At the close of January our partners MELCA Ethiopia coordinated a wonderful event with the communities of Sheka forest to celebrate the inauguration of the forest as a Man and Biosphere (MAB) Reserve. The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme is ccordinated by UNESCO as a means of improving the relationships between people and their environment. Sheka now joins a list of over 600 registered biospheres across the world.

The Sheka forest is one of the last remaining tropical forests in Ethiopia. It’s rich in both plant and animal species with over 300 plant varieties and 200 species of birds, many of which are endemic to Ethiopia. A number of the plant and animal species residing in the forest feature on the Institute for Conservation (IUCN) Red List, which documents the most at risk species on our planet. There is a huge need to protect Sheka Forest and MELCA Ethiopia recognised this.

Million Belay, the Director of MELCA Ethiopia, was elated with the way in which the news and celebration was received by the Shekacko community: “Months of preparation for inaugurating the Sheka Biosphere Reserve finally came to a head last week. Now the Sheka forest is officially a biosphere reserve and the people are elated. This brings great pride to the Shekako people. They were mad that the surrounding forests were registered but theirs wasn’t, which meant that theirs remained vulnerable. They asked MELCA to help and we jumped in to do so. We got to know the communities and worked with the government, who were committed to the protection of the forest. Since the registration, the people having been saying “the forest has got a father now! It will be protected.”

Accordingly, MELCA-Ethiopia has been working with the government and community of Sheka zone for the last seven years. They facilitated adoption of the forest as a Biosphere Reserve based on the request by the community and the zonal administration of the area. With the encroachment of western ways of life, the lifestyles of the communities surrounding the forest are shifting and demand for agricultural land increasing. MELCA felt that the best strategy to conserve the forest was to have it recognised by UNESCO as a biosphere Reserve. This will ensure that traditional activities including harvesting honey and spiritual exercises are legally permitted in the core zone of the forest.

MELCA also lead a cultural-biodiversity programme, which sees them work with school aged children and offer experiential learning processes in the wilderness. The programme, known as SEGNI, now operates school clubs aimed at encouraging children to celebrate traditional cultural practices such as song and dance. The club members from schools in the Masha region joined the inauguration ceremony and performed songs, dance, hymns and poems to add energy and colour to the day.

More than 3000 people attended the event, including president of SSNPR Ato Shiferaw Shigute, representative of the FDRE president Ato Asefa Kesito, State minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology Ato Mohammud Ahmed Gaaz, journalists and the local community.

Watch a film about Sheka Forest here: The Sheka Forest Story

Find out more about Unesco’s Man and Biosphere programme and Sheka Forest on the UNESCO website