A major fire has burned more than 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) of grassland in the Guassa Community Conservation Area in Ethiopia’s central highlands.
The area is among the oldest examples of community-managed conservation in Africa, centered on preserving the Festuca grass that is used for thatching roofs.
The grasslands are also home to endangered Ethiopian wolves and gelada baboons, and more recently have become a favored ecotourism site.
It’s still unclear what triggered the blaze, but the area was the site of a battle in Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war in late November.
A major fire has burned more than 1,000 hectares, or nearly 2,500 acres, of grassland in the Guassa Community Conservation Area of Ethiopia. While any long-term impacts are yet to be assessed, the fire — which coincided with a local battle in Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war — is the most severe damage in 40 years to this unique conservation area that sits 260 kilometers (160 miles) north-northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.
“[The] fire mostly burnt the guassa grass [Festuca spp.], which can grow back in six months,” Demese Mamo, manager of Guassa Community Conservation Area, told Mongabay by phone. “But among it are other rare species that would take longer to grow back such as asta [Erica arboria], gibera, [Lobilia spp.], and ameja [Hypericum rivolutum].”
Demese said the fire will pose a threat to the endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) and the rodent species it preys on. According to Demese, Guassa is home to as many as 75 of the wolves — a significant proportion of the perhaps 500 individuals estimated to remain in the wild.
“There have been no big fires in Guassa in modern times. The last big damage on this scale was around 40 years [ago],” Demese said, during a sweeping agrarian reform carried out by the authoritarian Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) — commonly known as the Derg — which redistributed the land and imposed forced villagization on the area. His early assessment is that it will take the area around 10 years to recover from a blaze of this magnitude.
Located in Ethiopia’s central highlands, Guassa covers 11,000 hectares (27,200 acres) of Afro-alpine grasslands at an altitude of 3,200-3,700 meters (10,500-12,100 feet) above sea level. Since 2003, 7,800 hectares (19,300 acres) of Guassa has been a formally protected area, but the area is renowned as one of the oldest unbroken examples of Indigenous resource management in Africa.
The community’s roughly 9,000 households elect local representatives to regulate access to and use of land for grazing and harvesting of guassa, the grass that gives the area its name. The grass serves as a thatching material, used on 98% of the houses in the area, and is also harvested for sale by members of the community.
Locals can trace the community’s management system, known as qero, back to the 17th century. Over the centuries, communities have sustained farming and livestock here as well as the harvesting of guassa, adapting the qero system to evolving political and social changes.
Today, representatives from the conservation area’s nine kebeles, the local administrative zones, coordinate and oversee the conservation of Guassa. Through community scouts, they patrol the area and its use, levy fines and liaise with police to prosecute offenders, and refer the most serious violations to district courts.
While under pressure from growing demand for land to farm, the system’s success can be seen in the continued health of the Guassa’s ecosystems, which host 110 species of birds and 24 different species of mammals, including seven found only in Ethiopia. Prospering alongside the wolves are Ethiopian hares (Lepus fagani) and gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada), the world’s only grass-eating monkeys.
Conservation a casualty of war?
More than a year ago, federal troops entered the northern region of Tigray, capturing the capital, Mekele. The tide of the war has since been reversed: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has recaptured most of Tigray, and is now pushing south into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.
One of the main routes the TPLF has advanced along is a highway that passes west of the Guassa conservation area. On Nov. 17, the day before the fire started, the local administration shared pictures on its Facebook page of armed men — local militia — leaving for “the Guassa front” to fight alongside federal troops. On Nov. 20, the TPLF said it was in control of Mehal Meda, a town some 15 km (9 mi) west of the Guassa Community Conservation Area.
“Fierce fighting was taking place between TPLF and local militia in the middle of the night of November 17,” Demese said. “Guassa was a battlefront and the fight was taking place right in the middle.”
According to Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, most fires in the country are caused by human activity, controlled burns set to clear land for cultivation, frighten wildlife away from villages, or burn off dry grass in February and March at the end of the dry season to encourage fresh grass to grow once the rains begin. Some fires are started by accident by people making charcoal.
But the scale and swift appearance of flames across a wide area of Guassa last month are unusual. It’s not clear if this fire was started by an artillery exchange or deliberately set by one side or the other to try to gain a military advantage. The area was cut off because of the fighting, and a communication blackout made it difficult to reach community members at the time.
The majority of the conservation area was not directly affected by the fire, but with battles continuing in the area — federal forces had reportedly recaptured the area around Guassa by Dec. 3 — the incident points to how the environment may be an additional casualty of the civil war. It remains to be seen what impact the fighting and the fire will have on a community conservation area that in addition to providing a sustainable resource for resident communities through the centuries, had more recently established itself as a favored destination for hikers from Addis Ababa and beyond.
The Guassa Community Lodge, owned and operated by the community, was reportedly destroyed by TPLF fighters, making an eventual return for visitors more difficult.
“The news is so disheartening,” Abebe Sintayehu, a former manager of the lodge, told Mongabay. “Such a large-scale fire would take a toll on a beautiful place that took almost half a millennium to preserve.”