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A Selection of Ethiopia's Indigenous Trees: Biology, Uses and Propagation Techniques

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Abstract

Ethiopia is strategically located in the Horn of Africa, and has the requisite conditions for developing good quality tropical forests. This strategic location offers potentially enormous opportunity for exporting a variety of value-added forest products to the neighboring countries, including those in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s indigenous forests have rapidly been destroyed, leaving large tracts of mountains, mountain slopes and the fragile watersheds unprotected. Consequently, massive soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion have occurred resulting in widespread deficiency diseases in crops, animals and humans. In today's Ethiopia, there are fewer medicinal, nitrogen-fixing and keystone plant species than there were, say, 100 years ago. As we destroyed more and more of indigenous nitrogen-fixing trees, fewer and fewer of them were left for fixing molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, thus resulting in the impoverishment of the latter. We now realize that the consequences of deforestation and soil impoverishment are not only directly linked to the unfulfilled human potential, but also to the massive amount of money we spend on purchasing fertilizers and timber. We do also realize that our soils are so 'addicted' to commercial fertilizers that without these widespread crop failures would occur, thus ushering in a massive food deficit. While commercial fertilizers are generally good at providing macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, these macronutrients are likely to competitively inhibit the absorption of micronutrients such as iron, manganese, molybdenum, or zinc. Consequently, malnutrition (hence apathy for work, 'laziness') among Ethiopia’s rural (and urban) population remains chronic. There is therefore urgent need for restoring indigenous trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses on Ethiopia's extensively degraded landscapes, including its watersheds. Clearly, jus as indigenous trees and shrubs are essential for saving us from the 'swords' of climate change and desertification, they are also critical for 'pumping' up macro- and micronutrients to the surface of the soil. Restoration of indigenous trees is much more than just planting them - it is about re-establishing (at a landscape scale) the lost vital ecosystem functions and services that vegetation used to provide for both people and other organisms, including wildlife and lower forms of life such as lichens, mosses, and ferns. Landscape restoration through use of indigenous tees will connect (and hence help revive) forest fragments. It will establish a network of vegetation bridges among protected areas, thereby creating corridors for wildlife mobility. Landscape restoration helps mitigate the impacts of devastating climatic conditions manifested in Ethiopia through frequent droughts, increased likelihood of desertification, and intensified flooding. Although Ethiopia cannot be held responsible for the current global climate change, it has to play a constructive role in the sequestration of CO2, the primary molecule that causes global warming. One way of achieving sequestration is to allow the revival of pioneer plants, as well as to establish as many indigenous trees as possible over Ethiopia’s degraded landscapes, including its shattered watersheds. The benefits of restoring indigenous trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses across degraded landscapes include biodiversity development, improvement of water quality and quantity, as well as regeneration and stabilization of the soil. Landscape restoration through the development of indigenous trees and biodiversity will have tremendous impacts on health (e.g. sustainable production of nutritious foods, provision of medicinal plants, and availability of fresh water) and economic growth (e.g. development of forest-based products and expansion of ecotourism). One of the stumbling blocks in the restoration of indigenous trees had been lack of scientific knowledge on their propagation biology and the integrated physiological responses of these trees under field conditions. Consequently, indigenous trees have been denigrated under the triple mythical phrases, namely "difficult to propagate", "difficult to cultivate", and "slow growing". It is true that Ethiopia has slow-growing trees such as Pouteria adolfi-friederici (Engl.) Baehni [Aningeria adolfi-friederici (Engl.) Robyns & Gilbert], but it also has fast growing ones such as Millettia ferruginea (Hochst.) Baker and Cordia africana Lam. But who said slow growth is a negative quality? Compare, for example, the superb hardwood of P. adolfi-friederici or the excellent soft wood of Podocarpus falcatus (Thunb.) Mirb.).
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