Tree is life vs tree is cash


Trees have long played an important role in the cultural lives of Ethiopia’s Gedeo people — but a shift in attitudes is changing this view. Image: Shutterstock

What can conservationists and environmentalists learn from Ethiopia’s Gedeo people?

— By Simon Watt

The Gedeo people of Ethiopia have helped maintain their environment through a culture that balances productivity with ecosystem health. The prevailing western view, however, sees the environment as a commodity. A paper in open-access journal Frontiers in Communication looks at how changes in the way people view themselves and their place in their environment can affect conservation.

Changing landscape and attitudes

Southern Ethiopia is a land of great beauty. It is a mountainous region with its hills and valleys often covered in thick, lush vegetation. The area is home to, among others, the indigenous Gedeo people who, for centuries, have survived self-sufficiently through agroforestry, producing food and growing cash crops like coffee. But the landscape is changing fast, at least in part because of the changing attitudes of the people who live there.

The paper’s authors argue that, globally, we are seeing a shift from a mutualist view, where we regard ourselves as being a part of nature, to a dualist view, where we see humans as separate from our environment and wielding dominion over it. Gedeo society is currently undergoing such a shift in perspective, with many people abandoning a traditional, harmonious and holistic view of nature to a take up a western, capitalist, binary view that sees their environment as a commodity. This current state of flux makes it the perfect place to study people’s attitudes to nature and the effects of those attitudes.

Trees: important for culture and cash

Trees have long played an important role in the cultural lives of the Gedeo people. Rural elders view certain trees and places as being sacred and consider acts of cutting or harming particular trees as taboo. Newlyweds spend their first night on a bedding of ensete leaves, newborns are received on these leaves and the dying are placed on top a layer of ensete leaves and midribs in their final hours. The phrase, “tree is life,” encapsulates this relationship between their culture and the environment.

For some though, cutting down trees for cash is the only way to survive. On the outskirts of towns, the youth forget or willfully ignore longstanding taboos. Once-untouchable trees are felled and sold in towns for firewood, charcoal manufacture or building materials, regardless of the harm done to the environment.

Gedeo cultural beliefs were undermined and eroded throughout the 20th century as the region was incorporated into greater Ethiopia. Traditional governance granted all clan members equal rights to resources, but the Ethiopian Empire imposed a feudal system which transferred local land authority to a ruling class. Later a military regime nationalized all rural land. Since then, a federalist system has arisen but a top-down, government-led attitude has remained.

Modern conservation also displaces traditional beliefs

The old ways still hold some sway, and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) recognizes that traditional beliefs and land management have helped maintained a balance between productivity and ecosystem health. UNESCO is in the process of inscribing Gedeo agroforestry as a world heritage site. However, even this acknowledgement, and the development of modern views of conservation, are not without complications. The government of Ethiopia pushes for “green development”, but the paper’s authors believe this expert-led and legally enforced approach is further displacing an effective traditional system based on social and spiritual sanctions with ineffective, detached western notions of stewardship.

“Culture shapes ecological relations”, says Dr Tema Milstein, one of the paper’s authors. She explains that “forces such as consumer capitalism, non-indigenous organized religion, urbanization, and conventional Western education can fundamentally dismantle regenerative environmental ways of being”.

People are part of nature, not separate to it

The authors are not arguing in favor of embracing fallacies to help aid conservation but can see how subtleties in different worldviews can have significant effects. Her colleague and co-author, Asebe Regassa Debelo, points out that “modern world religions are built on the philosophies of human dominion over nature; they often promote utilitarianism or dualist human-nonhuman relations”.

According to Asebe’s research, indigenous religions, by contrast, are “strongly embedded in values, beliefs, customs and practices that holistically embrace humans and non-humans and that “as a result, indigenous religions are often pro-nature.” Asebe would like to see a “revitalisation of indigenous culture, institutions, values and practices that would enhance human-nonhuman coexistence in a comprehensively mutualist approach”.

Tema echoes these hopes that both the people of Ethiopia, and humanity as a whole, can “make a future that is both inhabitable and mutually flourishing”, and argues that ”mutualist models are needed to inform ways forward.” An understanding of why we think how we think might be the first step towards not only maintaining the beauty and ecological integrity of the hills of Ethiopia, but also toward helping us all appreciate and regenerate what we currently have.

Original research article: “Tree Is Life”: The Rising of Dualism and the Declining of Mutualism among the Gedeo of Southern Ethiopia

Corresponding author: Tema Milstein

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