Conceptual sketch of a tree nursery shaped like a lion as part of ROBA's "Trees for Life" project (all photos courtesy the Rural Organization for Betterment of Agro-Pastoralists and Earth Art Studio)

Two years ago, on a trip to visit family, Jemmal Wako observed snowfall for the first time in his hometown of Kofele. As a diaspora Ethiopian now living in Vancouver, Wako couldn’t believe his eyes — the tropical environment of his youth appeared radically altered, proving that climate change had made its mark on the region. 

“I never expected to see snow in our country,” Wako told Hyperallergic. “In Canada, we talk about the environment and the future all the time, but those conversations just don’t happen the same way there. Many Ethiopians are unaware what climate change really means, and something needs to be done.”

Wako is one of many researchers and artists working with the Rural Organization for Betterment of Agro-Pastoralists (ROBA) to restore biodiversity in Kofele through a 50-meter tree nursery in the shape of a lion. This living artwork — part of the larger “Trees for Life” project — will be visible from outer space, making it the first Earth observation artwork composed entirely from plant life. The project is a collaboration between ROBA, Earth Art Studio (EAS), the British Council, Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), and city planners in Dundee, Scotland, to preserve Oromo culture through “plant graffiti,” which will form the basis of the first arts curriculum in Ethiopian schools.

ROBA workers clear a Kofele schoolyard to make space for the lion tree nursery.
Saplings begin to grow in the lion tree nursery.

As Ethiopia’s national animal, the lion represents not just cultural pride but the ecosystem’s ability to support the large predators. In the last century, the East African country has lost 90% of its forests, leading to species endangerment and widespread poverty. For native Oromo people — to whom trees provide food, fire, and shelter — the praxis of tree-planting was once central to the democratic system of Oromo self-governance, called Gadaa, which predates today’s federal republic. ROBA founder and director Hussein Watta told Hyperallergic over WhatsApp that Gadaa has always been about protecting the land and celebrating Oromo self-determination. 

“When I speak with elders, they describe us as victims of climate change who have lost our culture. When you ask them about trees, and how Oromos maintained them, the key players they indicate are 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. My goal right now is to mobilize the people around this.”

ROBA director Hussein Watta (center) is shown with Hadha Sinqe women during the opening of the lion nursery on October 27 at Kofele School.

Using only hand tools, more than 5,000 ROBA workers have planted 4.2 million trees since 1995, with a diverse array of saplings, for fuel, animal feed, and medicine. Since late October, ROBA workers endured extreme heat and torrential rains to begin planting the 10,000 saplings that comprise the lion, which is situated in a Kofele schoolyard. In addition to the lion, ROBA is planting trees in circle formations and in the outline of medicinal Cordia africana saplings, inspiring young Oromos from other districts to express interest in “plant graffiti” of their own. 

ROBA has faced difficulties in recent years, from the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of equipment to political violence in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost state. To overcome these obstacles, Watta sought guidance from KPU horticultural director Deborah Henderson as well as EAS co-founders Sylvia Grace Borda and J. Keith Donnelly. EAS is securing satellite access to the living artworks on Google Earth and providing 360-degree cameras for Oromo planters to document the process. Together, they hope to integrate the archives into school lesson plans, allowing each new generation to inherit time-honored cultural practices. 

“The living artworks will hopefully amplify the voice of a community that is not on the digital grid, has little access to technological infrastructure and news distribution, and gets so little representation despite its vast population and history,” Borda told Hyperallergic. “We are working to fight climate change in a meaningful way, in which the creative arts are not just a communicator but part of the solution.”

Aerial view of Kofele with the planned outline of a Cordia africana sapling.

Borda and Donnelly previously worked on a similar satellite project in Dundee, which was named a UNESCO Design City for its innovative approaches to climate change and public art. Their “Internet of Nature” project tracks each public park and green space on Google Street View. John Gray, a sculptor and Dundee city planner, told Hyperallergic that community ownership over public space should include its artworks. 

“Counselors tend to say public art is great for tourism, because they see it as an economic gain,” Gray said. “But I don’t see it that way. I see it as [something] for the residents. If you make public art for the people first, make them proud of where they live and gain that civic pride, they will be the best cultural ambassadors by a long shot.”

Recent debates around the imposing nature of land art necessitate more sustainable methods for celebrating a culture in need. By reviving the spirit of Gadaa, the “Trees for Life” project posits a future in which ecological growth and cultural production go hand in hand. This creative process, Wako emphasizes, can shift perspectives on the value of each tree.

“If we can truly educate our 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.”

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.