It all started in 1991 when the regional government of Tigray made a plan to stop forests from being depleted and land from being degraded. Part of the plan provided communities with 20 to 40 days of free labour every year to restore their land.
Over the next 30 years, there was impressive rehabilitation. This included widespread re-vegetation, reduced rainwater runoff, improvement in soil quality. Feed, food, and fuel availability increased and forest cover improved from 3% to 17%.
But the two-year war and siege on Tigray region has set Tigray’s restoration back by decades. The conflict has had a devastating impact on both people and the environment.
The environment has been destroyed by aerial and ground bombardment, the use of dangerous chemicals, and vehicle and army movement. Forests and conservation and restoration structures were destroyed by military activity. The landscape is littered with waste and abandoned military material.
Restored landscapes somehow saved some lives and met people’s livelihoods. People were forced to eat whatever they could find, including wild fruits and leaves, to survive. In addition, 2.1 million people were displaced. Many turned to firewood for cooking and used timber to construct temporary shelters.
According to World Peace Foundation, the destruction of the environment was also a tool of war. Tigrayan communities are highly dependent on natural resources for food, fuel, and feed. Agriculture contributes 42.7% to gross domestic product (GDP), about 85% of employment, and 70% of export earnings. Armies deliberately destroyed fruit trees, forests, soil conservation structures, and nursery structures. Grass harvests used for animal feed were burned. The destruction of the ecosystems will in turn affect food security and the climate for a long time to come.
Typically, humanitarian concerns are prioritised following a war. Reconstruction efforts focus on repairing damaged hospitals, schools, factories, and water systems. But restoring the environment also needs urgent attention so that societies can produce food and goods to rebuild their lives.
As experts in land restoration, forestry, agroforestry, climate change, and development in the Tigray region and beyond, we want to share what we think should be in the environmental restoration plan to ensure Tigray’s recovery is green and sustainable.
Removal of Dangerous Material
First, any hazards — including bombs and land mines — must be cleared. This is essential to allow people to begin restoration.
Ecosystems contaminated by shelling and bombardments, destroyed industrial, agricultural, and health facilities, and military waste should be dealt with as hotspots.
These activities can be done by the line offices in consultation with the Tigray, federal, and UN environmental agencies.
Assessment of Environmental Damage
A thorough assessment of the direct and indirect impacts and losses is needed.
Direct damage assessments should evaluate trees, forests, soil, water, and wildlife. The assessment will provide detailed information on the magnitude of the destruction, what needs to be prioritised, and what resources are needed. As it is impossible to survey the entire region, which is about 50,079km², sites should be chosen for sampling based on the level of damage.
Indirect damage assessments will cover pollution and contamination. Laboratory analysis should be conducted for soil, water, and vegetation from areas where intensive fighting took place or where industrial plants or other infrastructure were destroyed. This can be done by the regional environment authority, universities, and international partners.
Local People at the Centre
The post-war environment recovery must put the needs of the community at the centre. The aim is to reduce vulnerability, improve livelihoods, and build resilience.
Communities have been key in Tigray’s past land restoration efforts and they must be involved. Restoration processes must be based on their priorities and values. Ensuring they have a sense of ownership is key to sustaining efforts.
Which Landscapes to Prioritise
Farm households and farmlands should get priority. Farmers should be provided with oxen and improved agricultural farm goods, to improve their subsistence farming and to scale up agroforestry practices.
Existing natural forests and woodlands, specifically those which act as water towers and national parks, are crucial for income generation, biodiversity protection, and climate preservation. We would recommend a higher priority for Kafta-Shararo national park, the Boswellia woodlands, Hugumbrda-Grat Khasu forest, Desaa forest, Hirmi woodland, and church forests such as Waldba Forest.
Include Urban Farming
Past restoration efforts focused on rural landscapes. There is no better moment to introduce urban farming practices to bring greenery and a sustainable lifestyle closer to home.
During the past three years, during COVID and the siege on Tigray, we observed the start of sporadic urban farming in the region. Urban forestry and agroforestry programmes must be designed and integrated as part of post-war rehabilitation and climate adaptation.
Rehabilitating Research Facilities
The research facilities in Tigray that support land restoration — such as genetic resources, laboratories, farm machinery, and nursery infrastructure — have been looted and pillaged. For instance, the Tigray Agricultural Research Institute, which made significant contributions to the past land rehabilitation of Tigray, was destroyed. Research scientists and their support staff were killed. Professors of Tigray origin in Ethiopian universities and Tigrayan professors from universities in Tigray were targeted for killing.
The damage needs to be repaired immediately so that universities and research organisations can continue contributing to the restoration of agriculture and natural resources in Tigray.
Determining ecological damage losses could draw attention to the scale of environmental destruction and foster justice and accountability for lasting peace.
Environmental damage and war are humanitarian issues, regardless of where they happen. What has happened should be a wake-up call to environmentalists and humanity. There is no sustainable land restoration without sustainable peace, and there is no sustainable peace without collective action.