Eucalyptus In Ethiopia: The Selfish Tree

Eucalyptus In Ethiopia: The Selfish Tree
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Atalay

Eucalyptus Tree scaffolding

One could not help but notice all of the development as you drove through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While there on an International Reporting Project New Media Fellowship in 2014 evidence of the country’s rapid economic growth was displayed by the progress on the roads, buildings, railroads, and homes being built-in, and around the city.  What I noticed most about the “progress”, aside from the Chinese companies working on the roads, were the archaic wooden frames being used as scaffolding on the construction projects. Piles of timber were stacked by the roadside, and carts piled with the thin poles of trees were pulled amidst the traffic often by small boys barely taller than their load.

 

I was told that the scaffolding was Eucalyptus wood.   Compared to the safety standard steel beams that would typically be used for construction projects in Europe or the USA, the tall slim Eucalyptus trees framing construction projects seemed, well, flimsy, and downright unsafe. The amazing thing is that somehow it works! As cement buildings rise from the dusty streets of the city at a rapid pace, I can imagine this is the way construction has happened for many decades along the way.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Atalay

Eucalyptus Scaffolding

Eucalyptus Scaffolding

The ubiquitous evergreen hardwood Eucalyptus trees used for scaffolding are not indigenous to Ethiopia. In the late 1890’s the ruling Emperor Menelik realized they needed quick-growing resources for construction of the “new city”, Addis Ababa. The Eucalyptus tree, or Gum Tree, which is native to Australia, was known to grow quickly and easily, so Emperor Menelik imported Eucalyptus from Australia to Ethiopia, where it has thrived (in its invasive and selfish way).

Boy transporting wood in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Atalay

The Eucalyptus tree, it turns out, demands huge amounts of water and tends to obscure other plants nearby. In Ethiopia it has come to be known as “the selfish tree”, taking for itself all the water and land around it. With Ethiopia facing the worst draught it has seen for the past 50 years, I wonder about the impact of this resource being used to help build the country, while at the same time robbing precious water from the ground.

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In travel one is constantly reminded that things we take for granted in one area of the world may not exist in others. “Safety precautions” are a big one, a reminder reinforced for me for example while watching a three-year old wield a machete in Borneo. While I stared in horror, mouth agape, the local adults went about their business unfazed. Or in New Zealand where they sent me abseiling down a 100 foot drop to “black water raft” the rapids through caves on an inner tube with a mere 1/2 hour tutorial under my belt.  Again and again in various scenarios around the world I have thought, this would never fly back in the litigious, and bubble wrapped USA.  In most areas in this world you operate at your own risk, and I find myself wondering about all the travel mishaps we’ve never heard about. In Ethiopia I worried for the construction workers working on the tethered timber scaffolding 10 stories off the ground. My hope being that the “selfish tree” will always come through to support them.

Highrise in Ethiopia with Eucalyptus scaffolding

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