By Million Belay and Abebayehu Kassaye

Land degradation has been identified as a major matter of concern by community members in the Bale Mountain area. The drivers of land degradation are complex and include unemployment due to little job opportunities, population growth and lack of land use planning by the government to guide settlement and agriculture. Ian addition to this, the age old problems of expansion of agricultural land, new settlements which require clearing forested areas and using wood for construction, drying of water bodies, including rivers and wetlands which is impacted further by climate change, are also identified as matters of concern. Eucalyptus forestry is also spreading as a new form of economic activity further exacerbating the situation. Historically, during the period of the Hailesilasie Regime (1930 – 1974), forest area was protected by individuals who own the land. There was little degradation. Land ownership was transferred to the government during the Derge Regime (1974 – 1991) and this has started large scale forestry and land degradation. But the biggest land degradation and forest degradation occurred in the transition between the previous government and the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democracy Front (EPRDF) (1991- present). The EPRDF government has constitutionally reinstated the land management regime of the Derge government. Since there was no ownership by the people, they did not feel the need for caring for the land. The obvious course of action was to cut the trees and sell the wood to get as much money as possible.

The Ethiopian government has produced various policy frameworks and legislation related to natural resource management. These include the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, the Environmental Policy and Strategy of 1997 and the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations of 2002 and quite recently the Climate Resilient Green Economy, 2012. The government has also signed international agreements including the Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite all these local laws and policies, environmental degradation in Ethiopia, including in the research area as identified by the local community, remains a key problem. Many point fingers at the land tenure system in the country saying that as in the previous regimes, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia controls rural land and this control of land has reduced the incentive for farmers, agro-pastoralists and pastoralists to manage their lands sustainably.

The degradation of land and biodiversity has resulted in the erosion of culture associated with it. The local people lamented that the new generation has a reduced regard for their culture and ways of living. There is land fragmentation as families divide their land amongst their sons when they marry and this has worsened their economic situation. There is little economic opportunity for youth and most of them migrate to urban areas.

The Ethiopian case study site for the t-learning project is the Meo Kebele which is located in the Dinsho Wereda, Bale Zone, in the Oromia Regional State. The policies that were mentioned in the paragraph above apply to the Kebele. The most important scale for the Kebele is the Wereda level administration. The Bureaus including the Woreda Education office, Administration and the Kebele, Culture and Tourism Office, Rural Land Administration and Environmental Protection Office, Agriculture office, Domestic Animals’ Agency and cooperative promotion office have a direct influence on the kebele through their various interventions. The Meo Kebele is divided into three villages, which in turn are divided to seven units, each containing 20-25 households. Each of the units are further organized into five households. In this way, the hand of the government reaches to the household level. Information travels very fast from the federal government to the households in a very short time. This also demonstrates the level of control that the government exercises over the people.

The community is further organized by the government under Crop Harvest Saving Association, Whole Agricultural Practice Farmers’ Cooperative and Karija Irrigation Association. The community have organized themselves under Community Conserved Area Elders association. There are only two Non-Governmental Organizations, MELCA – Ethiopia and Hunde Oromo Grass Roots Association. Hundee is working on natural resource management and livelihood for the past two years. MELCA – Ethiopia has over 11 years working on intergenerational learning, community mobilization, livelihood improvement and conservation of community conserved areas and sacred natural sites.

The community has participated in a number of dialogues and meetings over the years in events organized by MELCA. The biggest event was a process of participatory mapping using three dimensional (3D) Modelling that some of the community members were part of. Participatory 2D mapping was also organized in August 2016. This was used as learning experience for farmers as it has given them a chance to construct their stories and deliberate on what has changed in the landscape, why has it changed, how has it changed and what they can do about it. Other learning environments include experience exchanges with farmers and the regular discussions that they have on the value of sacred natural sites. There were also various events where the local communities and government were educated about the constitutional and other rights that the communities have over their natural resources and culture. Since these meetings are usually followed by an intense discussion, they provide a chance for the community to get educated. Already two T-Learning events have been organized and the events were used to deliberate deeply on contextual issues.

There are a range of transformations that have occurred due to the continuous engagement with the community. The most important of all is the establishment of a Community Conserved Area (CCA) Elders Group. The Group has managed to negotiate with the wider community to fence 18 hectares of land. The land has been rehabilitated and trees and herbs which have not been seen have come back. Water bodies have come back and the volume of the streams arising from the Keble has significantly increased.  Some wildlife has also returned, including the Mountain Nyala and the Menilik Bush Buck. This has encouraged the community to participate in further engagement with each other and the government. After substantive ongoing negotiations and lobbying, they have manged to get legal recognition for their CCA. The local school is also engaged in an activity called SEGNI where groups of youth spend a week in a forest with elders and come back to form a club through which they continue to engage with cultural and biological diversity. The site provides a rich space for ongoing t-learning engagement.