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What does forest mean to Sheka People?

Geographically Shekacho zone is located in the south western part of Ethiopia. It is one of the remotest zones in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State. Formerly it was part of the then Illubabour province by the name “Mocha Awraja”. It was one of the five Awraja’s in Illubabour province. For simplicity, Shekacho is the name of the Zone and Sheka is the area inhabited by Shekacho and other ethnic groups. Sheka is the remotest parts in the country, deprived of basic social services due to negligence of the governments.
The Shekacho zone is located at distances of 674kms from the capital, Addis Ababa and 949kms from the federal regional state capital Awassa. It is one of the few areas with high tropical rain forest cover in the country.

During the imperial regime, the area was used for exiling political prisoners. A very good example was Abbe Gobegna who was critical writer and political opponent to the imperial regime.  Abbe was exiled in early 1970s due to his political views and his critical writings against the imperial regime. The communist regime more or less followed the same trend. Political opponents and ill-disciplined public staffs were transferred to then Mocha Awraja as punishment by forcing them to live where there were no single basic services.
The TPLF government also exiled its political opponents to Sheka. In 1999, EPRDF fabricated a language called WOGAGODA and forced the people of Wollaita, Gomo and Dawero to accept as their media of communication. However; the Wollaita people clearly told TPLF government that it would not work. The TPLF leadership kept pressurizing the people and a conflict broke and nine protesters were killed by EPRDF police, thousand imprisoned, many fired from their jobs. Following the political crisis dozens of elementary and high school teachers who involved in the protest forcefully transferred to Sheka zone as punishment. Mocha had remained one of the darkest Awraja in the previous regimes and no better in the current regime. It has been considered dark simply because, it does not have basic services and facilities.
The situations were so gloomy to Sheka people in the previous governments, however; the Shekacho people were able to sustain and maintain some of their views, outlooks and cultural practices. A very good example is their cultural values towards natural forest management. The interferences of neither the imperial regime nor the Derg junta were minimal when compared with present government.

The cultural practices of Shekacho people had been transferred and sustained from generation to generation. It was the cultural practice of Shekacho man/woman to consider a tree as his/her own child. If someone was not privileged to have child/children due to some reasons, say biological factors, he/she used to plant a tree, give every love and care like he/she could do if he/she had a child. This was a recent memory which has not yet faded from our remembrance.

In the Shekacho society the forests were divided into different functionalities. Different functionalities had rules and regulation.  There were sacred forest lands where tree cutting was taboo.
Forests allocated for both hunting and beekeeping were protected by prohibiting members of the community from farming and grazing at juxtaposition. The norms of the Sheka people protected hunting and beekeeping forest in a way that smooth inheritance could be done without challenges.
The traditional tenure rights, management practices and religious value of forest managements of the Shekacho people was respected by previous regimes. The following figure will give us better insight about the fact that Sheka forest was better protected during the previous governments than the current regime.
According to Melca Ethiopia (2011), the total area under dense forest cover in Sheka was 60% in 1973, 50% in 1987, 32% in 2001 and 0nly 20% in 2005. There was massive decline in forest cover from 1987 to 2005 in the area.  A radical change occurred from 2001 to 2005. In four years’ the dense forest cover declined from 32% in 2001 to 20% by 2005 under present government.

Trees used for beekeeping in the forest had owners. It was the norm of the Shekacho community that the tree owners were responsible to manage their own trees.  Trees were inherited like other properties. These were recognized, accepted and respected by the society. I do remember that my older brother inherited trees that our father used for beekeeping. There was no or little conflict in relation to ownership among the beekeepers. I had never come across of such conflict in my age. Captivating/eye-catching trees and trees those served for beekeeping could never be cut randomly. If there was a need to cut, there should be enough justification. If not the cutter would suffer isolation, because he should be considered a person who “revoked” the social norms and values of the community. The cutter could suffer not only isolation, but also punishment. The punishment depends on the level of damage he had done against the forest in effect damage to the values and norms of the community. This was usually arbitrated by clan leaders and elderly community members.

My personal experiences is a good indicator of the good practice of Shekacho people. The event was 40 years ago. I was only about 10 years when I had a confrontation with a passerby. The incident was that, I cut a straight young Kerero tree and was carrying on my shoulder back home. The man stopped me while I was on my way. He was serious, red eyed and cloudy face. I felt that something terrible happened. I could not have the slightest guess that I was the terrible maker. He looked at me in a strange way. I was scared to death. Why did you do that? Asked me, but now more furious. What?  My answer was a question in a polite way. Why did you cut this young tree? His voice was powerful and terrifying.  I wanted it, I replied still polite, but nervous. I do realize how naive I was.  “Let god shorten your age like what you did for this young tree”. “Do not grow up”. My inside melted like an ice-cream. My heart bit was at rocked speed. I struggled to manage to remain polite and calm, however; my calmness and politeness did not cool him down. I threw down what I was carrying on my shoulder, started crying loudly and keep running. My dad was at the backyard doing some gardening works. Shocked by my strange crying, he was more than hurry to come out of the garden to see me. He checked that my situation was not that worse.  After he reassured that I was calm enough, he asked me as what went wrong. I was just to my mind and was able to speak out what had happened. I narrated the story politely. I told him the man’s bad words and curses.  He nodded his head in a way of accepting what I said. He was nodding his head to make me peaceful and calm. That is fine. Go and bring the log that you cut and left. It did not take me long to reach and pick the log. He closely looked at the log. I later realized that my dad was not happy inside with what I did. You know why the man cursed you and why he was angry on you? I kept quiet. My dad started “the simple reason was that you abrogated the law. The law of your society, which was accepted, honored and respected by generations for centuries. Listen carefully, dad continued, listen my son, among Shekacho people it had been strictly forbidden to cut tree such as Shao/kerereo, Manjo/Ketema, Ororo/?, etc. But you did cut young, straight and charismatic kerero which could be considered as an image for the locality. What you did was against the cultural value of your community. That was why the man angry with you. That was why he cursed you my son. Did you get what I mean? I nodded my head as an approval.
My dad was good mentor and coach. He also used to tell me about the territory of Shekacho people, about tribal wars-wars between Kafficho and Shekacho, about Oromo invasions, about Minilik’s invasion, migration of the people from northern Ethiopia. I did remember when he used to tell me about Amara people who have come and lived in Sheka from the North. I was told when, why and how they came to Sheka. It was too much to a naïve teenager to comprehend some sort of geography, history, migration, and invasion. My father was a farmer, but was very good advisor and coach. I wished now that my dad was alive to tell me more about our value and norms.

It is so sad, despair and heartbreaking that all positive and irreplaceable cultural practices, values and norms/social capitals are weakened, neglected, undermined and now on the verge of extinction.
The first level of extinction of a particular group/society starts with extinction of some of its major social capitals. It is now clearer than ever that our main social capitals have gone and the remaining ones are on their way to disappear, to disappear for no return. Now it is high time to stand a while and ask ourselves the following questions. Can we revive our social capital and how? Can Shekacho survive without surviving its values and cultural practices? What can be done to revive such social capitals? Who should be blamed for the current messy situation that the Shekacho people are engulfed with? The old generation who did not properly handed over the past to future new generation? The young generation who did not properly choose and take out the best from the old generation? The government who did not respect the rights and cultural values of the people and who often retracted its own constitution?
These are million dollar questions to young generations which need practical answers. If we do not do the right thing on the right time, whether we like it or not, history will blame us in one way or the other.

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