Today's guest is Tewolde-Berhan Gebre-Egziabher (PhD) who served as Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia and the Chairman of Africa Group in Biodiversity for a number of years. Besides, in December 2000, Dr. Tewolde-Berhan was awarded a Right Livelihood Award for demonstrating skillful leadership in the biosafety negotiations, and for his significant roles in developing and promoting community and farmers’ rights. He has established a reputation as an outspoken advocate for the environment.
Dr. Tewolde-Berhan was born on 19 February 1940 in a small village about 25 kilometers away from Adwa town in Tigray State, northern Ethiopia. He attended Queen of Sheba Elementary School in Adwa from October 1951 to June 1955. He was then accepted to General Wingate Secondary School in Addis Ababa and studied there from September 1955 to July 1959. He was then accepted to Haile Selassie I (now Addis Ababa University) where he studied from September 1959 to July 1963 and won the Chancellor's Gold Medal for being highest scorer in the Faculty of Science. In 1966, he left for London to study for a doctorate in plant ecology at the School of Plant Biology, University of North Wales, and returned as Ethiopia's first qualified plant ecologist in 1969. Because of his high performing skills, he completed his PhD program within three years while it was meant for five years
He worked in the Biology Department at Addis Ababa University from 1963, serving as a graduate assistant, assistant lecturer, and assistant professor. He was appointed dean of the Faculty of Science in 1974, and served in this capacity until 1978, when he was appointed Associate Professor of Biology. In 1978 he also began working part time with the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission as Leader of the IDRC-UNU sponsored research project "Research and Development in Rural Settings".
Dr. Tewolde-Berhan carried out great responsibilities in leading international negotiations on environment successfully besides his occupation at university. The Ethiopian Herald made a short stay with him with the intention of letting him share his experiences for our readers. Excerpts:
You have done exceptional contributions in environmental protection over years. It seems that environmental issues have taken your total attention throughout your life. How did such commitment begin?
I think it began early in my childhood since I grew up in countryside playing around plants and looking at animals. I had a direct experience with nature. Unlike children in urban areas, our daily walk could not be separated from nature.
There is a funny thing my elder brothers and sisters told me about my childhood experience that can be an indication of my deep rooted interest in nature. I used to watch plants until flowering and fruiting. The funny thing was I thought that salt was a crop. Thus, I took some salt and planted it. It would not germinate. I then asked my father why it refused to germinate. “ We dig it out of the ground and use it; we do not plant salt,” he told me.
My interest in nature began very early and grew up with me. I believe it goes with me till the end of my life. I do not have anything to regret; I have invested my life on something that has lasting significance. The fruits of my dedication in protecting nature will be evident in the generations to come.
What does environmental protection refers to? What does it mean for you?
It is a practice of protecting the natural environment and a duty of any individual, organization or group for the benefit of both the natural environment and humans. I believe it is the primary responsibility given to human being. Unfortunately, man has failed to carry out this responsibility efficiently. It seems that man could not realize the consequence of his actions that are affecting nature, as it would involve destroying himself. Since man is part of nature, his unconscious war against it is inevitably a war against himself. It is impossible to have a society if we damage the environment. The world even the industrialist nations were late to realize the dangers of not caring for the environment. The leaders of the world are failing to live up to their promises.
We are stewards of nature with purpose and accountability. Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for, protect, cultivate, safeguard the natural environment. Our dedication for protecting environment results lasting legacy; not only this generation but also the ones to come shall benefit.
Would you tell us the awards you won? For instance, it was stated that you won an award in 2000 for your exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources.
The Right Livelihood Award was given to me for both my contribution towards community rights and negotiating Biosafety Protocol. The other one was given to my wife and me; it is called life time award. It is for our work on organic agriculture. The reason to argue for organic agriculture is to ensure the sustainability of the environment. The environmental conditions should be sustainable and there fore, all the nutrients needed by our plants should come from well managed soil.
You represented your country in several international environment negotiations. Would you tell us some of them?
The time when the Soviet Union collapsed and world had become dominated by democratic principles. There was a feeling of enthusiasm in the whole world. And many environment agreements were negotiated as result; and I represented my country in many of them. The first one of them was Agenda 21 in New York. In this agenda, I included the mountain ecosystem. I argued for it and it was accepted. Understandably, I focused on mountain ecosystem since my country is a mountainous country. Following that there were several agreements negotiated. The convention on Biological Diversity was also negotiated. I also represented my country in all of those.
How did you proceed from your university career to the leadership of environmental protection?
It was towards the end of the military regime. There was the realization that environmental problems were the main cause of famines in Ethiopia. And the government asked me to lead project on developing policy for environmental management. One year later, the military regime lost its power. And the new democratic government was created. And the democratic government asked me to continue the service on the same position. And we (it was not only me though I was leading the team) drafted an environmental policy which was then approved by the government as environmental policy of Ethiopia. And they asked me to lead its implementation; thus, I had to leave my university teaching and leadership and established Environmental Authority of Ethiopia which I was the director general until it was transformed in to the Ministry of Forest and Environment when I became adviser to the minister. After a year, it was changed into the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change and I continued serving as adviser to the minister. And because of old age, I retired about two years ago.
What opportunities are available for Ethiopia in order to pursue environmental protection?
In the previous system, the local communities were not aware of the necessity and benefits of protecting their environment. As a result, the environment deteriorated very fast. Fortunately, the commitment of the current system has greatly encouraged the citizens to protect their environment. These days, the local communities organize themselves in groups, associations and the like. This strengthens them to work together towards environmental protection. The attention of the government and community towards environmental protection is increasing. If it continues with similar pace, considerable achievements will be recorded.
How would you measure the achievements of the nation so far? What should the nation do in order to achieve the intended goal?
The nation has registered very significant achievements in increasing vegetation coverage so far. The citizens have been demonstrating unreserved commitment towards planting trees; but this is not enough. Caring for them is also so important so that they can grew up. Assuming that we will continue with the same pace and attention given to the environment, I am pretty certain that by 2025 we shall have sufficient vegetation cover to absorb carbon that would contribute to climate change.
BY WAKUMA KUDAMA