Re-greening a continent: Co-ops working to restore land in Africa

Farm and forestry co-ops are working to improve land management to improve sustainability and climate resilience

As the world faces the challenge of needing to produce more food for a growing population while also protecting natural forests for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation, there are some important dates to keep in mind.

World Environment Day is celebrated today (5 June) and encourages awareness and action for the protection of the environment. On 1 July, the co-operative movement will see the 2023 International Day of Cooperatives take the theme “Cooperatives: partners for accelerated sustainable development”. And this September marks the halfway point in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by UN member states in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda.

The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) recently highlighted how the co-op movement “was the first group of enterprises worldwide to endorse the SDGS and be recognised as a partner in achieving these goals”, adding that the 2023 IDC slogan ‘Cooperatives for sustainable development’ “will show how the co-operative way of working, inspired by the co-op values and principles, has the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of its DNA.”

 But according to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, “cascading and interlinked crises are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in grave danger, along with humanity’s very own survival”. 

The report highlights the severity and magnitude of the challenges ahead, as a confluence of crises – dominated by Covid-19, climate change and conflicts – is creating spin-off impacts on food and nutrition, health, education, the environment, and peace and security. “We must rise higher to rescue the SDGs – and stay true to our promise of a world of peace, dignity and prosperity on a healthy planet,” said UN secretary-general, António Guterres.

One country where this confluence is acutely apparent is Ethiopia, where the rich ecology varies from deserts along its eastern border to tropical forests in the south. It is also a country of conflict; most recently the Tigray War (3 November 2020 – 3 November 2022) between the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea on one side, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on the other. According to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, as many as 600,000 people had died as a result of war-related violence and famine by late 2022.

It is also an area vulnerable to drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis and made worse by deforestation (currently at an estimated 350km sq/yr). But at the same time, it’s a place where co-operatives are seen as an effective tool in mitigating deforestation. The international charity Farm Africa, for example, works with communities to develop economic incentives to sustainably manage and protect forests by helping them to set up co-ops and earn a living from forest-friendly businesses, like wild coffee harvesting and beekeeping. 

“At the root of eastern Africa’s deforestation lies ineffective forest management,” says the organisation, which champions the use of participatory forest management, a framework in which local communities and the government are empowered to manage the benefits and responsibilities of the forest together. 

Ali Gilo, chair of the Girbissa Forest Management Cooperative in Bale, Ethiopia, adds: “Before, the forest was managed by the government, so we didn’t care about its condition, but now we are managing it with the government, so we feel ownership and responsibility. The whole co-operative has benefited. People no longer cut down trees for fuel or livestock grazing.”

Related: Researcher Naomi Terry on land justice and the future of farming

Tree Aid is another organisation working in Ethiopia, this time in the north, where temperatures are rising and land is becoming infertile. Here you’ll find the Metema forest in the last green belt before the start of the desert, where frankincense trees are a lifeline for local communities, providing up to 30% of household income for the families who sell their resin. 

But, warns Tree Aid, this forest will be on the brink of extinction in 20 years if no action is taken to save it. “The climate crisis, high rates of tree felling, forest fires and unsustainable tapping for frankincense is stopping the forest from regenerating,” it says. “This will have a devastating impact on communities that rely on the forest for food and income. 

“There will be no buffer between them and the encroaching desert.”

Tree Aid’s Developing Rural Resilience programme, running until autumn 2024,  aims to support communities with the tools and training they need to sustainably use frankincense trees and protect them for the future. 

Derese, a farmer in the Metema region, on degraded land

Partners in the programme include the UK’s Forest Research, which will assist with remote sensing analysis, providing data on the condition and distribution of frankincense trees, which will, in turn, help support conservation efforts and allow for the development of management plans for the participatory forest management co-operatives [PFMCs].

Last year, Tree Aid organised training on co-operative management for 63 PFMC leaders and attendees from local government, to grow understanding of their forest management roles, rights, and responsibilities, as well as other skills such as financial management, auditing and marketing. 

“The importance of [frankincense] trees in our area is tremendous,” says Derese, a farmer in the Metema region. “For people involved in tapping and collecting frankincense, it has become a major cash source.” 

Related: Carbon offsetting co-op offers climate action to help world’s poorest communities

Unpredictable rain patterns caused by the climate crisis mean Derese’s crops often fail to grow; his local frankincense forest provides an alternative, climate-resilient source of income. But he also witnessed how a lack of community awareness about how to sustainably extract the resin meant the trees were being damaged and the forest is disappearing.

The work of PFMC has made a powerful difference: “This activity will have a generational impact on people and the environment,” he says. “Degradation will be reduced and our ecosystem will be conserved.” 

Tree Aid is also working on the continent’s Great Green Wall (GGW) initiative, an ambitious project from the African Union and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to grow a vast belt of trees, vegetation and fertile land across the drylands of the Sahel in Africa. 

The wall was originally envisaged as an 8,000km long, 15km wide band of trees stretching from Djibouti to Senegal, but has evolved into a programme promoting water harvesting techniques, greenery protection and improving indigenous land use techniques, aimed at creating a mosaic of green and productive landscapes across North Africa.

The ongoing goal of the project is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, capture 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and create 10 million jobs by 2030. Since the project began, Ethiopia alone has planted 5.5 billion seedlings.

Co-operation is active here, too. “By putting local communities in the driver’s seat of the initiative, the GGWI is able to ensure that the project is tailored to the specific needs of the region,” said the UNDP, the UN’s development agency, last year. 

“This approach has already led to the successful completion of 18% of the Great Green Wall, the restoration of over 20 million hectares of land, the creation of 350,000 jobs, the training of 10 million people in sustainable land and water management practices, and $90 million generated by project activities. 

“The GGW impacts all the SDGs as Africa’s largest sustainable development initiative. In a context where the continent has massive carbon storage potential, the realisation of the Great Green Wall could influence climate trends and have a lasting impact on the continent’s development trajectory.”