, wildlife, wildlands, and cherished ecological infrastructures. They also own incredible indigenous knowledge and traditional practices of conservation, and co-existence with the wildlife and their habitats. However, on top of the pressure that engulfs down from the ‘highlands’, in search of land and resource extraction, their livelihoods have increasingly been threatened and the pressure on the biodiversity resources has also been mounting. On the other hand, there is hardly any meaningful policy response that considers the significance of their livestock economy, and they are often disregarded at policy levels, while most policies and strategies are in favor of agriculture-related economy and sedentariness. While there is ample scientific evidence that the pastoral way of food production (herding) is more sustainable than sedentary agricultural food production, this fact is ill-understood even in the era of so-called sustainable development. At the worst, the pastoral lifestyle is often considered as undesirable and forced to change to settled and sedentary agriculture with practical actions evident in many places to bring them into a village and engage in plot-based farming, and ultimately transform them from herders to farmers. HRF advocates a scientific solution, in this regard.

We believe that sustainable and stable pastoralism as opposed to traditional, unstable, and unsustainable pastoralism, is a solution to curb the ongoing biodiversity degradation while enhancing the inclusion and positive contribution of pastoral communities to the national economy. Hence, pastoralism can be more productive, more stable, and sustainable (both in terms of livelihood and ecology) if their voices are heard, their rights in the management of the resources are acknowledged, given adequate attention in terms of social services and infrastructure, and provided with services and supports that enhance livestock productivity and its economic return including market linkages, and most importantly provision of water and improved support in rangeland management. By so doing, we can achieve a modern; market-oriented, and sustainable pastoral lifestyle and economy while making the best use of their rich indigenous knowledge to be applied in biodiversity conservation. Therefore, HRF strongly advocates making pastoralism economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable; but not sedentarization.

Based on these premises, we are putting it into action by establishing multi-stakeholder platforms (MSP) in each national park and designing conservation and community benefit plans based on research, while cooperating with relevant government structures toward creating sustainable pastoralism that ensures sustainable biodiversity conservation in our national parks.

What are the feedbacks you have so far in terms of the relationship you have built with partners?

Over the last three years, our partnership has been widening at an alarming rate. Our role in advocacy and the effects of our convening potential have yielded promising results in a very short period. This is supported by the fact that all of our partners are willing to publicly attest to the fact that HRF is a credible and capable partner in the conservation of Ethiopian biodiversity now that HRF has assumed a new central role between CSOs and the government, which has never happened before in Ethiopian development landscape. As a result, many development organizations (local, national, bilateral, and global) choose to work with us. Because of the former positions of the founders, our role in facilitating common platforms for the NGOs, communities, and government bodies has created an opportunity to work in close collaboration, avoid unnecessary misunderstanding, and build camaraderie among the actors. This has been acclaimed by our partners and demands are increasing from time to time to forge ahead with similar collaborations.

What opportunities do you see in fully engaging indigenous people and local communities (IPLCs) in conservation issues, as your program is currently promoting the expansion of community conservation areas towards contributing to the achievement of the UN biodiversity goal of “30 by 30?

HRF’s partnership effort is primarily focused on strengthening the local community’s capacity to conserve biodiversity, which plays a crucial role in biodiversity protection, by coordinating the conservation of natural resources and the implementation of alternative livelihood plans. In the last three years, we have galvanized various collaborations in our efforts to establish participatory biodiversity conservation centered on long-term benefits. For example, our ongoing advocacy efforts have resulted in the creation of a multi-stakeholder platform for the restoration and long-term conservation of the Nechsar National Park (NSNP). In this regard, HRF was successful in bringing together over 48 relevant and significant parties and signing an agreement, which was a monumental undertaking not only in terms of saving the NSNP but also in terms of influencing Ethiopia’s environmental sector to mobilize collective conservation efforts.

Similar partnership approaches are being used in other places. In some cases, the process of empowering the community has already begun by allowing the local community to take over the entire conservation work. As a result, the Tama Community Conservation Area (TCCA) in Salamago Woreda, South Omo zone, became the first community conservation area. This 2000-square-kilometer area was previously owned by the government and used as a controlled hunting area.  After a continued effort and collaboration with the SNNPR regional bureau of Culture and Tourism as well as the Federal Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), we were able to facilitate the transfer of the area to the local community in the form of community conservancy. It now has a significant potential to protect the Omo and Mago National Parks since it is a sensitive ecological corridor being the path of many wildlife species from and to the two national parks. We have also begun working with Hamer communities to facilitate the designation of the iconic Buska Mountain forest in the form of a Community Forest Reserve(CFR). Moreover, we have a plan to conduct additional studies and identify new areas including the Surma forest reserve that would be more effective if managed by the community. This strategy is meant to influence policy and practice of a top-down approach to protected area management and to empower communities who are the best guardians of the resources endowed with better knowledge to undertake conservation while reaping sustainable benefits from their efforts through various revenue generation mechanisms. On the other hand, we are demonstrating our commitment to support Ethiopia towards achieving the UN biodiversity goal whereby 30 percent of its terrestrial area should be set aside for conservation by 2030. Hence, attaining this goal can be through taking similar actions and expanding the size of new conservation areas which ultimately be managed by the communities.

How would you describe your interactions with the community in project sites?

One of HRF’s guiding principles is to put the community at the center of everything we do. We believe in the ability and potential of the indigenous people and local communities (IPLCs), particularly women and young people, to transform their own lives, communities, country, and the world. We want to inspire local communities to be change agents. Based on some of the notable interactions we had with local people, we learned that they have confidence in our convening potential due to the previous experience of HRF’s founders. In areas where we have face-to-face meetings with communities, for instance, in Tama (Salamago) and Buska (Hamer), Gamo Zone (Geja Forest Restoration community), elders and clan leaders warmly welcomed HRF and demanded support for their conservation work. This is indicative that communities do see HRF as a credible partner to solve their critical problems in collaboration with the government and non-governmental bodies.

What are the key challenges you are encountering as you implement your projects?  And what strategies do you use to tackle those difficulties?

The majority of our work is with government officials, who frequently face emerging political priorities. As a result, moving forward with our key initiatives has been difficult, with several pauses, delays, and postponements. Moreover, due to security concerns in some of our project areas, there have been delays in implementation of projects. However, HRF has a deep understanding of the challenges that every stakeholder, particularly government bodies faces. Thus, we always look for feasible ways and solutions, and work closely with them in rescheduling and undertaking the planned activities. The most important thing is that, despite the demanding situations of recent days, we enjoy cordial support and cooperation from government institutions across every echelon and work in close collaboration with other non-governmental stakeholders. Apart from this, we need more money to address more conservation and community problems. In this regard, we always knock on the doors of donor agencies whose responses are mostly influenced by their own perceptions of the current situation in the country.

What are the major activities or projects to be executed in the coming budget year?

We will continue to consolidate the project activities that have already begun, and some of the key initiatives will be to build a strong and effective synergy among stakeholders to restore and sustainably conserve Omo-Mago-Tama Wildlife Protected Areas, and Nechsar Sar National Park; and also to facilitate in the effective implementation of actions for soil and water conservation as well as the restoration of wetlands and forest ecosystems in and around the Abaya-chamo landscape. As part of our plans, we also aim to enable the sustainable diversification of low-income farming households’ sources of income through increased sales of seedlings, agroforestry, and associated benefits from reforestation operations; to ensure the adoption of a multi-stakeholder approach for community-centered, sustainable decision-making at the national level in both policy and practice; as well as to launch community-based conservation and livelihood initiatives in and around the national parks of Maze, Chebera-churchra, and Gambella with the assistance of our partners. We will also be engaged in high-level and high-impact advocacy works, including the Ethiopian Protected Area Congress (EPAC) to be held towards the end of this Ethiopian fiscal year.