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Down but not out: lessons learned in Ethiopia

by C.W. Nicol

Here we go again. Ten years on from the great environmental meetings and agreements made at the first Earth Summit in Rio, and the second Earth Summit is about to start in Johannesburg.

Here we go again. Ten years on from the great environmental meetings and agreements made at the first Earth Summit in Rio, and the second Earth Summit is about to start in Johannesburg.

No doubt the same crucial issues will be thrashed over. But will those with real power do anything about the loss of forests, potable water, global warming et al? I don’t think so.

What about the United States? It vows to go after the bin Laden bloke, but he’s nowhere to be seen, and in the meantime apart from killing a lot of innocent humans with their bombing, they also wipe out some crucial and dwindling woodland in the mountains with their “daisy-cutter” bombs and other ordnance. Who knows how long that damage will take to repair — if it can be repaired, that is.

I am reminded of the U.S. military using their “agent orange” defoliants in Vietnam. I shake my head. I am also reminded of a time in my life when I was desperately fighting to save forest and wildlife in another part of the world.

Until October of 1969 I was a game warden in Ethiopia. For two years I had lived in the Simien Mountains in the northern province of Begemdir, trying to get this wonderful, rugged mountain country declared a national park. The Simien Mountain National Park was finally officially gazetted in Addis Ababa on Oct. 31, 1969. By then I had returned to Japan, foreseeing a coming revolution and Marxist takeover — and a lot of slaughter to go with it, as well as the continued degradation of the highland forest and grasslands. I also predicted famine and other social disasters.

A short time before I left, I recorded these words:

An expedition of botanists from the university in Addis Ababa has set up a camp in Geech [a Muslim village and the highest in the park, above the tree line in the afro-alpine grassland at about 3,700 meters.] They were collecting plants all over the highland and the Djinn Barr Valley. They camped in Sankabar [which was my base camp on a ridge leading into the upper reaches of the park] and I offered them a hot shower and a meal. They had collected more than 200 different flowers, many of which had yet to be identified. They said there must be at least 10 different kinds of orchids in the park. Had time permitted them to explore around the foot of the escarpment [which extended for about 40 km], they suspected they could have found at least 600 different kinds of plants in the Simien.

It was certainly the time for flowers. Hills were covered with Maskal daisies, and with alternative carpets of blue sage, or great fields of orange and red-hot pokers, scattered ox-eye daisies, clover, buttercups, scabious and lots of flowers with long Latin names. Along the pathways the jasmine was sweet, and there were masses of paired white balsam flowers. Around the rocks grew pennywort and violet, and a slender, long-stemmed plant that looked like gladiolus. The giant heather was in blossom too. Its flowers were tiny white bells, and they made the dark-green trees look as if they had been dipped in silver-grey paint. Like jewels, tiny blue flowers grew in the close-cropped grass. There were geraniums and pinks, and a tall yellow flower that looked to me like a hollyhock. On the south-facing slopes of the Sankabar ridge the aloes were just beginning to flower; fleshy, prickly leaves of purple-green, with orange flowers.

I had never seen so many flowers. The Simien was a mixture of high mountain and forest, desert and meadow, Europe and Africa. One of the botanists even found a willow tree growing in the Khabar Valley.

I wrote those words 33 years ago. I was leaving Africa in despair. The world was recognizing that places such as the Simien Mountains were unique and precious, but the degradation from overgrazing, cutting and burning of forest on steep slopes — with the consequent inevitable erosion — continued poaching, apathy and often corruption on the part of government officials, and all the depressing things you have probably read about or seen on television were right smack in my face, and I couldn’t take it any more.

The Simien Mountain National Park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. But then came war, in which the villages all around the park were destroyed as fighting raged in 1989 and 1990 over what had been our base-camp area on the Sankabar Ridge. That of course meant men with guns — and so more poaching.

Since then I have continued to get letters and reports from old friends, and quite honestly, I don’t want to go back and realize that my predictions were all correct — and that we have lost so very much beauty and diversity. And that people are still basically unchanged.

Maybe the experience in Ethiopia was the main reason why I set up the woodland trust near my home in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture — and why I feel so good when walking in the woods, which I can be confident will be protected and nurtured after I’m gone. Going back to my native Wales in recent years makes me feel good, too, because woodland area, which had fallen to a meager 6 percent of the total land area when I was a lad, has been doubled to 12 percent, and most Welsh folk now realize that woodlands, biodiversity, water resources and natural beauty are absolutely vital to the quality of life and health.

This weekend, Richard Wagstaff, who has been the chief ranger of the Afan Forest Park in Wales for some 30 years, will be visiting us here in Kurohime. We hope to set up a “sister forest” agreement that will enable us to exchange people and ideas to foster woodland research, restoration and education.

In comparison with the Simien Mountain National Park, our little woodland is but a tiny stamp on a very big parcel.

However, we probably have more healthy growing trees and greater biodiversity than any of the remaining and much-endangered parts of the Simien.

And as long as this old red devil is alive, it will get better. And that’s no thanks to the global talking shop in Johannesburg — or the one in Rio 10 years ago.