With the click of a mouse, the final versions of maps outlining conservation areas have set the precedent for a new kind of land management in Ethiopia.
The maps show authorized land use for six Community Conservation Areas (CCAs) in Ethiopia’s Central and Southern Rift Valley— the first such areas to be officially recognized by the state.
The final keystroke capped more than five years of work by the Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA), a U.S. Agency for International Development-supported program implemented by Counterpart International. The alliance aims to enhance biodiversity conservation and economic development through sustainable tourism, community mobilization and improved livelihoods throughout the region.
In a country where the government is the sole landowner, approval of the maps solidifies these unprecedented community-led agreements about how land may be used.
The Ethiopian government had policies about protected areas, but around the time ESTA was getting off the ground in 2007, it made allowances for communities themselves to earmark land for conservation.
ESTA targeted areas that were vulnerable to drought, food insecurity, and overuse of natural resources. Where biologically significant places were under threat, ESTA saw an opportunity: It knew places worth protecting were also places tourists would want to see.
“Tourists want to see something like a waterfall, not a watershed,” says Jennifer Norfolk, Counterpart’s Senior Environmental Program Manager.
Creating CCAs around special but vulnerable attractions creates incentives to protect both.
Benefitting from their own assets
Community-operated ecotourism deploys natural, historical and cultural resources for local development, according to Bedilu Shegen, Counterpart’s director in Ethiopia.
“This type of tourism is vital for the country’s development in that the direct beneficiaries are the local communities themselves, especially those heavily dependent on unsustainable use of natural resources,” Shegen says.
Within the CCAs, ESTA formed self-governing community associations that stimulate economic growth through ecotourism but also through alternative livelihoods like beekeeping and handcrafts production. They also ensure a percentage of associationor business profits go into a Community Development Fund, used for local projects and reinvestment.
“The people…own the conservation strategy,” says Abu Jarsoo, Head of Batu Town Culture and Tourism Office. “They see the benefits of planting seedlings, digging pits, and rehabilitating degraded land. ESTA created this sense of ownership by teaching natural resource management and going directly into the community asking about their needs.”
Process and politics
The new maps indicate designated conservation sites, nurseries, pasturelands and biologically significant areas as well as economic use zones, trekking paths and tourist attractions handcraft shops and hippo pools in the six CCAs.
Community members walked every inch of the land during the mapping process, recording its geographic features and uses such as grazing and farming. The project then used a GPS system to log coordinates and ensure accurate demarcation.
An expert from the Ethiopian mapping agency prepared the final products, which will be part of the CCA management plans and bylaws—written accounts of how the land will be used—and are the final step in formalizing the areas.
The Ethiopian Government seems interested in improving land administration, and has also been working with USAID to give millions of households land certification—a hybrid legal approach that allows the state to retain ownership while empowering citizens with legal rights to land use and inheritance.
Government land ownership has made local agreements about its use difficult, and has diminished community investment in agriculture and conservation. Although regional governments doled out land rights to individuals, families always worried they would come to take it back.
Undocumented claims and clashing convictions about how land should be used have led to fatal conflicts.
A promising final step
With the CCAs officially recognized, communities are already developing a greater sense of ownership over the land they profit from and steward.
“Now we are proud to walk through this area and we know the land is well protected,” says Nachi Urgesa, a resident of Lepis, Ethiopia. “My house is here and I’ve seen the changes already. Trees are no longer cut down, and people don’t let their cattle overgraze. This is a very big difference.”
Having a CCA gives communities the resources and authority to make decisions about their own land, and avoid conflicts with those who think they have a claim to it, even when that is the government itself.
“Designating CCAs creates ownership, predictability, stability and a higher degree of control over resources,” Norfolk says. “Submitting the CCA maps and bylaws is the last step in a whole process of making it official that the government has granted land rights to a community.”
ESTA staff and the collaborating communities believe the CCAs will serve as a model for other conservation projects, mobilize more communities to manage and conserve their land, and educate Ethiopians about promising options for managing it.