Fiona Hesselden

Researcher, Centre for Sustainability, Responsibility, Governance and Ethics

Environmentalist and sustainability expert Fiona Hesselden comments on the news last week that Ethopia had broken the record for the number of trees planted in one day and says while the record-breaking attempt captured the world’s media – will it have an effect beyond the headlines?

The main photo portrays the view over the forest in Sheko Wereda, South West Ethiopia, where the Sustainability Research Centre's two research projects are working.  Credit: Indrias Getachew.   

News emerged just over a week ago that Ethiopia had broken the world record for the number of trees planted in one day – a whopping 350 million of them, smashing the record previously held by the Utter Pradesh state in India of 50 million tree seedlings in a day. 

The exercise is part of reforming Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative, a campaign that also includes cleaning waterways and making agriculture more sustainable, as well as making Ethiopians more aware of the county’s environmental problems and encouraging greener behaviour.  

The record breaking attempt certainly succeeded in capturing the imagination of the world’s media, with the achievement widely reported internationally.   But beyond the headlines, will it work? 

Tree planting has long been a favourite method of sequesting carbon and it has a number of other benefits too.   Trees conserve and protect soil, something Ethiopia badly needs.  It currently loses over 1.5billion tonnes of topsoil from the highlands, with loss rates running higher than soil formation rates (Tamene & Vlek, 2008)*. 

Trees are also important habitats for wildlife and can protect biodiversity and help purify water as well as reduce temperatures in urban environments – increasingly important in a warming world.  

Another a positive aspect of Prime Minister Ahmed’s initiative is the use of indigenous species.  Ethiopia currently lives with the legacy of an historical non-native tree planting initiative of eucalyptus trees.   Known for their fast growth and burning well, they seemed the ideal solution to Ethiopia’s need for fuelwood for poor rural (and urban) communities.  But eucalyptus increases soil acidity, destroys nearby plants and, as a non-native species, supports a less biodiverse ecosystem. 

But not all trees, indigenous or otherwise, are created equal; some do this job more effectively than others.  Having the right tree in the right environment is key.  And after care is crucial.  Those three hundred and fifty million seedlings need to be watered and tendered to over the coming months and years if the initiative is to succeed.  

The 350million trees to date are only a part of a planned planting of 4 billion tree seedlings.  PM Abiy Ahmed has the ambition and is to be applauded for it – Ethiopia is only one of five countries deemed to have submitted a ‘sufficiently ambitious’ contribution to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. 

But only time will tell whether the Prime Minister’s tree planting initiative delivers on its intended green legacy.” 

*Tamene L., Vlek P.L.G. (2008) Soil Erosion Studies in Northern Ethiopia. In: Braimoh A.K., Vlek P.L.G. (eds) Land Use and Soil Resources. Springer, Dordrecht.

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