Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ethiopia's pastoralist tribes fight for survival against 'land grabbing' and climate change - The Ecologist

Special report Crisis or rebirth? The future of Ethiopia's pastoralist tribes

Tom Levitt
3rd May, 2012

Pastoralism is in crisis across Africa. But it could yet survive as the best available defence against climate change and famine. Tom Levitt reports from southern Ethiopia

In the scorching midday heat, less than 100 kilometres from the Kenyan border, there is a chorus of voices singing as water is hauled in buckets out of a borehole and passed along the line to fill up a trough for livestock. A cluster of women and older men gather in the shade of two trees, preparing and later sharing a pot of Buna Qale, a traditional drink made by boiling up a mixture of coffee beans, butter, milk, oil and sugar. The majority of people here in the Borena region of southern Ethiopia are pastoralists, nomadic people who move with their livestock in search of good pasture. But their way of life is under ever-increasing threat from loss of grazing land, worsening drought and government attempts to resettle them.

Life here today seems good with a parade of healthy looking camels, cows and goats coming forward to quench their thirst, while the young male herders stop to share a drink in the shade. But rewind seven months and the story was very different. Two successive failed rainy seasons had led to severe drought. Thousands of animals perished and more than 4.5 million people across Ethiopia needed food aid. The situation in neighbouring Somalia was even worse with widespread famine leading to tens of thousands of human deaths. 

In Ethiopia, famine is a word the country has struggled to shrug off since the tragedy of the 1980s. Its political leaders blame food insecurity on agricultural backwardness and a dependency on rain-fed agriculture. The country's 10 million or more pastoralists are seen as part of this problem; an increasingly vulnerable relic from the past and not the Western-style agricultural system that the country is trying to install as the future. That new system is one based on irrigation, crop farming and large-scale plantation projects - sugar and wheat. The polar opposite of the livestock-based system currently making up the livelihood of pastoralists - a way of life that has survived for centuries and may, say observers, still provide the best available source of food security for many of Ethiopia's drought-risk population.

Land grabbing and displacement

Although by no means a homogeneous group, pastoralists make up 10 to 15 per cent of Ethiopia's total population and perhaps, more crucially, use 63 per cent of its agricultural land. Land which observers say is being handed over to 'land-grabbing' foreign investors and state-financed irrigation schemes. 

Recent reports have claimed pastoralists in the Gambella Region, in West Ethiopia, are being forcibly relocated as part of the government's settlement plan to move them into areas with improved services like schools, water supplies and healthcare. By doing so the pastoralists are forced to abandon their cattle-based livelihoods in favour of settled crop farming. But according toHuman Rights Watch, the new villages lack adaequate farmland, healthcare or educational facilities.

Many of the areas people are being moved from are earmarked for lease by the government for cash-crop agricultural development, according to the NGO, which adds pastoralists often have no formal title to the land, allowing the government to claim the areas are "uninhabitated" or "under-utilised". Even if they are not resettled, pastoralists are losing access to the best land and water sources, say campaigners and researchers based in Ethiopia. 'We want the world to hear that the government brought us here to die,' one of those relocated told the NGO. 'They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can’t even move back. On all sides the land is given away, so we will die here in one place.'

According to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia is planning to resettle 1.5 million people by 2013 in four regions: Gambella, Afar, Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz. Attempts such as these to commercialise formerly pastoral land is nothing new and stretches back to colonial times. But the process of land being given over to overseas investors has accelerated in recent years and seen calls for official recognition of common pastoral lands. However, with pastoralists contributing little or nothing to government revenues, unlike, for example, tax-paying sugar plantations, a change in policy seems unlikely.  

'Civilisation did not come from pastoralists but from agriculture,’ says Ato Muhammad Yusuf, an MP and leading voice on pastoralist affairs in the Ethiopian government, in an interview with the Ecologist. ‘They must work on the land to be good citizens.' Yusuf argues pastoralists need to settle in order for the government to provide them with basic services like healthcare and education and safeguard their future but insists it is only being done voluntarily in the country. 

The pastoralist dilemma

In the far south of Ethiopia, pastoralists in Borena are yet to experience such 'modernisation'. This may in part be to the lack of major rivers flowing through the region to provide a basis for irrigation. Pastoral populations here rely on boreholes, a vulnerable existence exemplified by flash floods late last year that wiped out all but two of the wells relied upon by one of the pastoralist communities we visited in the Arero region of Borena. Like most pastoralists in Borena, the population is semi-settled, with the older men, women and children living together in small communities while young men roam as far as 100km searching for pasture to graze their livestock. During this time they are almost entirely reliant upon milk from the cattle they are herding for their daily food needs. 

While this makes for a lonely and difficult life for herders, it is this mobility that is key to the pastoralist way of life. In the dry rangelands of Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, pastures vary in nutritional content due to erratic rainfall and differing soil types and plant growth. By moving their animals to ensure a constant supply of good pasture, the pastoralists are able to produce comparatively more meat and milk than sedentary animals reared in the same conditions.
 However, across Borana and the rest of Ethiopia, the pastoralists' mobility and independence is being challenged by recurring drought and increased competition for grazing land from a land-squeezed population.

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