Ethiopian Artist Restoring The Environment Through ‘Plant Graffiti’

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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 environm’ent of his youth appeared radically altered, proving that climate change had made its mark on the region. 

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 Lion.

This living artwork – part of the larger project, ‘Trees for Life’ 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.

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. 

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.

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