Forests currently cover approximately 31% of the Earth’s land surface and are estimated to contain more than half of all terrestrial animal and plant species. They play a significant role in protecting the environment. They help in conserving soil, increasing biodiversity and preventing climate change. They are beneficial for long-term national economic growth by providing raw materials such as timber for construction, furniture and other industries and by serving as sources of medicines. In addition, forests reduce global warming through the carbon cycle in the ecosystems. Unfortunately, forests are threatened by the actions of human beings.
Deforestation, which is mainly caused by human activity and natural disasters, is one of the most serious environmental problems in Eritrea, where approximately 80% of the population lives on farming. It is often caused by farmers clearing forests to expand their farm land, subsistence farming, overgrazing, cutting trees to build traditional houses and over-dependence on firewood. Successive colonization and war in Eritrea were also a major cause of deforestation. All these also result in a loss of habitat for wild animals and plants.
Examples of natural disasters that cause deforestation include infrequent and uneven distribution of rainfall and prolonged droughts, particularly in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990, which have contributed significantly to deforestation in the African Sahel region, including Eritrea. According to the Ministry of Land, Water and Environment (MLWE), an increase in temperature, which leads to a high rate of evaporation of moisture from the soil, is also one of the main contributing factors to deforestation in Eritrea.
A combination of these factors has substantially reduced Eritrea’s land coverage with forests. As a result, land degradation and soil infertility as well as pests and diseases increased while the biodiversity was lost, and this in turn intensified reduced agricultural production that impacted the livelihoods of millions of people.
Since 1991, the Government of Eritrea (GoE) has been taking initiatives to enhance the biodiversity of the country by adopting mechanisms and by mobilizing communities and resources. The Forest and Wildlife Authority (FWA) is now in charge of this task.
Due to its location at the edge of the great Sahara Desert, Eritrea has faced adverse effects of desertification and deforestation, and the GoE has found it imperative to control deforestation and engage in afforestation and reforestation programs as part of its efforts to bring about national development.
Some of the mechanisms adopted to fight desertification and deforestation include planting trees, conserving soil and water, establishing protected areas, introducing energy-saving stoves and conducting public awareness campaigns.
The GoE has initiated a series of painstaking soil conservation activities on degraded catchments, including croplands, by mobilizing local communities and designing national development projects. Hillside terraces were constructed on uncultivated land, and trees and shrubs planted. Bench terraces, soil bunds and stone bunds have been constructed on cultivated land and check-dams constructed along waterways to reduce sedimentation and run-off.
According to FWA, soil and water conservation schemes have been successfully undertaken by communities on farm land, resulting in an increase in crop yield by 20- 40% on average.
The FWA promotes green clubs at all levels in schools and colleges throughout the country with the objective of enlightening the young about the benefits of greening and protecting the environment. Over 500 Green Clubs have been established across the country and their number is increasing every year. However, only 50% of the targeted number of clubs have been established.
With 95% of the population in rural areas and 60% of the population in towns and cities still depending on biomass, the problem of energy has not yet been solved in Eritrea. Over-dependence on biomass has been one of the major causes of deforestation. To minimize the problem, an energy-saving stove has been made and promoted. The introduction of the stove in villages and towns has already reduced firewood consumption by more than 50%. More than 150,000 stoves are currently in use.
Establishing and protecting enclosures is very important for the environment to restore itself. An enclosure allows the forest to regenerate itself in a short period and is the easiest and cheapest way to reforest an area. FWA has been working on establishing protected areas at national and community levels and has outlined a plan for every local administration to have its own protected area according to its own conditions. River basins that should be included in an enclosure have been identified and studied.
FWA has so far established a total of 396,930 hectares of protected area, out of around two million hectares planned to be enclosed in the future, to promote natural regeneration of trees and grasses.
Various activities such as terracing and reseeding of grass are carried out before establishing enclosures. Once the enclosures are established, bee keepers are allowed to place their hives in the area.
For the protected areas to have the desired effect on rejuvenating forests, they need monitoring and this can only be done by bringing local communities on board. The protection of the enclosed areas relies on the level of awareness of local communities about the benefits of enclosures.
The impact of all the initiatives to recover forests is significant. In the last 29 years, 132 million trees were planted and around 59 hectares of land have been covered with trees. This is on average of 4.6 million (covering 2000 hectares) trees per year. In addition, around 396,000 hectares of land have been designated protected areas. The enclosures have flourished in biodiversity and many endangered wild animals are returning to the habitat while new ones are emerging. The participation of people from all walks of life, especially members of the Defense forces, students and local communities, in the afforestation and reforestation programs has been instrumental.
Now, it’s time to step up efforts in national water conservation and reclamation of forests beyond what has so far been done routinely. A reforestation program is inextricably linked to development projects and cannot be achieved by depending solely on volunteers and small scale activities considering that the task of reclaiming a significant part of our country is huge. For this to happen, participation in greening activities should be a duty of every citizen, and all communities and administrations should take greening as part of their strategic development goals.