Date: Wednesday, 02 January 2019
Thank you for having me. It is such a pleasure. Back in 1983, while I was working as a nurse, I read an article in a British newspaper about Eritrea. The article said that aid going to Ethiopia was not reaching Eritrea. I thought to myself, where is Eritrea? I was curious to find out about the country and what was going on. That is when I l learned about the struggle that the Eritrean people were waging at the time.
I was angry about the situation, because it was like the big guys beating up on the little guy. Afterwards, I joined the Eritrean Medical Association and did some fundraising in Britain in 1984. Subsequently, I came to Eritrea as the UK representative of the first Eritrean Medical Congress in 1984. I stayed here for ten weeks and saw all the base areas, the deforestation, and the dreadful conditions. It was just horrible.
You get inspired by what the Eritreans envisioned and dreamed of achieving. I got more involved and, little by little, I got more interested in biology, traditional birth attendance, and how mother and child health was struggling because of certain challenges. Over time, I kept in touch with the agriculture section in the fields. I asked if I could do my thesis on Rora Habab. I joined the struggle in Rora Habab and finished my PhD in 1990.
During 1992, I wrote about 113 proposals which were funded by the Norwegians. However, these were unsuccessful. Later on, we were able to get a small grant from the agricultural section in the fields. We took over after a year, with the agriculture department and the local people designing the reforestation program. The plan was designed based on the knowledge of the local people. I stayed in the villages of Eritrea for four years to help implement the program.
After the dreadful wars, the hills were left with just skeletons. I don’t actually know the precise number, but Eritrea was left with less than 1% of trees on its land. This was scary. War was one of the biggest reasons that trees had vanished. However, people also had the habit of using trees for fire and animals would just graze. If you take a look back to less than a century ago, the Eritrean lands were a closed forest.
During my research, I tried to study what was the maximum growth rate possible. We worked on a survey with the agricultural department in Rora Habab and Ruba Anseba. We measured all the land and trees that we could find! We tried experimenting with different types of trees at Rora Habab, but all the trials were washed away. Years of preparation and hard work had evaporated it in a single day. We had to all the work all over again and I had to do it in Scotland and California.
During the armed struggle, we used to conserve what we had and restore what we lost. The people did so much with the little that they had. It was inspiring. After independence, when the time was right, we discussed the need to heal the land with the authorities and the Ministry of Agriculture. We worked with the locals, the Ministry, and nurseries in order to pull together a plan to restore the land.
We took “rubbish” land and implemented a plan that we had already drafted. We conducted experiments in the greenhouse and planted trees on terraces to see if we could do agro-foresting.
I remember when we started the work, I was asked to do a presentation. I wanted to speak to the people in the language they understood, so I did it in Tigrigna. I think this is one of the reasons the program has lasted so long and been so successful. The local farmers owned the work and did an amazing job.
To be honest, I thought I was documenting the last forest of Eritrea 30 years ago. Rora Habab is the most northerly located of the juniper olive in the whole of Africa. These forests extend from parts of South Africa, through Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, all the way up to Eritrea. They finish at Eritrea because the lands fall down to the Red Sea hills and Sudan. This is one of the most important sites in biodiversity. For me, Eritrea is one of the most special places on the planet. I think it should be a world heritage site. It is also the most northerly part of East Africa where local people practice agriculture.
All the achievements that we have seen to date are because of the local farmers. For instance, Sheqa Asmerom, who was in charge of a nursery, was one of the locals who has encouraged others to protect their lands. Through his efforts, we have been able to achieve more.
We have lost many trees due to soil erosion and floods. Also, animals would graze the olives. For that reason, we tried to plant and introduce a mix of plants - olive, juniper and eucalyptus - which was successful. Land restoration in Eritrea can be done, even in the worst areas. The results that we have seen in just 30 years is motivating. If Eritrea keeps working as it has, it is going to be a land of dense forests in the coming hundred years. That is what I believe.
If you look at Bietgiorghis, it has undergone significant positive changes. The locals use fewer kettles and people don’t cut trees for fires. That is what we want to pursue. We also have worked in Sabur and Filfil, and had nurseries in Adi Quala, Adi Keih, and Dekemhare.
The Ministry gave me a space in several nurseries to work with the local people. All the progress could not have come about without the efforts of the locals and the Ministry. The support provided by the Norwegian grant was also important.
Now that there is peace on the horizon, we need to work harder on restoration. We need to distribute more seeds. We did this in the 1990s, when it was a totally different era. Thus, we can do it again today.
We should recall that restoration is important in many ways. For example, the fact that the soil gets developed and it is vital for the insects and birds…it is a complete ecosystem that is being restored not just the trees!
We are also looking to increase capacity; each nursery needs to have campaigns and we need to share experiences. We need to work with land management systems, policymakers, and the government.
The vision for the future is to have a stable, independent, prosperous Eritrea. That means we have to have good land and healthy forests.