REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is an UN-led programme aiming to increase carbon sequestration in tropical forests. REDD+ is included among technologies for negative emissions, which stand for a large share of the emission reductions in the climate models internationally agreed on to keep global warming below 2°C. But increasing forest cover in developing counties can threaten other values, as shown in this new study. In southern Ethiopia the tree heather heathlands above the treeline are regularly burnt in order to improve livestock pasture, a practice that authorities within the REDD+ system now tries to stop in order to increase carbon storage. A new study from Stockholm University shows that the ancient pasture burning maintains biodiversity and habitats for alpine plant species not found anywhere else.
– These are species living at high altitudes in the mountains of southern Ethiopia, many are endemic to the area, says Maria Johansson, researcher at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Science sat Stockholm University. Pasture burning has been practised here for at least 2000 years and created a mosaic landscape of tree heather stands of differing age. These harbour different plant communities and young stands have more alpine species. If the burning would cease the heathlands would turn into forest and the alpine species disappear.
Burning vegetation is illegal in Ethiopia, as it was in many places before its importance for biodiversity was understood, and prescribed burning was reintroduced. The study confirms experience from European heathlands and other REDD+ projects in the tropics, that ecosystem services such as timber production and carbon sequestration often compromise other services, such as biodiversity and local livelihoods. Increased forest cover does not always favour local ecosystems and societies.
– We recommend that the traditional management is maintained, but regulated. In order to protect the species, and also to protect local livelihoods. Furthermore, the prescribed burning protects against dangerous wildfires, since young stands are non-flammable for several years, which reduces fire size, says Maria Johansson. It is somehow ironic that a REDD+ project created to mitigate climate change globally, might substantially reduce climate resilience locally.
The study was done in cooperation with the Botany Department at Addis Ababa University.