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Ethiopia is using plant graffiti to regenerate degraded forests

The world’s first living artwork is being grown in Ethiopia. To accelerate carbon capture and land restoration, artists and communities are building a forest that will be visible from space in the shape of the country’s national symbol, the black lion.

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The ‘Trees for Life’ project in Kofele, Ethiopia is partnering with artists, ROBA (Rural Organization for the Betterment of Agro-pastoralists), and the local communities, to create a forest that can help tackle land degradation. Located near a school in Kofele, the nursery will help preserve the wildlife, flora, and culture of the Oromia region. The local people also get the chance to learn important skills in agroforestry and tree farming.

In Ethiopia, it is estimated that more than 85 per cent of the land in is moderately to very severely degraded, and about 75 per cent is affected by desertification. The country’s massive population is a great burden to the sustainability of all types of natural resources. Factors such as migration, agricultural expansion, resettlement, deforestation, and environmental pollution are just some of the examples.

The Decline of the Ethiopian Lion

Supported by the Earth Art Studio, the project is using Google Earth Satellite to present the notion that climate mitigation can combine climate science and art. The community where the project is happening asked to create an Earth observation that celebrates the Black lion.


The Ethiopian or Black lion is a genetically unique population unlike any other in Africa. It is defined by its thick two-toned mane that extends down its neck to its shoulders and back. To the Oromo people, the Ethiopian lion is a ‘keystone species’ in that it defines the entire ecosystem, without it, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist.

But the population is declining, the total number today is estimated at 200-300 lions, almost all of which are widely scattered and isolated. Their decline is due to the loss of habitats caused by deforestation, urbanisation and encroachment as well as illegal poaching driven by the rarity of their coats. In the sketch of the Earth observation, the lion’s mane has been made extra thick as a way of enshrining this endangered national symbol.

ROBA director Hussein Watta (center) is shown with Hadha Sinqe women during the opening of the lion nursery on October 27 at Kofele School. (all photos courtesy the Rural Organization for Betterment of Agro-Pastoralists and Earth Art Studio)

When asked about how these communities maintained forests and ecosystems in the past, Hussein Watta, director, and founder of ROBA told Hyperallergic that the key components had been culture and art, “When a practice is ingrained into a people’s culture- in art and song, or even in technology and photography- they do it better.”

Creating ecological stewards

Speaking about the project’s overall impact and the projection that it might raise awareness of the importance of habitats, he explained, “If we truly educate people about the art of tree planting to prevent soil erosion, limit pollution, create jobs, and regulate the water cycle, I believe no one would cut down a single tree again.”

To achieve this, participants are learning tree management, supported through art facilitated storytelling and photography, and there is a priority for skills sharing and community engagement that supports the larger goals of restoring local water supplies and bio-systems.


Because 83 per cent of water coming to the ground is condensed directly from the atmosphere by trees, the project will help create a dynamic system for carbon capture and water restoration. The Earth Art Studio posits that in the future we won’t be asking ‘How much rainfall impacts an area? But rather, ‘What tree cover is in your home city, village, or farms?’

They are looking to integrate the use of digital technologies and plant life cycles with climate art and action, to fashion an accessible platform through which anyone can explore tree growth and climate shifts.

This ambitious and timely living artwork can be a template for other communities around the world or a call to action, as it visually and through trackable data reinforces the critical state of earth’s natural systems.

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