Ethiopian pastoralists: Entangled between development initiatives, conservation and state/society conflicts

by Rashmi Singh, PASTRES project

“In the year 2000 we had called the government officials and had requested them to kill all of us…. we have lost our land, our water; we have nowhere to go.”

An elderly Karrayu pastoralist, sitting beside Lake Basaka and talking with the PASTRES team, is in a state of despair. He makes sure that the team is listening to him and noting down his worries and the concerns of his community about pastoralism in his part of Ethiopia. It’s a region where pastoralists face entangled problems linked to development initiatives, conservation, and state/society conflicts.

The PASTRES team visited the pastoral regions of Afar and Karrayu earlier this month, following a three-day workshop in Addis Ababa. As a member of the team, it was my first ever visit to Africa. Working in the Indian Himalayan region for the past decade, I have seen pastoralists suffer the consequences of ill-conceived state policies and actions. However, while most of my experiences have been limited to understanding the impacts of the exclusionary conservation model on the pastoralists of the Himalayan region, the plight of pastoralists in Ethiopia was eye-opening.

Pastoralists here face many problems. They include poorly planned development initiatives, loss of access to protected areas, state-society conflicts, the decline in fodder availability due to the expansion of invasive species, and conflicts over resources between different pastoral communities. While some of these issues are similar to those faced by pastoralists in the Indian context, others are quite unique to the region.

Irrigation projects, conservation and an expanding lake

The Basaka lake, where we were sitting and talking with the Karrayu pastoralists, is a natural lake that has been expanding rapidly. In the past three decades, it has engulfed a large area of the Awash River valley – a key area for livestock grazing for almost six months of the year. Historically, the Karrayu pastoralists were a very wealthy community of herders, rearing cattle, goats and camels. However, after losing access to almost all of their prime grazing areas, they are now left with much fewer livestock. 

A very large lake viewed from the side of a mountain. There is a settlement at one end of the lake. Low-lying green trees and grasses are in the foreground.
Lake Basaka. Photo: Nina R (Creative Commons by 2.0)

Until the 1960s, the pastoralists of this region had access to all the river valleys for the entire dry season. However, from the early 1970s, they lost access to these pastures, as well as sources of drinking water for animals and humans. This can be attributed to two main causes: firstly, new hydroelectric projects built further upstream that regulated the river flow, and secondly, the development of cotton and sugar plantations that redirected the river. Pastoralists also lost another important grazing area in the North as a result of the creation of the Awash National Park in the mid-1960s, with a complete ban on access to the park enforced over the last few decades. 

Today, the Karrayu pastoralists continue to be entangled in issues such as poorly planned development initiatives, the expanding lake, and the loss of access to grazing land under protected areas. The pastoralists mentioned that, even after desperate attempts at seeking help from the State, particularly through several episodes of protests, what they received was a single water canal and 0.75 hectares of irrigated land for a handful of the community members.

Invasive plants, villagization and social conflict 

During our field trip, we also met with Afar pastoralists who live close to the border with Ethiopia’s Somali region. They mostly rear cattle, and they migrate with their animals in response to rainfall patterns, although recently they have started purchasing fodder from the market for stall-feeding. While women in the household have a monopoly on the income from selling milk, the male head of the household generally retains the income from the sale of animals.

Among the many things that I observed, I was most fascinated by the traditional bamboo houses of the Afar pastoralists. These traditional houses, however, are slowly being replaced by concrete structures with access to electricity and other amenities provided by the State. The larger goal is the ‘villagization’ of the pastoralist communities.

A group of people are sitting round on the floor in a house. The house is made by hand from long woven wooden canes and has a curved roof. There are lots of shadows, and the only light is natural light from a door and some small openings. The house is open plan and there is hardly any furniture. In the background there is kitchen equipment, a rolled up mat, a large pink shawl hanging from the roof, and a stack of firewood.

“On the one hand, Prosopis is chasing us away and on the other hand, the Somali pastoralists,” said a woman from the Afar pastoralist community.

Statements like this made it clear that one of the key concerns of these pastoralists was the expansion of Prosopis juliflora across their grazing land. It’s a similar concern voiced by pastoralists in regions like the drylands of Gujarat, in western India. Prosopis grows and spreads very quickly, enabling it to outcompete indigenous plant species and cover huge areas of land in a relatively short time. As a result of the expansion of this invasive species, coupled with erratic rainfall and frequent droughts in the past few years, there has been a big drop in the availability of fodder in the region. The shortage of water in the dry season is also a major concern, especially for smaller animals that cannot walk long distances.  

With declining fodder in nearby pastures, the male heads of the household now have to travel with their animals for three to four months to far-flung areas. The decline in natural fodder has also become a major point of contention between Afar and Somali pastoralists, resulting in frequent conflicts. What’s more, the decline in fodder and frequent droughts have also affected the milk economy of the region. Less cow’s milk has been produced, as the pastoralists milk their cattle only once a day during the dry season, leading to reduced returns.

Dominant narratives and appropriate solutions

The dominant narrative about pastoralism is that it’s economically unviable, a poor means of livelihood, and a practice that is at loggerheads with wildlife conservation. These myths have resulted in the alienation of pastoralists from their own land across Africa and Asia. With vast swathes of land seen as lucrative sources of potential income, the prime grazing areas are often subject to land grabs by both state and private actors.

The stories I heard in Ethiopia indicate that development initiatives have not only ruined the pastoral economy, but have also had a large impact on the local ecology through the loss of water streams and the expansion of natural lakes with saline water that can’t be used. By tinkering with the ecosystem, with the aim of transforming traditional pastoral areas into irrigated farms, the Ethiopian state has incurred serious economic losses, with the flooding of infrastructure and salinisation of farmland and water supplies.

Some of the issues raised by the pastoralists we talked to are unique to their region. But they also have many concerns in common with Indian pastoralists: the loss of access to critical pastures under private lands or protected areas, climatic variability, expansion of invasive species, and the decline in fodder availability.

We observed how pastoralists in Ethiopia are trying to adapt or address some of these concerns: for example, through changing the composition of their livestock, expanding traditional migratory routes, and purchasing fodder from the market. Yet, where pastoral spaces are constantly shrinking, there is a critical need for immediate support from the state, especially through means of more appropriate policies tailored to local contexts, and with a participatory form of engagement with pastoralists.

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