Ethiopia suffers from vast deforestation, rapid population growth, and high rates of maternal mortality. But development programs that address these issues in an integrated fashion
may help end that suffering. As part of my two-month internship with the PHE-Ethiopia Consortium
, I recently visited the Movement for Ecological and Community Action (MELCA) Project in the rural Bale Zone of southeastern Ethiopia to witness these programs in action.
Ethiopia’s Spectacular Bale Mountains
The little-known Bale Mountains are national and global treasures of biodiversity, teeming with dozens of endemic mammal, bird, and plant species. Ethiopia’s most important region for migrating birds, the rivers and streams in the Bale watershed flow to more than 12 million people in southern Ethiopia and western Somalia. Bale Mountains National Park hosts half of the world’s population of its rarest canid, the Ethiopian wolf, which has dwindled to a mere 250 individuals due to human interaction. When I toured the park, I was lucky enough to spot bushbucks, mountain nyalas, molerats, and several Ethiopian wolves.
As in many parts of the country, rural communities around the park face grave livelihood and health challenges, and their unsustainable use of land to eke out a living is threatening its conservation efforts. Due to diminishing agricultural land and an average total fertility rate of 6.2 children per mother in the region, people are increasingly forced to cut trees for fuel and timber in order to feed and house their families.
If Bale’s resources continue to be exploited in an unsustainable way, more mammal species would become extinct here than in any other area of equivalent size in the world. Even worse, MELCA Project Manager Tesfaye Teshome told me that if deforestation and impending climate change dry up Bale’s precious watershed, drought and famine could lead to the displacement or death of millions of Ethiopian citizens.
Raising PHE Awareness in the Community
Since 2005, MELCA, a member organization of the PHE-Ethiopia Consortium, has been working to protect biodiversity and culture in the Bale region through research, advocacy, and their award-winning youth environmental education program called SEGNI, or “Social Empowerment through Group and Nature Interaction.” In March 2008, with funding from Engender Health and the Packard Foundation, MELCA launched an integrated population, health and environment (PHE) project that provides culturally sensitive training at the community, school, and government levels.
I was impressed that after just seven months of raising awareness, I met dozens of community members and key stakeholders who strongly believe in both the conceptual and operational benefits of PHE integration. For example, the Health Extension Workers and beneficiaries explained to me that community members in the Bale region, most of whom are conservative Muslims, held negative perception of family planning, which contributed to the area’s large family sizes and maternal mortality. But by involving Islamic community leaders in the project’s discussions, MELCA helped convince religious leaders that family planning is an important part of improving the health and livelihoods of the community.
“After the PHE training, we have improved awareness of population, family planning, health and environmental issues, and we understand that child spacing is better. Even my wife is now using family planning services, and as a result our lives are improved,” said Shihase, a religious leader in the community.
Join the Club: PHE Goes to School
Inspired by training sessions at schools, the SEGNI nature clubs, women’s clubs, and anti-AIDS clubs joined together to form new “PHE Clubs.” With the support of MELCA, PHE Club students plant indigenous tree seedlings in school nurseries for distribution to the community. They also create dramas, songs, poems, and illustrated storyboards about population, health, and environment issues, and use modest “mini-media” equipment such as a stereos and microphones to share these stories with their peers and other community members.
When I arrived at Finchaa Banoo Elementary School, hundreds of students greeted me with a PHE song, wearing traditional costumes with PHE banners strewn across their chests. They led me to their nursery site where they had planted 60,000 indigenous tree seedlings. A beautifully decorated cultural hut was filled with 10 PHE storyboard panels, painted by a local PHE-trained artist.
Fatiye, a 21-year old PHE club leader in 8th grade, proudly told me, “Before the coming of PHE, I’d been working only on SEGNI and knew only about biodiversity and culture. But now, I clearly understand health and population issues, including HIV/AIDS, taught to me by my peers. By having the integration of clubs, we’ve strengthened our power to accomplish more.”
Working Together to Save Time and Improve Health
MELCA’s PHE trainings also helped government officials and development workers who had previously operated in isolated sectors to integrate their work at the planning and implementation levels. Health Extension Workers and experts from the Agricultural and Rural Development Office said that collaboration is beneficial to them and the community, because it saves time and accomplishes greater results. Shankore, one of the Health Extension Workers, told me that integrating efforts across sectors allows them to help more households adopt both family planning and better sanitation, by more consistently and efficiently delivering services at the same time.
And their efforts are paying off: “Previously, we were giving birth just like chickens, our forest coverage was diminishing, and we were damaging our resources. We had cattle in our homes, and our children had health problems. Now, we understand how to improve these issues,” Khasim Sheka, a male member of the community, told me. “Health Extension Workers are teaching us about cleaning our home gardens and homes, and we separate our house from our cattle, liquid, and solid waste. My wife wasn’t using any family planning before, and now she’s using five-year Norplant.”
Although MELCA’s PHE project is still in its early stages, it appears capable of being scaled up with a little investment in additional training and by building the capacity of its staff and community members. In particular, the reproductive health component of the project needs to be strengthened, since Health Extension Workers are not trained on simple long-term family planning methods like IUDs, and are afraid they will lose clients if they continue to have to refer them to the distant health clinic.
With these improvements, MELCA could more successfully implement the integrated PHE approach, which will not only reduce the impact of population growth and deforestation on Bale Mountain Natural Park, but will improve the health and livelihoods of its neighbors, and ultimately protect its biodiversity for Ethiopia and the global community.
For more information about PHE-Ethiopia, please contact email@example.com or visit their website at http://www.phe-ethiopia.org. For more information about MELCA, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at http://www.melca-ethiopia.org.
Cassie Gardener was the National Campus Organizer for the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program from 2006-2010, and is currently traveling around the world and volunteering for integrated health and development programs like PHE-Ethiopia and GoJoven prior to beginning her Masters in Public Health Program at UCLA in the fall.
Photo Credits: Morgennenbel034_31a, courtesy of flickr user Agoetzke Practitioners, courtesy of Cassie Gardener.