Humans, like honey bees, are social creatures. We live in societies, and we rely upon the behavior of each other for protection and well being. The farmers of Ethiopia’s Bonebunga area recognize the importance of the forest to their environment. Most of the natural forest was removed in years past. Now new plantings of native trees are turning open, highly erodible agricultural fields once again into forests. These growing forests and the few remaining natural forests require protection. Without controls, the forests could be rapidly cleared to provide fire wood, charcoal, and building materials. My Ethiopian host, Guta Abdi, explains to me that the forests in the Bonebunga area are protected by a “social fence,” an imaginary protective fence built in the minds of the people served by the forests. The people recognize the importance of the forests and how vulnerable they are to poaching of trees. Standards of behavior, such as protecting trees, are maintained by “social courts,” committees of citizens who set standards of behavior, make them clearly understood, and enforce adherence.
Guta Abdi explains that he and the staff of the Education For Development Association recognized that there were in their community a number of harmful traditional practices which should be addressed. Among these were the abduction of unwilling marriage partners, rape, and the frequent practice of female genital mutilation. He developed a plan to end female genital mutilation completely in their region. To gain complete acceptance of the plan, he approached every social group and the clergy of each religion, Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Muslim, and traditional believers. He asked them to search their holy writings to find any support for this injuring practice; they found none. He next approached police, government, and community leaders asking for support in eradicating the practice. After gaining total support, the entire community celebrated stopping the practice with over two thousand attending a celebration. Today’s photo shows community leaders in traditional dress for the celebration of girls protected by a social fence.