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Eritrea: Nation-building in Africa’s newest state

Peace Boat’s visit to Eritrea, in North Africa, provided an opportunity for a group of participants to accompany Guest Educator Dr. Gordon Sato to learn first hand about how mangrove forestation can help the people of Eritrea fight poverty, hunger, environmental pollution and global warming. Known as The Manzanar Project, this success story is contributing towards food security and sustainability for the people living on Eritrea’s eastern coastline.

Current political climate

Eritrea is Africa’s newest nation state – formed in 1993 at the end of a 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia. Unfortunately, tensions continued to linger and fighting broke out a second time in 1998 between the two countries in the northern border region. Today, the situation is still fragile and the presence of a United Nations Peacekeeping Force helps keep the conflict at bay.

Yosief Ghirmatsion on deck en route to Eritrea

As Yosief Ghirmatsion, representative of the Eritrean National Union of Youth and Students (NUEYS) and Guest Educator onboard Peace Boat, explained, the country is not at war and not at peace. Decades of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia have cost both countries tens of thousands of lives and countless resources, including losses in jobs and industry. From 1993 to 1997 Eritrea experienced a yearly seven percent growth in its economy, but when the 1998 fighting started, the health of the economy declined significantly.

The Manzanar Project

Homes in the coastal village of Hergigo
As a small North African country with an arid climate, Eritrea faces many economic hardships. Over 70 percent of the population depends on cultivating crops and raising live-stock for their livelihood. Yet due to the arid climate, rain may not fall for months in some regions of Eritrea. And without rain, the people are unable to grow enough food or feed their animals. Living in Eritrea’s dry coastal region, where droughts occur frequently, Eritrean people may face a food shortage for up to six months of every year. Without international food aid these droughts would lead to mass starvation.


To help fight the problem of food insecurity, Dr. Gordon Sato, a prominent scientist started The Manzanar Project, and created a way for villagers to plant mangrove trees along Eritrea’s coastline. Dr. Sato first became interested in Eritrea during the “Ethiopian famine” of the 1980s and has worked in the country ever since. When Eritrea was still a part of Ethiopia, he helped develop fish farming to supply wounded soldiers with food. Following Eritrea’s independence, he has continued to focus on creating ways for the country to fight hunger and poverty. The idea behind The Manzanar Project remains simple: if the livestock can survive, the people can also survive.
Dr. Gordon Sato outside the Manzanar Research Station

Young mangrove trees planted at the coastal village of Hergigo

The inspiration behind planting mangrove trees came to Dr. Sato seven years ago, while standing along a waterway. As he watched a camel eating the tree’s leaves he came up with an idea to try to use mangroves to feed livestock. As one of the only plants that will survive during drought, he found that mangroves in Eritrea only grow on 15 percent of the coast, but that 85 percent of the coast has no trees. Deciding to invest US$ 400,000 of his own money, he decided to start a forestation project along the coast of Eritrea where mangroves do not normally survive.

Peace Boat visits The Manzanar Project

Peace Boat participants gather at the Massawa Research Station

Abraham Fessha explains key concepts of The Manzanar Project

Since the Manzanar is a village-based project, members from the village are chosen by the Mayor to plant and care for the trees. A Manzanar employee told Peace Boat participants that a large percentage of men who lived in the village were killed during the 30-year war and that many women who lost their husbands have been chosen to work at the project site.

Dr. Sato traveled with Peace Boat from Sri Lanka to Eritrea to teach Peace Boat participants about his project. Upon arrival to Massawa, over 60 eager participants accompanied Dr. Sato to The Manzanar Research Station to learn more about the project.

Arriving at the Research Station, the group was lead by Abraham Fessha who explained the various research projects being conducted. Abraham explained that in Eritrea the supply of sun and seawater is almost limitless. “We are trying to convert these two ample resources into mangroves forests for human use.” Over the last few years the station has perfected a sustainable method of fertilization and planting, and is now working on developing methods to improve upon the use of mangrove’s leaves and seeds as a complete diet for livestock.

Following the visit to the Massawa Research Station, the participants set off on a 40 minute drive through dry coastal land to the village of Hergigo to visit a mangrove-planting site. Abraham explained that The Manzanar Project “uses Hergigo as a model so other parts of the country can adapt it to their areas.” Along the coast of the village more than 500,000 trees have been planted over the past one year. “The resources found in the trees will be used by the villagers for their own use,” said Abraham. “Within three years the plants will provide food for animals.”

Hergigo villager stands in front of one year old mangrove trees

Back onto the bus
While walking around the 20-hectare planting site participants talked with some of the Manzanar employees about Eritrea and the future of the project. The enthusiastic employees were eager to share the success of the trees growing in Hergigo, explaining that as the project continues to develop the village will be able to increase the number of livestock in their herd which will increase their standard of living. After helping to remove dried seaweed from the young trees, the participants escaped away from the hot sun and headed back to the ship with a better understanding of Eritrea and the challenges it faces.
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