Addis Ababa (WIC) – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added the Sheka Forest to its global list of 599 biosphere reserves.
Sheka Forest is located in the Sheka Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Regional State. The Sheka Forest covers a unique bio-geographic unit extending from cold and very wet highlands bordering Illubabor zone of Oromia regional state and Kafa zone to hot lowland areas bordering Gambella regional state and the Bench-Maji zone.
The Sheka forest is adopted to be biosphere reserves because it fulfills the three functions of biosphere reserve-namely the conservation, development and logistics support functions to the desired level.
In terms of the conservation function, the forest contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation. The Sheka forest constitutes one of the few remaining afromontane forest vegetation in Ethiopia. As such it is highly regarded as important for conservation of the Afromontane forest vegetation types, especially the Afromontane Rainforest and alpine bamboo thickets.
Furthermore, the forest of Sheka is important for the role it plays in protection of watersheds that have local and international significance in the Nile and Omo-Ghibe/ Lake Turkana Basins. It is the source of major rivers like Baro and Akobo rivers, the main tributaries of the White Nile, Gojeb, the main tributary of 2 Omo from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia. It is also highly regarded for conservation of biodiversity, flood and erosion control, and carbon sequestration to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The forest is rich in both plant and animal species. There are over 300 higher plants, 50 mammals, 200 birds, and 20 amphibian species, occurring in all habitats. Out of these, at least 55 plants, and 10 birds are endemic to Ethiopia. It is an important gene pool for Ensete (sometimes called ‘false banana’), Arabica coffee and other plant species important as food, agricultural and forestry purposes.
The forest’s development/economic function is also vital. The Shekacho people earn most of their cash income from honey and spices produced in dense forest. The traditional agricultural practice is also ecologically sustainable, while fulfilling the social and economic needs of the local population. There is also a growing trend of coffee production by the highlanders, by planting coffee in degraded forest areas. Since coffee is shade-loving crop, enrichment planting of trees is also conducted, thereby contributing to ecological sustainability through rehabilitation degraded forest areas.
The area also has a good potential for ecotourism, with its diverse natural and cultural landscape, tropical forest, crater lakes, waterfalls and cultural festivals.
The fact that the forest has a great potential as a demonstration site for environmental education and the link between culture and biodiversity or cultural biodiversity explains its function in logistical support. Currently
MELCA-Ethiopia is implementing an environmental education program called SEGNI (Social Empowerment through Group Nature Interaction) in the forest.
As related to this, UNESCO has also recognized the Sheka Biosphere Reserve to serve as a training center for a transfer of cultural and traditional ecological knowledge from the old to the new generation. And in the near future, the forest has a great potential to serve as biological field station for the newly established universities in the area, especially for Mizan-Teppi University, located in the proposed biosphere reserve, and Metu University located at 60 km away in Illubabor zone of Oromia state.
The Sheka Forest Biosphere reserve has a total area of 238,750 hectares.
MELCA-Ethiopia has played a pivotal role in the coordination of the Sheka forest biosphere reserve nomination based on the demand of the Sheka community and the local government administrative organs.