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Kifle Gebremariam, 39, was born and raised in Shishinda Kebele Kaffa zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional state (SSNPR). He is currently serving as the administrator of Kaffa zone whose capital city is Bonga. Kifle did most of his primary schooling in his hometown Shishinda, then moved to Hosanna and attended Wachemo Secondary School before completing his high school education in Bonga. Now, he has a Masters Degree in Urban Management, a Diploma in Urban Engineering and a first degree in Urban Planning. During his visit to the area in late November 2012, Capital’s staff reporter, Pawlos Belete, discussed with Kifle his political career, climate change, which has become a threat to one of the last tropical rainforests in the country and the fate of wild coffee shrubs growing in the wilds plus efforts underway to preserve it.
Capital: You are now serving as the Administrator of Kaffa Zone; when did you join the political scene and what does it mean for you?
Kifle Gebremariam: I have been in politics for a long time. I have been able to observe the immense changes on the ground and in every aspect of our lives at present, as compared to what was the reality during the previous regime. If you look carefully, you can see many sensible changes at regional as well as national level. This is the result of community ownership in regards to one’s affairs. It is the current government that empowered every nationality of this beloved country to decide on common matters of interest. Every nationality of the country is administering its locality, making use of its own language and using all available resources to register real changes we are witnessing at present. These and other motivating factors have created a fertile ground to participate in the national effort to create a unified political and economic community. That is what we call unity in diversity. These multifaceted opportunities and changes have convinced me to take part and contribute what I can to the national effort of first reducing then finally getting rid of the perennial poverty once and for all that is plaguing our country. That is why I joined the regional Southern Peoples Democratic Movement (SPDM) of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). I have been serving the party since 1996, which is almost half my life. I am 39 years old.
Capital: Kaffa Zone is known as the original source of Coffee Arabica, which is found growing in the wilds of the dense tropical rainforest in the area. Have you observed any change in the forest coverage of the area as compared to your childhood memory?
Kifle: There are major changes to the rainforest when I compare what was there in my childhood and what is there at present. The area was densely covered back then. Now, there are some areas almost turning barren due to over cultivation, population pressure, and an increased demand for forest products. That has reduced the coverage and variety of trees and plants that used to be quite common around here. Currently, there is a little over 760 thousand hectares of land covered by rainforest in our zone and the area is registered by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve. A German NGO specializing on environmental conservation named NABU is working to preserve it in collaboration with local NGOs. Apart from the national effort to restore natural environments to their earlier pristine condition, we are carrying out biological conservation activities at regional level, taking into consideration biological changes. We have identified what type of conservation activities need to be undertaken in the 10 zones of the Regional state. We are concentrating on zones which need structural adjustments in conservation activities and those which are in need of actual biological conservation, all this being done in an integrated manner. We are also establishing a large reserve. All these endeavors to conserve the rainforest are conducted through public participation, and the sharing of benefits from our resources, of which the rainforest is a major part. We are also advising farmers in the area to raise market-oriented crops in a specialized and diversified manner. This is being done in a bid to strengthen the economic capacity of farmers in the Regional state. We have been discussing with farmers issues concerning rehabilitation of the environment and dealing with problems that they might encounter when following this course of action. We have managed to mobilize our community and done an impressive job in regards to environmental conservation last year.
Capital: How are you planning to cope with the changing climate of the area in the face of shrinking rainforest coverage leading to the extinction of coffee shrubs, which grow in the shades of trees?
Kifle: We have what we call a coffee development army in all the governance structures of our zone. Since Kaffa is the source of the coffee plant, we have formulated a slogan which says, ‘Kaffa is not only the birth place of coffee but also a coffee trading center’. We are planting coffee seedlings every year. For instance, we had planted 37 million coffee seedlings last year in 2011/12, while we have managed to plant 74.6 million so far this year. We are planning to plant 105 million more seedlings by the end of the year (2012/13). This is shifting the long held traditional coffee planting practice into a modern one by voluntarily mobilizing the people of the zone. It is a practice of planting coffee seedling in a 60 by 60 centimeter hole on quite a large scale and in an organized manner. Besides, people now are more concerned about utilizing acceptable agronomic practices in a bid to bargain for better prices when selling their produce, both at local and international coffee markets. That attitude doubly serves the purpose of environmental protection activities, because any farmer who grows a coffee plant needs to grow trees which provide shades for it, an absolute requirement for the plant to survive. We have established a nursery that provides different tree species specifically for that reason. That is one approach that helps us cope with the changing climate, apart from strengthening the economic capacity of farmers. These are currently the methods and the area we are focusing on. Cognizant of the eminent problem of climate change and the role of natural forests in maintaining the ecology of the area, the regional government has introduced a forestry law. The regional law has the potential, not only of preserving the rainforest we have at hand, but also seeks ways to preserve degraded areas and expand it. I hope this will reduce the eminent impact of climate change that accompanies agricultural activities.
Capital: Can you tell us about perceived changes in weather conditions in your locality?
Kifle: There are clear and definite changes in the rain pattern and temperature. Highland areas known for their cold weather are certainly becoming warmer. We feel the heat more than what we used to feel in earlier times during sunny days. The rain pattern is also changing drastically. It used to rain almost nine months in a year in this area. Corn was planted in late November or early December in our locality in 2011, but because the rain does not come as regularly as it used to, we were unable to gather what we had planned in the highlands of the zone. The rain that usually arrives in late November or early December came in February, which is a clear manifestation of a changing rain pattern. It is becoming unpredictable, causing landslides and flooding with its intensity at one time, while it rains only lightly at other times. Such occurrences are recurring and we have faced the same problem in 2012. As a result, agricultural activities in highland areas of the zone were also delayed. Presently, we are looking for an alternative approach to farming in the area, like water harvesting and small-scale irrigation, in order to cope with the change in rain pattern and combat the reduction of productivity. We have vast surface and underground water resources and need to develop it so our people will reap its benefits. We have river basins with national significance and will continue to strengthen our activities of conserving our natural environment in a bid to ensure sustainability. We want to mobilize each and every household in our locality to ensure that, and have done so to a certain extent, but the effort must continue. We have to detach our farming activities from rain-fed agricultural practices. Only thus can we safeguard our people from the possible impact of climate change. That is the responsibility of every citizen. We will continue to play the leadership role expected of us until the natural ecosystems of the area take over and restore the fauna and flora.
Capital: Do you believe that your participation in national political affairs for almost two decades has ensured the rights of the ethnic group you represent?
Kifle: I believe that the bitter struggle to ensure the right and benefits of nationalities has borne fruit in the post 1991 period. The sacrifices we are making to ensure good governance and dispense economic justice are by far lower than what has been made by our martyrs during the armed struggle. When you imagine life in the jungle, in the ups and downs of uncomfortable terrains and unpredictable weather, it is extremely hard compared to what we are sacrificing right now within the comfort of our offices and homes. Though the price we are paying to ensure good governance, register sustainable and fast-paced economic development is bitter as well, it is by far incomparable to what others, who had given their lives to bring about this change, have paid for. Many have given their irreplaceable life for a good cause. That is the ultimate sacrifice one can pay by any standard. I feel eternal pride and always honor their heroic deeds. What is expected of us is the creation of a union of thoughts in our diversity. This will facilitate our efforts to ensure good governance and sustain our fast-paced development. I think I am contributing in my capacity to the mission of my party. However, the biggest price to ensure the rights and benefits of nations and nationalities has already been paid by our martyrs. They have laid the foundation necessary to build a prosperous Ethiopia. Our mission is to do whatever it takes to alleviate poverty step-by-step and change the face of our country on the international arena. It is a work in progress with a lot of hopes and promises. That is the story our community is dealing with at present and the history future generations share and in that, the group which I represent, is playing a central role.
Capital: Kaffa is an area that seems to have great potential for ecotourism. Can you share with us your perspective about that and the effort you are making to increase tourism activities in the area?
Kifle: Yes, our area is quite suitable for ecotourism. There are a number of endemic flora and fauna and is a great destination for bird viewers. Our zone is home to the last tropical rainforest within the country with a number of waterfalls and beautiful scenery. We have tried to approach a few prospective investors and among them is the owner of Lewi resort in Hawassa. The owner has leased land to develop a resort in our locality and is in the process of identifying an appropriate design for the area. We are also in the process of identifying pocket areas suitable for such services in order to accommodate more prospective investors in the future.
Capital: A national coffee museum is under construction here in the administrative capital, Bonga …
Kifle: We are building a National Coffee Museum here in Bonga at a cost of 32 million birr. It is one of the seven projects endorsed by the National Secretariat Office of the Ethiopian Millennium. The cost is covered by the regional administration and by the zone. Currently, problems related with financing the project has pushed the completing time a little bit out of schedule. Before launching the project, we have developed terms of reference in a bid to accommodate Ethiopian traditions. Then we floated a design competition. After the winner submitted the design, we began construction, and the structural work of the museum is already completed. We are working on sanitation and the provision of electricity and what remains is the finishing touches. We will discuss with relevant ministries on ways to furnish the museum. Since it is a national museum, it has to accommodate all coffee varieties grown in the four corners of the country. Their seedlings need to be planted in its compound. The coffee ceremony of every nationality also needs to be represented. It is a seven storey building with multifaceted functions. So far, a little over 29 million birr of the project cost has been disbursed.