A Spectacular Inauguration Ceremony of a New Biosphere Reserve in Southwest Ethiopia

The Majang forest consists of unique areas that are ecologically fragile and functionally important for life like; wetlands, lakes, rivers, forests and other natural landscapes which all needs special care to properly sustain the ecosystem function and conserve bio diversity of the area and its sustainable use.” Dr. Engineer Getahun Mekuriya, Minister of the FDRE Ministry of Science and Technology

Registration by UNESCO of the Majang forest in Gambella People’s National Regional State as a member of the International Network of Biosphere Reserves has been celebrated on the 28th of December 2017 at Meti Town in Majang zone. UNESCO has registered Majang forest as a biosphere reserve on its 29th general assembly held in June 2017 in Paris.

Inauguration of the registration of Majang forest as Biosphere Reserve has been celebrated spectacularly in the presence of higher federal and regional government officials including the Minister and state minister of the FDRE Ministry of science and technology, the Minister of FDRE Office of Government Communication Affairs, the State Minister of FDRE Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the president and vice president of Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State and other cabinet members, the management and staff of MELCA and representatives of other non-government partners.

News-image2In a keynote speech he made on the event, the Minister of FDRE Ministry of Science and Technology, Dr. Eng. Getahun Mekuriya stated that registration of the Majang forest by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve is a manifestation of Ethiopia’s commitment to conserve its natural resources so as to mitigate the harsh effects of the global climate change. He said, “This event is a special time that would reinforce our commitment to contribute our part, as a nation, to change the unhealthy relationship between humans in the ‘modern’ era and nature that is pushing the life supporting systems to the edges. The best place to learn a lesson about a life in harmony with nature and sustainable development is where traditional communities like the Majang people live. This time in human civilization is a critical time when we should capitalize on mitigating the effects of climate change through the integrated application of modern scientific knowledge along traditional ecological knowledge of our communities to solve our problems.”

The minister also explained that the main objective of the biosphere reserve is to realize sustainable development in the area through conservation of critical ecosystems that play a pivotal role in supporting the economy as well as the cultural values of the community. After expressing his pleasure for being part of the phenomenal event of the inauguration of Majang forest biosphere reserve, Dr. Eng. Getahun extended his sincere appreciation and thanks for those who played the key role in the process of getting the forest registered as biosphere reserve including the Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State administrations at the various levels, the communities of Majang, MELCA-Ethiopia and the donor SIDA.

News-image5Dr. Gatluak Tut, President of the Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State, was the other higher government official who spoke on the event. In his speech, the president emphasized on the fact that as a country, Ethiopia has lost a huge forest resource in the past four decades and the impacts of the loss are being strongly felt in the economic and social development endeavors. The president also stated that the government has committed itself to realize a climate resilient green economy with the aim of ensuring sustainable development that is based on rehabilitation and conservation of the country’s natural resources. In relation to this, Dr. Gatluak mentioned that the government has designed a huge ecosystem rehabilitation and water shade management plan and implementing the plan for the past more than ten years. Parallel to this, the government is also committed to conserve the few remaining natural forests in the country and registration of Majang forest by UNESCO as biosphere reserve can be considered a manifestation of such commitment.

In addition, the president also explained that the Majang forest is registered by UNESCO to be part of the world’s network of biosphere reserves not only because it is a natural forest but also because it is a unique place where nature and culture are seen interwoven and so has a unique feature of bio-cultural diversity. Finally the president expressed his sincere appreciation for Majang people who managed to conserve such a beautiful forest through their cultural values and traditional practices of conservation and urged them to maintain their culture and traditional practices. He also thanked the FDRE Ministry of Science and Technology, MELCA-Ethiopia and SIDA for their valuable contributions to get the forest registered as Biosphere reserve and finally called up on Majang people and the zonal administration to strengthen their commitment to conserve the forest more than ever.

News-image3The director of MELCA, Ato Solomon Kebede, has also made a keynote speech on the event of the inauguration of Majang Forest Biosphere Reserve. In his keynote speech, Ato Solomon explained that in addition to its major features that include moist evergreen afromontane forest vegetation, transitional rainforest vegetation and plant and animal biodiversity with considerable endemism, Majang forest is the source of rivers such as Baro, Gilo and Akobo, which have national and international importance. As such, having an arrangement that ensures sustainable conservation of this important resource is a timely question that needs to be addressed. According to Ato Solomon, even though the Majang people have managed to conserve the forest through their culture and traditional practices of conservation, now it is time to give due recognition to the culture and traditional practices of the people and supplement these with a formal arrangement supported by law.

Ato Solomon further explained that the purpose of getting Majang forest registered as biosphere reserve is to preserve one of the most unique natural and cultural landscapes of Ethiopia and to point out and implement new, environmentally friendly ways of development road maps for the local communities. These new ways are ones that will be aligned with conservation, sustainable development and logistic support as per the biosphere reserve functions set by UNESCO.

Ato Solomon also emphasized on the fact that registration of the forest as biosphere reserve is not an end in itself, rather it is the beginning of short, medium and long term plans to be included in the biosphere reserve management plan that is supposed to serve as the plan of government administrations at zonal and woreda levels. As such, it marks the beginning of the alignment of development plans of the Majang zone by government structures at all levels with the biosphere reserve management plan. Finally, Ato Solomon stated that registration of Majang forest, as a biosphere reserve is a result of the concerted efforts of Majang zone administration, Gambella peoples’ National Regional State, FDRE Ministry of Science and Technology and MELCA-Ethiopia and extended his thanks to all those who collaborated in the process.

News-image4More than 3000 people including higher government officials at federal, regional and zonal levels, representatives of relevant government sectoral offices at federal and regional levels, NGO and donor representatives as well as the communities of Godere and Mengeshi woredas in Majang zone have attended the inaugural ceremony.

Focus on Menja children; they are the ones who will build on the current initiative and take the change to the fullest

Ato Tadele Dulo

Ato Tadele Dulo

Tadele Dulo is a member of the Menja minority group in Sheka. Currently, he is the head of Culture and Tourism Office of Anderacha woreda, one of the woredas in Sheka zone.

We had a discussion with Tadele and other government officials of Anderacha woreda regarding the social exclusion against Menjas and the changes achieved since MELCA has started working on reducing the social exclusion against Menjas through active involvement of the community and local government organs.

As a member of the Menja minority group, Tadele has shared us his experience in the past as compared to what is going on at present. Regarding his childhood experience as a student, Tadele says “When I was a student in elementary and secondary schools some years back, I sit in a class on one desk alone. Other students did not want to sit on the same desk with me. I cannot go to the tearooms around to have tea, as owners do not allow me in. I take anything my classmates offer me including edible things; but no one wants to take from me if I want to share what I have. So I prefer not to approach others; I did not have friends in school. Yet I had to bear all these and continue my education. I did and completed high school.

I continued my education in college; but things are better there, as most of the college students do not know I am Menja or about Menja. After graduation, I started my job as expert in one of the offices in Anderacha woreda.

What I went through during my childhood life was an exposition of the life of my community. We were not considered as humans. We were treated as polluted and untouchable. We used to take that as our destiny and lived away from others in the forests. Even five years back, thinking the equality of Menjas with Shekachos or other community members was like crying for the moon.

But now that thinking is broken. Now almost everyone in Sheka is hearing about the equality of all citizens including Menjas, whether convinced or not. Things are different now because various efforts are already going on to reduce the discrimination. Although the government and some religious organizations are contributing their part, MELCA has been the main driver of the changes relating to reduction of the discrimination against Menjas. So we are experiencing the results of these works.

As things are changing, there are more opportunities now for the Menja youth. These days, Menja children do not face the bad treatment I faced in schools some years back. They are now like any other children in the schools; no suffering from discrimination. These are the children who will build up on the current initiative and derive the change to the fullest in the future.

I am now the head of the Culture and Tourism Office of the Woreda. I am the first Menja at such position. But this is just the beginning. The ones who are in schools today will be the doctors, the teachers, the engineers and politicians of tomorrow. Discrimination against Menjas will be just a history by then.”

Ato Abraham Emiru

Ato Abraham Emiru

Abraham Emiru is the principal of Ewa primary and junior secondary school in Masha woreda of Sheka zone. He witnesses the following regarding availability of access to education for Menjas and their equal treatment in school, “Some years back, Menja children rarely come to school. Firstly, Menja children do not come to school as they live far away from schools and residential areas in the forests. Secondly, even the children of those who live relatively near to residential areas do not come to school as most of their parents are poor and cannot afford buying basic items the children need for schooling and send them to school. Even those who pass all these hurdles and come to school suffer fatal discrimination. Other children do not sit on the same desk with Menjas or play with them. They do not greet them. So it was hard for the Menja children to withstand this and stay in schools.

But now, there are no such treatments against the Menjas. No other child tends to treat Menjas differently. There is equal treatment in all terms. So now, no Menja child would refrain from coming to school for fear of discrimination. This is because starting from some years now NGOs like MELCA and the government as well as religious institutions are working on educating the community about equality of people and reducing the social exclusion against the Menjas. The only thing that may prevent Menja children now from coming to school is economic problem. As most of the Menjas are poor and live a subsistence life, they cannot provide their children with the necessary materials for schooling and so their children do not come to school. Otherwise, there is equal access to school for the Menjas as well.

To solve the economic problem that avoids their coming to school, MELCA is providing material support for some selected Menja children. As their parents have also started to be engaged in different economic activities and their livelihood in improving, the number of Menjas sending their children to school is also increasing.

On our part, we are also applying different incentive strategies to encourage the coming of Menjas to school and also instill their equality in other children. For instance we award Menja children in the rank of up to 10th from class; we appoint Menja children as monitors and also group leaders. These all can be considered as factors contributing to the increase of the number of Menja children in the schools.

In our school for instance, we hardly have 10 Menja children before 4-5 years back. Last year we had 42 Menja children; this year we have 60 of them starting from beginners to grade 8. This can show how fast the number of Menja children coming to school is increasing.”

Atenesh (3rd from left to right) and her Menja friends

Atenesh (3rd from left to right) and her Menja friends

Atenesh is a twelve years old Menja girl in grade one at Ewa primary school. She is one of the Menja children getting school support from MELCA. Regarding her schooling and school support, Atenesh has the following to say “Although I wanted to come to school when I was younger, I couldn’t come as my parents could not send me to school. They cannot buy me clothes, exercise books, pens and pencils that I need for schooling. We do not even have enough to eat. But this year, I am called to the school and got clothes, exercise books, pens, pencils and school bag. I am so happy now to attend school like my other friends. I would like to continue my education, become a nurse to heal people who become sick in my community. That is my dream unless I am forced to stop schooling.“

MELCA has started provision of school support for Menja children in 2013 through the fund it has obtained from EU’s EIDHR program, and in 2016 the organization is providing school supports for a total of 60 poor Menja children in different primary and junior secondary schools in Sheka zone.

The past shall only remain the history of Menjas

Ato Alemu

Ato Alemu

Alemu Endeshaw is a chairman of one of the cooperatives formed by Menja minority group in Sheka zone of SNNPR, Southwestern Ethiopia.

Menjas are minority group in Sheka, who are socially excluded and marginalized by other communities in the area. They are considered sub human and polluted due to historical social and cultural reasons and partly also because of their eating habits and personal hygiene.

Shekachos, who are the dominant ethnic group in Sheka, do not greet Menjas, they do not shake hands with them, do not visit them in their houses or allow them to inter their houses. They do not eat with them. The Menjas are not allowed to enter even public places like bars, restaurants and hotels in towns.

For these reasons, the Menjas live in deep forest areas. They mostly depend on forest products, including hunting and selling fuel wood, for living. They have no motivation to be engaged in crop production, as people do not buy their products.

MELCA-Ethiopia has been working to change the situation of Menjas since 2007, when it has started to operate in Sheka through its conservation focused approaches. But since November 2013, MELCA has been working on reduction of the social discrimination against the Menjas through the fund it has obtained from the European Union (EU).

The approaches toward reduction of the social exclusion include: economic empowerment of the Menjas through provision of livelihood supports, awareness raising and capacity building activities that involved the local community and government administration as well as school supports for Menja children.

Alemu and his fellow Menjas are beneficiaries of this project. Speaking of the project and the change that has started to evolve in relation to the Menjas, Alemu says “We are members of Menja community in Yepo kebele of Masha woreda. We are selected by MELCA and the kebele administration to be beneficiaries of the livelihood improvement support for Menjas. We are 34 in number. We got training on how we can start and improve our livelihood through income generating activities.

Group working

Group working

The group in my area wanted to be engaged in production of vegetables. So we were trained on how we can produce quality vegetables and get connected to the market. Then we got organized in to a cooperative to produce and supply vegetables to the local market.

Then we got garden tools and the seeds of vegetables. We came back and started to work right away. Now our vegetables are ready to be planted in the fields we prepared.

The training was an eye opener. We were trained on how to do the home gardening, on cooperative management, saving and financial management. We were also told that we are equal to others and we have the right to demand equality. We were made to realize we do not deserve to live such social exclusion. We never heard of such things before. It is as if we are taken to another world. We were living in such poverty-ravaged life suffering also from social exclusion mainly because we lacked those kinds of knowledge and awareness. We used to believe that the life we were living has been our destiny. We did not even think of getting out of that life because we believe it is impossible. The trainings were like wake up calls. They made us to see things differently.

I think we are in a period of transformation. Now we realized that transformation begins from with in; from ourselves. We have to be transformed and make people see us not in the usual way. When we build our confidence and show that practically, others will automatically change their approach toward us. We have proved this through our experiences so far and we will continue to build on this. The past shall only remain the history of Menjas.

for-web3Our vegetables are in good condition. We hope to get bumper harvest. We are planning to sell this and buy oxen to fatten and resell. We are dreaming for a different life. A different life for us. A different life for our children. The change has began and we are moving forward.

When MELCA started to support us, the local government also started to give us attention. Now we are being called to participate on different meetings at kebele and woreda levels. They are hearing our ideas. It was not like this before. No one considered us as humans and invited us for participation in discussions relating to the social, economic and political life of the community.

Following these, other community members have also started to treat us differently. They are giving us respect. Unlike before, others are now greeting us, listening to what we say and willing to work with us. These are changes as a result of the intervention.

Now we have a vision; a vision to work hard by expanding our activities and lift our association to a higher level; to the level of a cooperative engaged in animal fattening, coffee and honey marketing including the vegetable production. We have already started saving and bought two oxen from the saving so far. So we are on the way to the changes we are dreaming for.”

The event is like a day break- The beginning of a shift in our attitudes toward nature

During the first week of June 2016, MELCA-Ethiopia has organized legal workshops in Gambela Nation’s regional state. The legal workshops were organized for high government officials at regional and zonal levels.

Gambella region is one of the few areas in Ethiopia with dense natural forest coverage, many perennial rivers and plain land. Recently the region has become the focus of both national and international media because of the large-scale agricultural investments that are prevailing in the area.

The workshops are intended to raise the awareness and build the capacity of law enforcement organs, the justice body and administrative officials in the government structure with regard to national and international laws, policies, strategies and institutional arrangements as well as international movements and developments in relation to environment and climate change.

The workshop organized for government officials at regional level was officially opened by the vice president of Gambella Nations regional state H.E Engineer Oliero Opiew. In his opening speech Engineer Oliero mentioned that Ethiopia has announced that it is following the Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE), which requires government organs and all citizens to be concerned of conservation of natural resources more than ever. He said “Those of us in the government administration and law enforcement structure are more responsible for conservation of the natural resources of the region through strict enforcement of relevant laws and policies of the country. So this workshop is very important to build the capacity of these organs so that they can discharge the responsibility expected of them more effectively and contribute to the effectiveness of the national policy.”

The discussion points for the workshop were arranged in such a way that national and international environmental laws dealing with conservation of nature and governance systems are discussed; policy and institutional arrangements are examined and the real practices and experiences existing on the ground in the region are scrutinized against these national and international arrangements.

In addition to these, the causes and effects of climate change as well as the international politics going on in relation to it, and also what we as citizens of a poor developing country who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change should do were among the issues discussed during these meetings.

Lots of thoughts were triggered and there was a moment of Aaha in all the participants to the regional and zonal workshops. Some of the participants showed they started to feel the pain and reflected it in the following manner:

A high government official at the regional workshop pleaded we (MELCA) have to organize a meeting on which government officials at federal level and regional level, the investors working in the region and community representatives come together and discuss on such issues.

Vise head of the environment, climate change and forest bureau of the region admitted that so far, lands have been given for investment without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as required by the law. He reflected that the giving land for investment has been halted for the time being and in the future they will pay due attention to the issue of EIA as a condition for any investment and there is strong hope that this will be put in to practice.

One participant at the zonal workshop reflected that he had never thought of the value of other creatures such as monkeys, snakes and ants for our survival. He said “I always though of such animals as nuisances and their absence may affect our survival in any way. Today is really a day up on which I learned great thing in my life. It is a shift of mind in the way I see nature and value other creatures.”

Shaping the future is in our hands

“We are now aware that our future is in our hands. We believe we were not on the right truck with regard to conservation of our biodiversity, including our local seed varieties. We have to work for change. Today, MELCA opened our eyes to envision a lot more and work for change in various dimensions; but this will be just the beginning.