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Tree planting in Ethiopia - has it done more harm than good?

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is a low-income country located in the Horn of Africa, the northeastern part of the continent (Ethiopian Embassy). Like many other countries nowadays, Ethiopia faces many challenges as a result of more damaging and severe climate change effects - increasing food insecurity and water scarcity pose a threat not only to the country’s economy but also to the people’s well-being and health (Mwai). Deforestation and forest degradation processes have not yet become the problems of the past - although we all know why we need trees, the efforts taken by world leaders are still not enough. It was estimated by the United Nations that from 1990 to 2015, Ethiopia lost 2.6 million hectares of forest (Karasz). In 2000, as little as 4% of the country’s land was covered by trees while a century back, it was nearly 35% (Atani). On a global scale, from 2010 to 2020, the net loss in forests was 4.7 million hectares annually (Ritchie and Roser). Ending deforestation is possible - but only if we all contribute.

Picture 1: Edliadi, Mokhamad. “Forest Landscape Restoration in Ethiopia.” Forest News,

Trees produce oxygen through the process of photosynthesis and have the ability to store carbon, which is why they are often called carbon sinks (Nunez). They play a crucial role in ecosystems worldwide, are home to many species of birds and mammals, and help to stabilise the soil. Two different strategies of tree plantation can be distinguished - reforestation, which refers to the process of planting trees in areas that were previously covered with forest, and afforestation, which is based on the idea of growing trees in an area where there were no trees before (“What Is Reforestation and Afforestation?”). Both approaches are effective tools for climate resilience building and can be regarded as a climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy.

Even so, areas for tree plantation must be chosen carefully. Not every type of soil is proper for growing trees, and the grown trees need to be protected from any potential human-induced damage to prevent the waste of tree seedlings (Takele et al.). Authorities should also be prepared to cover additional costs if, for instance, a necessity for watering arises in the dry season (Duguma et al.). All these aspects make tree planting a challenging process, which if not thought through, may do more harm than good.

Picture 2: Hewitt, Sarah. “Today, Only about 5% of Ethiopia Is Covered in Forest, Compared to around 45% about a Century Ago.” BBC,

In recent years, Ethiopia has made great progress towards embracing sustainability on a larger scale. As of May 2023, the percentage of the land covered with trees was 22% (“Ethiopia”). In 2011, the Ethiopian government launched a Climate Resilience Green Economy (CRGE) strategy that focuses on achieving positive economic growth and gaining the status of a middle-income country by 2025 (“Ethiopia’s Climate‐Resilient Green Economy”) while acknowledging the importance of reforestation and afforestation programmes and the protection of land covered by forest (Zeleke and Vidal). In 2019, a programme called National Green Development was initiated to combat environmental degradation and boost climate resilience (“National Green Development – Planting Trees for a Friendly Environment”). According to the project’s website, the country ‘has about 18 million hectares of degraded land potentially suitable for afforestation and reforestation’ (“National Green Development – Planting Trees for a Friendly Environment”). By 2030, the government has pledged to restore 15 million hectares of deforested or degraded areas to address deforestation and increase forest cover (Wiegant et al.),

In 2019, at the Gulele Botanical Garden in Addis Ababa (the capital and the largest city of Ethiopia), the government launched a one-day campaign that made history (Mwai). This tree-planting event was part of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative (GLI), which distinguishes measures aimed to reduce the nation’s vulnerability, increase climate resilience and build a secure, sustainable future for all (Getahun). It also serves as the basis of the country’s strategies towards reaching internationally-set goals, helping Ethiopia to reach its commitments concerning the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want (Office of the Prime Minister). Within the Green Legacy Initiative, the government set a goal of planting 20 billion trees from 2019 to 2022 (Africa News). Not only was the target achieved, but it was also surpassed by 5 billion seedlings (Office of the Prime Minister). The historic campaign’s goal was, on the other hand, to plant 200 million trees in one day. According to the Ethiopian Minister of Innovation and Technology Getahun Mekuria, in only 12 hours more than 350 million trees were planted in around 1,000 sites (Odesomi). The success became the world’s new record for the greatest number of trees planted in a single day, which has been previously held by India since 2016 and stood at 50 million trees (Nast).

Picture 3: Mokria, Mulugeta. “The Green Legacy Mobilized Many Ethiopians to Engage in Tree Planting.” World Agroforestry,

Even so, despite all these accomplishments, the approach taken by the Ethiopian government has been criticised by some. It may be argued that not all challenges, which significantly limited the success of tree planting initiatives in Ethiopia, were addressed properly.

According to the research conducted by the World Agroforestry Centre in 2020, community-based reforestation actions are more successful than campaign-based initiatives (Duguma et al.). Most of the launched Ethiopian afforestation programmes, which received more attention from the government in 2010, were campaign-based, meaning that some of them were not fully supported by the local communities (Fleischman et al.). In order to effectively tackle the social factors that were likely to drive deforestation in the first place, a people-centred approach, which considers the interests of the communities above all, should be used to protect the environment and build climate resilience. As a result of the low level of community engagement that was the consequence of the campaign-based approach, tree growth was not monitored properly in some places and the seedlings were not taken good care of, which significantly reduced the effectiveness of the programmes (Kassa et al.).

Picture 4: Gebru, Girmay. “Newly Planted Seedlings Need Water to Survive Harsh Conditions in Tigray Province.” BBC News,

A case study in the upper Awash basin published in 2022 suggested that Ethiopia should switch its focus from tree planting to tree growing (Takele et al.). The main difference between these two concepts is that the evaluated success may differ depending on which number of trees - the planted or the grown ones - is taken into consideration. Measuring success may also be based on the area of land covered by trees since it might provide a better insight into the effect the grown trees have on the surroundings (Takele et al.). The case study also concluded that the afforestation programme conducted in the upper Awash was partially a failure due to the lack of continuous and proper management of the trees that were planted. Changing environmental conditions should also be taken into consideration, which is why measuring forest ecosystem performance regularly could be regarded as a solution (Tognetti et al.).

In order to achieve the targets set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders need to acknowledge the fact that the key to success lies in cooperation. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is a body that works towards fostering environmental sustainability and combatting deforestation (“Inside the Global Effort to Save the World’s Forests”). Being one of the three agencies monitoring the UN-REDD Programme (The UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), it provides the knowledge and tools that are essential for the proper implementation of tree plantation initiatives to governments worldwide which seek to increase their countries’ forest cover (“Inside the Global Effort to Save the World’s Forests”). The UN-REDD Programme has, for instance, contributed to the development of Ethiopia’s framework focused on capacity building, which was possible as Ethiopia is one of the Programme’s partner countries (“Ethiopia”). The 2021-2030 is also the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (“UN Decade on Restoration”). Led by the UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it aims to facilitate international collaboration in the field of climate action and the protection of the natural environment (“UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030)”).

Picture 5: Belachew, Tamiru. “Trees Planted along a Dirt Road in Belachew’s Neighborhood, Addis Ababa.” World Agroforestry,

Not only is altering tree plantation’s objectives essential for ensuring the highest efficiency of tree planting programmes but international collaboration also needs to be encouraged. In the past, the Ethiopian government has already asked for international support in the field of maintenance and nurturing of trees, which are associated with higher costs (Mwai). Clearly showing how trees can economically benefit people and embracing a more detailed and environmentally friendly land-use policy should also serve as the basis of the Ethiopian authorities’ strategies (Mollins). While reforestation and afforestation programmes play a huge role in securing the future, it is important to note that deforestation and land degradation are not the only problems the country faces, which is why a comprehensive and multifaceted strategy with better support for local communities is needed.


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  3. Duguma, L. A., et al. “From Tree Planting to Tree Growing: Rethinking Ecosystem Restoration through Tree.” CGSpace a Repository of Agricultural Research Outputs, 1 Dec. 2020,

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  12. Kassa, H., et al. “Shared Strengths and Limitations of Participatory Forest Management and Area Exclosure: Two Major State Led Landscape Rehabilitation Mechanisms in Ethiopia.” International Forestry Review, vol. 19, no. 4, 1 Dec. 2017, pp. 51–61,

  13. Mollins, Julie. “Better Support for Local Communities Can Boost Reforestation Efforts in Ethiopia.” CIFOR Forests News, 7 Oct. 2021,

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  22. Tognetti, Roberto, et al. Continuous Monitoring of Tree Responses to Climate Change for Smart Forestry: A Cybernetic Web of Trees. 25 Nov. 2021, pp. 361–398,

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  1. Belachew, Tamiru. “Trees Planted along a Dirt Road in Belachew’s Neighborhood, Addis Ababa.” World Agroforestry,

  2. Edliadi, Mokhamad. “Forest Landscape Restoration in Ethiopia.” Forest News,

  3. Gebru, Girmay. “Newly Planted Seedlings Need Water to Survive Harsh Conditions in Tigray Province.” BBC News,

  4. Hewitt, Sarah. “Today, Only about 5% of Ethiopia Is Covered in Forest, Compared to around 45% about a Century Ago.” BBC,

  5. Mokria, Mulugeta. “The Green Legacy Mobilized Many Ethiopians to Engage in Tree Planting.” World Agroforestry,

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