Sheka is an administrative zone in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region where one of the few remaining wet forests are found in Ethiopia, which covers more than 47% of the total area. Sheka zone comprises an extraordinary natural and cultural landscape mosaic of dense natural forest, sacred/cultural forest, managed forests for coffee and beekeeping, bamboo thicket, wetlands, agricultural land, historical sites, natural landmarks like waterfalls, caves, interspersed with settlements. The rich culture is an omnipresent part of the biosphere reserve, shaping the landscape and the sustainable development of the area.
Sheka forest possesses a high biodiversity, with unique and endemic flora and fauna, being part of the eastern afromontane biodiversity hotspot. The forest of Sheka is also important for the role it plays in protection of watersheds that have local and international significance. It is highly regarded for flood and erosion control, and carbon-sequestration to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Moreover, the Sheka forest is a crucial asset for local communities because it represents the main source of livelihood for many indigenous people. In addition, it provides a connection with the spiritual realm through the preservation of sacred natural sites, and contributes to the maintenance of a balanced ecological system.
Despite these facts the Sheka forest is currently being threatened by a variety of negative pressures, including: expansion of monoculture and private investments (e.g. tea plantation), deforestation and forest degradation resulting from the expansion of agricultural activities, deforestation from an increasing need for energy (fuelwood and charcoal are being sold from forest resources), and the diminishing strength of the traditional cultural protection system (e.g. degradation of sacred natural sites is observed).
These threats represent a critical challenge to the ecological and biological capacity of the forest as well as a direct challenge for the people who had successfully lived with the forest for hundreds of years through sound traditional ecological practices.
To effectively tackle these challenges hand in hand with all the relevant stakeholders, MELCA has been working in Sheka since 2005. The objectives of MELCA’s Sheka project are to contribute to the protection and conservation of the Sheka forest while conserving its bio-cultural diversity and improving local livelihood through endogenous and sustainable development.
To that end, MELCA has been undertaking numerous activities:
MELCA has established itself as a strong environmental advocacy agent in Sheka, as well as in other areas, with a focus on raising the awareness of all stakeholders on the forest and the environment, including government organs. In response to a baseline study conducted in 2005, MELCA coordinated a workshop with different NGOs and researchers to develop a strategy for advocacy. MELCA later decided to work with these NGOs in the Sheka Forest Alliance (14 NGOs in total) to carry on the advocacy work in Sheka as well as regionally and nationally, through awareness raising, trainings and promoting the recognition of community and environmental rights. These activities reached a large number of community members and local officials. Additionally, MELCA also trained numerous eco-advocates who reached an important part of Sheka zone’s population.
Publications and communication are a key aspect of our environmental advocacy work. In addition to brochures and articles, MELCA has commissioned a multidisciplinary study to expert researchers who all had prior experience in Sheka to analyse the impacts of landuse/landcover changes in the area. The result of this extensive research work is found in Forests of Sheka, published in 2012.
Up to now and in the future, MELCA aims to work with all Sheka’s stakeholders (NGOs, officials, community members) to improve the implementation of existing environmental and community-related laws (including marginalized groups like women or Manja), to strengthen the protection of cultural and natural features of Sheka zone (workshops, trainings, community events, etc.), especially in the context of Sheka biosphere reserve (see below), and to increase people’s environmental awareness, notably by conducting in-depth researches and publishing advocacy materials.
Creating alternative means of livelihood
Since most of the local people are highly dependent on the forest for their living, MELCA is convinced that supporting endogenous development projects is a key approach to lessen possible negative impacts on the natural environment and improve local livelihood. For this reason, MELCA has been working for the creation and strengthening of sustainable income generating activities for the local communities, with a focus on women, youth and marginalized groups of the society (Menjas, a traditionally and socially outcasted group). These include the development of home gardening and saving credit projects for Menjas (training, tools, information sharing), supporting beekeepers and women spice’s cooperatives (training, tools, cooperatives setting and strengthening) and a Youth Entrepreneurship training programs.
In the coming years, MELCA is dedicated to strengthen and expand these successful experiences, set up new and innovative projects for alternative income generating activities (e.g. eco-tourism) and share its expertise and knowledge with other actors.
Elders and traditional knowledge
Being a clan leader – gepitato – is the most influential traditional position that an individual acquires through inheritance among the Shekachos, the most represented indigenous community of Sheka. They are both ritual leaders and administrators, and are still important communitarian leaders, performing different social, cultural (religious) and economic activities that are substantially related with resource management and the livelihood of the community. Nonetheless, due to recent cultural changes, their leadership has diminished in the zone as well as their influence regarding the sustainable management of natural resources. Since 2008, when MELCA hold a meeting for 56 Sheka Zone clan leaders to facilitate clan leaders’ initiative to form legally recognized associations, our organization has been working to build and strengthen clan leaders associations as well as to assist them in revitalizing and protecting the traditional culture and values, in an effort to ensure that these values and traditional ecological practices will continue to allow the effective conservation of the forest and sustainable development of human activities. Additionally, MELCA has facilitated the participatory writing of a Shekacho Community Bio-Cultural Protocol, which states the terms and conditions Shekachos require to allowing outsiders to undertake activities related to the forest and their traditional knowledge and practices.
In the coming years, MELCA will be engaged in empowering existing clan leaders associations as well as in developing and supporting other clan leaders associations in Sheka, in particular regarding their work on the protection of sacred natural sites, sharing the traditional knowledge and values among the community and promote the local bio-cultural diversity.
Participatory eco-cultural mapping
In 2008 and 2009, a participatory eco-cultural mapping process was conducted in Masha woreda, especially 3D modeling. These mapping projects have many values for MELCA and the community: In addition to come to identify and register natural and cultural resources in the area, it foster discovery learning, visualizing knowledge, cultural revival, intra and inter-generational knowledge exchange, supporting community cohesion, identity building and collaborative planning.
The mapping process was facilitated by MELCA staff as well as experts, and was successfully led by local community leaders who were selected based on their age, knowledge and gender, with an effort being made to incorporate minority groups. During the mapping process over 450 data points were collected and plotted, and the final product was said to provide a clear image of Sheka’s resources for effective land-use management planning.
This map has been used since then by clan leaders and other community groups, and we hope to develop similar mapping sessions in the two remaining woredas of Sheka (Andracha and Yeki) to eventually compile and promote a community map of Sheka biosphere reserve.
Environmental Education/intergenerational learning/youth for biocultural diversity
SEGNI program is one of the spearheads of MELCA. This intergenerational learning program linking youth with elders and nature through forest expeditions, cultural revival events and school activities has been a success since it was first carried out eight years ago in Bale.
Although MELCA’s SEGNI program has started to be implemented in Sheka only since 2010, lots of SEGNI activities have been performed and good results achieved in this period of time. These activities included numerous sessions of the 5-days SEGNI programs in the forest, creation of SEGNI clubs in schools, bio-cultural celebrations, schools activities and eco-advocacy. SEGNI program has now the full support of government administrative organs and community members, and is expanding successfully in Sheka.
MELCA intends to duplicate these SEGNI programs in even more schools and to have in the long term SEGNI clubs in every school of Sheka, in order to ensure that all pupils are aware of their community’s bio-cultural diversity and may become eco-advocates and informed decision-makers in their own locality our outside of Sheka.
In 2010, MELCA together with the Sheka community and the local government launched a process to get the forest of Sheka registered as one of the world’s biosphere reserve areas by the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO). To this end, MELCA coordinated numerous consultative and training workshops in Sheka and the participatory writing of Sheka biosphere reserve’s nomination form to apply for being a biosphere reserve in UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) program, responsible for their nomination. On july 2012, Sheka forest was officially accredited as a man and biosphere reserve MAB by the International Coordination Council of UNESCO-MAB. This registration was welcomed as a tremendous success for us as well as for the community and officials in Sheka, and an official and festive inauguration took place on the 28th of January 2013 to collectively celebrate this event.
MELCA is now supporting the biosphere reserve structure, and aims to fully contribute in the future to all of Sheka biosphere reserve’s functions (research and monitoring, local sustainable development, conservation, communication, management and coordination).
In the near future, MELCA is willing to develop and strengthen its work on community based agro-ecology in Sheka zone. This will include the promotion of organic and ecological agriculture (notably in cooperatives); supporting farmers to conserve, use and develop genetic diversity of crops of local importance and improve their access to better seeds; promote and develop sound environmental practices in coffee production and finally foster research and projects on agro-ecology through networks and research institutes/centers’ and universities’ partnerships in Sheka.