8 Women with a new vision for Earth

Aster Gebrekirstos


The Scientist

Senior scientist, Center for International Forestry Research–World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)

Growing up as the oldest of seven children in Ethiopia’s beleaguered Tigray region, Aster Gebrekirstos could never have known that she would go on to study forestry, pioneer climate science and dendrochronology in Africa, author more than 100 scientific papers and train a generation of forestry experts across the region.

It all started at the turn of the century, when she grabbed an opportunity to further her forestry studies in the Netherlands. Eventually, during her PhD studies in Germany, she developed a fascination for dendrochronology – the dating of tree rings to determine past environmental conditions.

“I was captivated by the science and its potential application in the study of climate change and the restoration of degraded lands,” says Gebrekirstos, now a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research–World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)

“Having witnessed the utility of dendrochronology in Europe and America, I am convinced of the potential of this science in Africa.”

Gebrekirstos would eventually establish CIFOR-ICRAF’s dendrochronology lab, which examines how climate and ecological processes impacted trees in the past to understand how trees will respond to future climate conditions.

In much of Africa, existing climate data only goes back 30 to 40 years, and there is limited data on the ecology and physiology of indigenous tropical plants. Restoration efforts are focused on a few exotic species.

Gebrekirstos’ goal is to expand this timeframe and fill the gaps in the continent’s climate records, as well as further examine topics like the tolerance of tree species to climate stress and the effect of the climate crisis on foresters, agroforestry and ecosystems. 

“This information is invaluable for policymakers in the development of evidence-based plans for climate change adaptation and mitigation, including in relation to reforestation and climate change insurance policies,” explains Gebrekirstos, who also established a dendrochronology lab in Ethiopia in 2009.

Gebrekirstos has led and participated in several projects in Africa and Asia, including as a senior investigator at Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING). She is keen to work with farmers through training and community-based projects on issues like agroforestry, landscape restoration and agricultural intensification.

She underscores the growing global recognition of the threats posed by land degradation, conflict and the climate crisis, including their impacts on food security and migration, and the role of forestry in addressing these issues.

“There has never been a better time for forestry and agroforestry science,” says Gebrekirstos. “We live in troubled times, with a formidable merging of disease, drought, famine and war, fueled by climate change, inequity and migration.”

“This gives us a unique opportunity to reflect, drive real change, restore our mindsets and inspire and harness the enthusiasm of the public, including youth, to transform our way of life. If we don’t change, nature will not forgive us.”