Ethiopia, mending paradise

It is hard to express how beautiful Ethiopia can be, and how harsh, and the two are complementary here. If we can think only of the hellish picture of famine, we do not know the land at all. It is as if all of Africa were compressed in one corner, with its lush forest, bare desert, grassland, and vertical mountains.  Here antelopes, giraffes and zebras leap across the plains, and lions, cheetahs and unique wolves hunt; here eagles and vultures soar from peaks above scorched land seeking the living and the dead, and beyond them verdant forests echo with joyous monkeys. In the waters crocodiles wait. Camels ply ancient trading roads in the desert. Here too are the unique churches of the Ethiopians, some carved whole and in one piece out of the living rock.

We know little about the land except the snatches we hear and see, and those do not do justice to this bewildering land.

When Napier was dispatched to Abyssinia (to punish the Emperor Theodore for his misdeeds) it was an unknown land and the expedition was in all received opinion doomed to disaster as no army could march in order through a trackless land where every advance was blocked by a razor-edged mountain range, and he was assured he could not even land his boats without their being sunk by herds of hippopotamus. What he found was a harsh, wilderness land indeed, but one of beauty and ancient culture through which he advanced to his task without loss.

He would find a great change today:  the former Communist government ravaged the land in the name of progress, and recovery is slow. Seeing the sights of Biblical famine in the 1980s you would disbelieve Adam Smith’s observation that “a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth”; but Smith was recounting recent history in Europe and not the unforgiving capriciousness of the African climate.  Still, here in Ethiopia it was human stupidity and malice which caused it.

There will always be poor seasons, drought and locusts, and misgovernment, and the latter is deadly. The Emperor was overthrown for reacting too slowly to a famine, but a year’s dearth was as nothing compared with what the Communists did. Their disruption of farm life and collectivisations did as they have done throughout the world – starved the people, and no worse famine has been seen in that land. Felling the forests denuded the land and left dust. Worst of all the afflicted places was Tigray, once the cultural heartland of the nation. It is struggling to recover even now, but there is hope.

If anyone is tempted to believe that humanity, crawling small upon the face of a vast Earth is incapable of destroying the climate and ecological system, he should look on Ethiopia. Forest were felled to produce fields for crops but just produced dust as the light soil blew away in the winds. The trees held it together, and made a home for wildlife. The trees made their own local climate which allowed man and beast to live – but when the trees were gone, the land died.

Now there is regrowth. The BBC’s Justin Rowlett recently reported on an effort to regrow destroyed forests in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The land is transformed and the bees are returning. (African bees, he found, and as I could have told him, are more aggressive and sting more violently than softy European bees – even elephants are afraid of African bees.) Without bees to pollinate plants, life struggles, so their return presages rebirth.

Worldwide forest are being felled, and we have the luxury here in Britain to be aghast at this, safe in the knowledge that we have already felled our islands’ own lush forests for farmland, millennia ago. There has been new plantation though – the Forestry Commission for a hundred years now has been busy filling with trees areas once bare – Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson who described trees moorland in the north would not recognise the lush pine forests there now, and it was done not from some care for the environment let alone ideas about climate change (not back in 1919) but because the Government needed wood. That is the key to success: a practical motive and a plan for sustainable forestry following over generations.

In America forestry is massive business, but the more successful forest plantations are those which plant as much as they fell, looking two hundred years ahead. If we know that our children will benefit, we care for the future, but if all our effort is taxed away at the end, we have no motive for sustainability.

In the meantime though, Ethiopia is making steps to recover Eden where once there was Gehenna. That is far, far more practical than marches and petitions. The efforts in Ethiopia to replant the lost forests and restore life, efforts carried out by Ethiopians to benefit their generations to come, are worth the praises of the world.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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