Drive to Entoto Mountain at the north of Addis or through the countryside, or look at the scaffolding on construction sites, or the building materials for simple homes, and the prevalence and importance of eucalyptus in Ethiopia becomes quickly evident.
In about 1894 Emporer Menelik ordered the construction of a new capital for Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. There was a great need for timber for constructing this new city and Menelik endorsed the introduction of eucalyptus to Ethiopia from Australia at that time. Menelik encouraged its planting around Addis because of the massive deforestation that had taken place around the city for firewood and timber. Many plantations sprung up around the city and this spread to other areas throughout the country. It is a tree that adapts to a variety of environments.
One of the great advantages of the eucalyptus is that it is fast growing, requiring little attention and when cut down it grows up again from the roots; it can be harvested at least every ten years. It is intriguing to drive through the city or countryside and see large blocks of trees cut down that are regrowing.
Many have thought it ideal in watershed rehabilitation projects because it grows so quickly and can take root in eroding soil. Eucalyptus not only grows quickly it also grows very straight with few large branches. This makes it ideal for timber for homes and for the ever-present scaffolding around the city with so much construction happening.
The eucalyptus tree is, however, a thirsty plant, which can dry up rivers and wells, and, by its nature in absorbing water, it restricts grass cover and competes with other native flora, and because of this can actually increase soil erosion. According to treehugger.com Ethiopia is classified as having over 70% severe desertification (data from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). While there are several reasons, one major one is due to eucalyptus. So there is an emphasis in replacing eucalyptus with indigenous plants that are better able to restore the soil and save water. Most of the MCC watershed rehabilitation projects are using fast-growing indigenous trees rather than eucalyptus. There needs to be a balance in the locations in which it is grown and what it is grown for. The provision of eucalyptus wood for timber and firewood does reduce the pressure on other natural forests so there are some good benefits of eucalyptus.
Another story on the evidence of eucalyptus is seen on the drive up to Entoto Mountain (which at 10,000 feet is 2,000 feet higher than the rest of Addis). Its hundreds or thousands of acres are covered in eucalyptus and the cutting is government controlled. The need for firewood for families could put pressure on this land – acres of firewood in sight but not usable by the general population. However, fallen branches and leaves are gathered up, mostly by women, and are carried down the mountain for sale to vendors and families. This is literally back breaking work for minimal pay although it does provide some income for these women. There is an effort to provide other income generation activities for many of these women to replace this very physical labour, through the work of a few different social service organizations.
The prevalence of eucalyptus is seen every day as people go about their daily lives – firewood, timber for housing, scaffolding, carrying wood by hand or by truck ….. it is ever-present and ever-useful in the lives of people throughout Ethiopia.