Towards integrating palaeoecological and traditional knowledge to preserve the Ethiopian Ericaceous belt.
The Afromontane biome is a globally important biodiversity hotspot, supporting the livelihoods of more than 200 million people by providing essential natural resources and ecosystem services. The biome occurs between ca. 2000 to 4000 m asl including the Ericaceous belt (EB) above 3200 m asl, The EB is one of the most fragile Afromontane communities, dominated by Erica arborea and E. trimera stands. It is especially and critically endangered by rising temperatures and unpredictable rains, rapid population growth, and agricultural expansion. Conservation efforts in the EB have traditionally aimed to limit burning practices in protected areas, despite evidence that fire has been used as an agropastoral tool on the African continent for tens of thousands of years and current research suggesting that elimination of burning may result in high-severity fires. The EB is one of the ecosystems where fire has long been used by people and local knowledge and paleoecology therefore need to be considered in conservation planning. Here we show how information on long-term ecosystem dynamics from the Ethiopian Ericaceous belt in the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP) can be combined with interviews to pastoral communities of the Arsi Mountains National Park (AMNP). Both protected areas present similar vegetation and human activities, but AMNP receives less tourism, and traditional cattle and farming management is more widespread. Combining both perspectives will produce an integrated scenario on past vegetation change, as well as a better understanding of local attitudes about the environment in the Ericaceous Belt.
The evidence from paleoecology and local community knowledge suggests that past burning patterns in the Ethiopian highlands occurred under fire-conducive climates and seasonal biomass accumulations. We also inferred that intermediate fire return intervals, between 4 to 30 years, may have sustained a continuous Erica cover. The results suggest that a total fire ban will lead to important changes in EB structure and high-severity fires, given current increasing temperatures and population. As still many questions remain, we plan to continue our paleoecological research in the Arsi Mountains by examining other lake-sediment records as well as starting new calibration studies including the local knowledge and communities perspectives.