Washington - Gashaw Tahir was shocked when he returned to his native Ethiopia after living overseas and saw how the land had been degraded, as well as the effects of deforestation on the climate and quality of life for his community, which overwhelmingly relies on farming.
"You did not use to be able to see the sky when I was there." Now the landscape is mostly rocks, he told America.gov. When he was growing up there were 10 or 15 rivers near his hometown. "Maybe today one or two exist. That is how bad it is." In addition, wild animals were scarce, the average temperature had significantly risen and malaria was spreading. People are now dying from it "more than HIV/AIDS," he said.
The solution, Tahir decided, was to restore the forests on the local mountains. Along with environmental recovery, his project would provide income opportunities and empower the youth in his struggling community. Hiring young people from both Muslim and Christian communities to plant the seedlings, Tahir also saw it as an opportunity to promote religious co-existence as well as give them a way to earn money for clothes and schoolbooks.
He first asked his city council for a two-acre area and employed 450 children for two to five months in which they collected fertilizer to mix with the depleted soil and then packed and planted the seedlings he started in time for the summer rainy season.
The project, known as the Greenland Development Foundation, grew exponentially from there as he acquired more and more land and employed more young workers. He and his crew have now planted more than 1 million trees, and media coverage has inspired similar projects elsewhere in Ethiopia.
Tahir, now recognized by the Ethiopian government as a "national green hero," says his biggest role is "just being a model."
Recently awarded 11,000 additional acres of land, Tahir plans to expand his efforts even further by hiring up to 1,000 young people to plant fruit trees such as oranges, papayas and mangos.
Along with stopping erosion, the fruit trees will provide food and additional income for the population. In a country that continues to face food insecurity, he says, the trees will also be more sustainable because people will be less likely to cut them down to sell the wood and purchase food.
"My motto is making Africa green again, not only by just planting trees, but by planting fruit trees that will sustain, that will make a difference in people's lives," Tahir said. The people will "take care of the plant because it's bringing money and it can take care of the ecology. It will have a dual purpose."
He has also established an agricultural research center to educate young people and their parents on modern farming techniques. According to Tahir, about 80 percent of his community's population work as farmers. He says many are not growing enough food to feed themselves.
The research center provides hybrid seeds and teaches modern techniques for planting traditional crops such as sesame and new crops like cotton and corn. With the education, "now they can do what is best for them," Tahir said. "They don't have to guess anymore" about which crop will offer a good yield or when to plant the seeds. The research center benefits around 800 young people, as well as several hundred of their parents.
Since beginning the Greenland Development Foundation in 2006, Tahir says, he has already noticed positive environmental changes such as the return of grassland and shade, and a drop in the average temperature.
Ethiopians are now aware of the environmental challenges that are affecting their economy and quality of life, he said. Now, as a next step, they need the will to take action and he is happy to provide an example.
"With these young people, when I give them a job, when I give them hope, when they get money, they are empowered," he said. "They see it."