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The Desa’a Restoration Project: Restoring ecosystems, empowering people

By Preferred by Nature

An Ethiopian forest isn’t merely being restored; it’s transforming lives. Recently awarded the Preferred by Nature Ecosystem Restoration Verification, the Desa’a Restoration project is not just breathing new life into the ecosystem but also empowering nearby communities.

Located within Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the Desa’a State Forest is a vital ecosystem classified as a dry Afromontane Forest. This unique habitat boasts a diverse array of plant and animal life, including the yellow-black bird, Hamadryas baboon, spotted hyena, and Ethiopian highland hare.

The forest plays a crucial role for surrounding communities, providing essential services such as protection from soil erosion, recharging groundwater aquifers, and sustaining crucial water springs. However, the area has long suffered from the impacts of agricultural encroachment, free grazing and unsustainable resource use. These practices, combined with challenging agriculture conditions such as poor soil quality and insufficient rainfall, have led to deforestation and habitat fragmentation.

The Desa’a Restoration Project aims to revitalise this precious landscape while empowering the surrounding communities. This ambitious project, titled “Nurturing a sustainable forest management culture in Northern Ethiopia to benefit local communities and the landscapes – ETH-DES”, or simply the Desa’a Restoration Project, is run by WeForest Ethiopia. The project builds upon evidence and past successes from within the country and across WeForest’s global projects.

Spanning over 38,365 hectares, the project reflects the collaborative efforts between WeForest, Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development, formalised through a Memorandum of Understanding signed back in March 2019, and local communities.

The forest landscape restoration model combines ecological restoration with livelihood resilience, rooted in communities’ restoration decisions. By 2030, WeForest envisions a lush tapestry stretching across the Desa’a landscape, with over 40,000 households engaged in sustainable income-earning ventures. With an approximate budget of $30 million, this initiative aims to mitigate climate change, foster food security and enhance socio-economic resilience.

Earning the Ecosystem Restoration Verification

The project’s recent verification against the Preferred by Nature Ecosystem Restoration Standard underscores its dual focus on ecological and social upliftment.

“The Desa'a Restoration Project exemplifies the impact achievable through a collaborative and community-centred approach to ecosystem restoration. Our assessment highlighted the project's commitment not only to ecological restoration but also to social upliftment, which is crucial for long-term sustainability.”

Hernán Zaldívar Schrader
Ecosystem Restoration Specialist – Preferred by Nature

“We were impressed by the dedication of the WeForest team and the local communities, and we are confident that this project will serve as a model for future endeavours,” added Hernán, praising the project’s holistic approach.

The Preferred by Nature Ecosystem Restoration Standard is a global benchmark for assessing restoration performance. It provides a structured approach for field-level verification, encompassing a broad spectrum of techniques. Designed for flexibility, the Standard applies to projects of all scales and stages. Dr Aklilu Negussie Mekurie, WeForest’s Ethiopia Director, shared that it was a daring move to submit the project to such rigorous scrutiny, but they were confident it would be worth it.

“This certificate is a testament to the unwavering commitment of the Desa’a community, the dedicated WeForest Ethiopia team, and all our allies who have steadfastly supported our mission. This distinction greatly elevates our influence both nationally and globally. The insights gained from this validation are shedding light on our path ahead, guiding us to uphold these exemplary standards in all our future projects and integrate them across our initiatives.”

Dr Aklilu Negussie Mekuria
Director - WeForest’s Ethiopia

Navigating complexities: Land tenure and stakeholder engagement

The project is overseen by the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change at the national level, and the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development at the regional level. It operates within a complex land tenure system where all land is formally state-owned, and households are granted limited use rights according to the National Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation 456/250. However, customary bylaws established by the communities play a significant role in managing communal natural forests and protected areas.

WeForest’s Desa’a Restoration Project acknowledges this complexity and adheres to best practices for stakeholder engagement during the planning process, as outlined in the Preferred by Nature Ecosystem Restoration Standard.

This ensures that the project respects the customary rights and traditional knowledge of the local people while adhering to national regulations. Although there are no cultural heritage sites within the project area, churches and monasteries exist where communities practice their religion freely.

In 2022, the project reached a key milestone: the new bylaws in all seven municipalities were amended and ratified in consultation with the local community. The updated bylaws, initially developed at a village level, now provide detailed information and clarification on physical boundaries, rules for different types of land - including forest, grassland, farmland and gullies - and the activities that are allowed or prohibited.

Zones of renewal: Tailoring restoration to the land

The project divided the forest into three distinct management zones, each with targeted interventions. The core zone, dense forest with a canopy cover of 40% or more, focuses on conserving existing healthy forests. Here, the project prioritises activities like controlled grazing and fire management to protect the existing ecosystem.

There are two buffer zones. Buffer zone I, with vegetation cover of more than 10% but less than 40%, encompasses degraded areas. These zones see interventions like assisted natural regeneration and tree planting with native species like Juniperus procera and Olea europaea ssp. cuspidata.

Meanwhile, buffer zone II, communally owned, fragmented open forests and grazing lands with vegetation cover of 10% or less, sees a focus on improving land management practices to reduce grazing pressure and enable natural regeneration. Additionally, buffer zones promote agroforestry practices, combining trees with crops like wheat and barley to enhance agricultural productivity and restore degraded lands. This not only improves soil health but also provides additional income opportunities for local communities.

As for the development zones, they are home to the surrounding communities. These zones have a focus on livelihood development. Projects here include apiculture such as honey production, which is a significant source of income for some households.

Hernán explained further, “The project offers training and resources to promote sustainable beekeeping practices. Additionally, it supports poultry and small ruminant production. All activities are designed to improve food security and nutrition within the communities. The project also implements small-scale irrigation and introduces high-value fruit trees.”

“These initiatives aim to diversify agricultural production, generate income, and improve the resilience of local livelihoods in the face of climate change,” added Hernán.

Community needs at the heart of restoration

At the core of the project is a commitment to the community. A 2016-2017 socioeconomic survey revealed that over half the community lacked formal education, and many households struggled to meet their basic needs. The average annual income was approximately ETB 22,500/year (equivalent to USD 837/year), with over 56% of the sample households living below the internationally agreed poverty line of USD 1.95/day. Families were highly dependent on the extraction of forest resources for their livelihoods, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable alternatives.

The project has had a high social impact in an area heavily affected by recent armed conflicts. WeForest has ensured the project's continuity even during times of conflict, continuing with capacity improvement and providing planting materials for restoration. This type of action is very important because of the relief it has provided to the communities, who felt supported by the project members during times of violence. Now that the armed conflict has ceased, it is evident that local communities recognise forest restoration as a powerful tool to combat challenges like droughts and livestock feed shortages. This commitment to social impact has resulted in a project with far-reaching benefits, demonstrating resilience and adaptability.

Integrating climate action for long-term benefits

The Desa'a Restoration Project assessment also included the optional climate change module of the Preferred by Nature Ecosystem Restoration Standard.

“This module has been developed for projects that want to check if they are on track to meet carbon standards but also for the ones that aim to demonstrate that they are making contributions in terms of climate change mitigation, even if they don’t pursue carbon credits generation using a full carbon standard," explained Mateo Cariño Fraisse, Senior Manager of Land Use Programme at Preferred by Nature.

This comprehensive evaluation identified areas for improvement within the associated carbon project, developed using Verra's Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) methodologies. This will increase the benefits to the communities through carbon credits, further enhancing the project's long-term sustainability.

“This is a great moment for the project staff in Ethiopia. Most importantly, the community living around Desa'a forest and its leadership deserve this recognition. I believe the community has much more to impress the world in managing its natural resources, including Desa'a forest, with the support of regional to local leadership, WeForest and its allies. This certificate means a lot to us," expressed Yemane Gebru Hagos, Regional Manager of WeForest’s Tigray.

"Knowing that our activities fulfill the restoration standards encourages us to work harder and achieve more in restoring our degraded ecosystem," added Yemane Gebru Hagos. 

WeForest's Desa'a Forest Restoration Project stands as a symbol of what can be achieved when people unite for the common good: restoring degraded ecosystems and empowering local communities. It’s a story of restoration and resilience, where every planted sapling and empowered livelihood contribute to a harmonious coexistence of people and nature.

Photos by Hernán Zaldívar Schrader / Preferred by Nature

For more information, visit: Preferred by Nature’s Ecosystem Restoration Verification Service | Carbon Projects Validation/Verification Services

For more information, please contact:

Mateo Cariño Fraisse
Senior Manager, Land Use Programme
Hernán Zaldívar Schrader
Ecosystem Restoration Specialist

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