Landscapes of ambition and neglect

While Ethiopia’s leaders chase shiny new projects that are grand monuments to themselves and modernity, they ignore the country’s rich, natural heritage.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

When my father suggested we explore the uncharted terrains of Ethiopia together, I was instantly enthralled. The country was experiencing a political sea change. A relatively unknown figure had recently ascended to the role of Prime Minister, ushering in a period of relative peace—this was before he stoked conflicts within.

My father, despite his extensive travels across the nation, had always been constrained by the demands of his job and a need to stretch his per diem to supplement his salary. This left him little time and money to truly experience the country’s diverse landscapes. “This will be a test run,” he told me, setting the stage for what he envisioned as a series of family road trips. As he plotted our inaugural journey toward the Bale Mountains, I found myself fantasizing about someday showing him the landscapes of the US. Little did we know that journey would serve as both an introduction and a final chapter. About a year later, he was gone. That inaugural trip ended up being not just a personal journey but a stark lesson in impermanence and the urgency of stewardship. In that trip lay a microcosm of Ethiopia’s broader political and environmental landscape—beautiful, complex, and in dire need of thoughtful care. It underscored that legacy isn’t just about what we build for the future, but what we preserve of the present and the past.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

My father never explained his decision to make the Bale Mountains National Park our destination, but it felt like an unspoken affirmation of the park’s extraordinary significance. A recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Bale Mountains serve as a sanctuary for Ethiopia’s unique biodiversity. They are home to a staggering 26% of Ethiopia’s endemic species, including the iconic Ethiopian wolf, a canine native to the country. Established in 1969 by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, the park’s creation was nothing short of a watershed moment for the nation. Spanning an imposing 2,150 square kilometers, its very establishment signaled a shift in Ethiopia’s conservation priorities, placing an emphasis on the urgent need to protect its invaluable ecosystems and indigenous wildlife.

The decades since have seen the park become a focal point for scientific exploration and discovery. Annual multidisciplinary studies have unearthed groundbreaking revelations—from new species such as the Bitis harenna snake and Wolfgang Böhme’s Ethiopian chameleon, to evidence of human settlements in the highlands dating back an astonishing 50,000 years. Yet, this center of biodiversity finds itself ensnared in a web of modern challenges. Listed plainly on the park’s website are issues ranging from an insufficient operating budget to a lack of community involvement, exposing its vulnerabilities and the gaps in its stewardship.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

As we drove toward the Bale Mountains, the road itself narrated a tale of recent Ethiopian history. Scars from burning tires, once used as barricades to resist and halt the advance of incoming traffic during moments of political upheaval, were etched into the asphalt like open wounds on the national psyche. They were etched by people who had given everything for a transformative vision of their country, only to have it wrested away soon after it seemed within reach. The roads, like the hearts of countless Ethiopians, were a landscape of both promise and loss. They were a persistent reminder that the legacy of that moment in time was not only about political change but also about the deeply personal sacrifices that fueled it; sacrifices now memorialized in the very ground we traversed and in the hearts of those left to ponder what might have been. This was further amplified by the countless billboards we passed, bearing the names of those who had laid down their lives in the pursuit of that elusive future.

As we neared the park’s gate, it revealed itself as a mere semblance of authority—a skeletal framework standing somewhat defiantly, though ineffectively, against the world beyond. Manned by a solitary, seemingly disenchanted guard, this was the unassuming gateway to an ecological sanctuary grappling with existential threats. The guard looked our way with a gaze so vacant, so purposeless, that for a heartbeat I questioned the validity of our destination. He embodied the paradox of the overlooked caretaker, a human footnote in a sprawling narrative of natural majesty and looming catastrophe. After a prolonged moment, he walked over to us, looked in the car through the windows, and then gestured for us to proceed. I couldn’t help but voice my dismay at the situation at the gate, and by extension, the broader neglect it symbolized. My father, smiling with that familiar blend of humor and wisdom, countered that my American experiences had made me soft.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

In recent decades, Ethiopia has undergone swift development, fueled by a burgeoning population. Now the second most populous nation in Africa, Ethiopia is home to around 126 million people. This demographic explosion has inevitably led to expanded land use, putting the Bale Mountains under intensified strain. With few alternative habitats available, the pressure on this sanctuary escalates, raising the stakes for its protection.

As humans and their farmlands inch closer, the wolves find their habitats increasingly compromised. In fact, the wolf population has dwindled to such an extent that sightings have become a rarity. On our journey through the park, we nearly missed them entirely. The lone wolf we did spot was so distant that even my longest 300mm lens, a type of telephoto lens often used for capturing wildlife from great distances, could barely capture its form. A travel guide we met at the park told us that spotting a wolf has essentially become a game of chance. The result of ecological imbalances, he told us.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

Ethiopia’s common farming practices, especially subsistence farming, further erode these fragile habitats. While large enclosures for cattle grazing might seem unrelated to the wolves, the ripple effect is profound. These enclosures displace smaller prey animals that rely on the grasslands, setting off a cascade of ecological imbalances. Overgrazing reduces available sustenance for rodents, further shrinking the prey base for the Ethiopian wolves.

While organizations such as the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program (EWCP), and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) are actively engaged in vital conservation initiatives, they face an uphill battle. These entities must navigate limited funding and operational constraints, making their mission an increasingly precarious endeavor. This struggle is exacerbated by a government that, rather than taking the lead on such crucial ecological initiatives, diverts its focus and financial resources to new projects around the capital city and elsewhere in the country. The result is an unsettling disconnect between the government’s priorities and the pressing ecological needs that these organizations are left scrambling to address. Ethiopia’s leadership, past and present, has often been consumed by grand infrastructure projects, and has forsaken the whispering pleas of nature.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

The current Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, seems to be drawn toward the allure of prestigious new projects, such as the $1 billion Chaka project—a new palace, which is said to be largely funded by the United Arab Emirates. As lofty edifices and new palaces ascend to the skies, one cannot help but wonder: what of the ancient, natural palaces that have defined Ethiopia for generations? The thirst for modernity, financed by foreign influence, betrays not just an environmental blind spot, but a complex interplay of ego and ambition, wherein a leader seeks to elevate their name into the annals of history through fresh concrete rather than fortify what has existed for eons.

The Bale Mountains National Park, by all accounts, is gasping under the weight of neglect. How does its slow degradation align with the grand ambitions of a leader? It’s as if the seduction of pioneering the “first-ever” has eclipsed the humble yet profound act of safeguarding the “last remaining.” The unfortunate irony is that in pursuit of a shiny, enviable legacy, what gets overlooked is an already existing legacy—a naturally curated masterpiece, millennia in the making.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

In this, leaders become architects of paradox, masterminding what could only be described as a narrative dissonance: pushing forth the new while the old falls apart in quiet agony. The accolades flow for the former, while the latter only gathers the dust of obscurity and the quiet lamentation of those who remember. Such is the pitfall of a certain brand of ambition—a willful blindness to what is, in pursuit of what could be, a blindness that often exacts a steep price on one’s actual legacy and the very world one aspires to transform.

Nuruddin Farah’s penetrating vision of Ethiopia as a perpetual “demolition site” provides a counterpoint to the theme of misguided ambition. This destructive Groundhog Day phenomenon, as Farah calls it, makes it even more vital to question the quality of ambition driving the country’s current leaders. If today’s accomplishments will be tomorrow’s ruins, then it behooves those in power to weigh their pursuits with a long-term lens—a lens that privileges not just building anew but conserving what already exists. A leadership caught in the riptide of political one-upmanship, constantly aiming to dismantle the old to make way for the conspicuous new, risks losing the nation’s heritage, its environment, its very soul.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

Amidst this revolving door of regimes and their infrastructural ambitions, places like the Bale Mountains National Park stand as silent, disheveled testimonies of neglect. Once a sanctuary teeming with biodiversity, this landscape now gasps under the weight of forgetfulness, emblematic of what Farah describes. No bulldozers are needed here; the insidious forces of neglect are demolition enough. As each government seeks to etch its vision into the landscape, replacing or erasing the efforts of its predecessor, the Bale Mountains get eclipsed by new parks and new ambitions that capture the government’s favor. Yet, they do not need another name or another inauguration ceremony; they simply need care.

It is a sobering realization that the abandonment of Bale Mountains National Park is not an isolated tragedy but a symptom of a recurring malaise: a polity stuck in destructive repetition. Breaking this cycle demands a paradigm shift in ambition, from an unreflective drive for the new to an unapologetic stewardship of the old. If Ethiopia’s leaders can integrate this nuanced ambition into their governance, they might not just save a park but also create a rupture in the destructive Groundhog Day narrative. They can initiate a new cycle—one that values not just the spectacular birth of fresh ventures but also the steady heartbeat of continued existence.

Image courtesy Solen Feyissa © 2023.

As Prime Minister Ahmed plants the seeds of new parks, one hopes he also turns his gaze to the Bale Mountains. They need care to make them last. In that careful act of preservation and humble acknowledgment of what is already valuable, lies a more substantive ambition. Restoring the Bale Mountains wouldn’t just be an ecological act, but a profoundly political one. It would be a signal to the people that governance isn’t always about racing ahead but can be about reaching back, remembering, and repairing. In a world that often mistakenly equates progress with novelty, such an act could redefine what it means to be truly forward-thinking: an embrace of a fuller spectrum of responsibility that includes the treasures of the past as active participants in the promise of the future.

Little did I know when we embarked on that journey to the Bale Mountains, my father was gifting me an irreplaceable lesson in the dichotomies that define us: ambition and preservation, future and present, life and its inevitable end. As ambitions unfold around us, from political changes to conservation efforts, I often return to that trip with my father. It serves as a lasting reminder that ambition devoid of preservation is like a river without banks—aimless and destructive.

It is in the delicate balance between what we strive for and what we safeguard that a meaningful legacy is born. This balance isn’t merely a personal philosophy; it’s a collective imperative. And the time to act is not in some distant, forgiving future. The time is now.

Further Reading