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

A young pastoralist with cattle

Children often work in shifts, going to school when they are not looking after livestock

Children in pastoralist communities often work in shifts, going to school when they are not looking after livestock

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 Borana 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 to Human 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 Borana 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 Borana. Like most pastoralists in Borana, 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.

'The availability of pasture was better in the past and the productivity of livestock was higher when we had better pasture,' a pastoralist tells us as he passes round the pot of Buna Qale to drink. 'We get less rain now and when we get no rain at all things rapidly get worse as animals lose weight.' Although there are fears that pastoral land in Borana could eventually be lost to large-scale farming, many young pastoralists are making their own decision, sometimes encouraged by the rest of the community, to quit pastoralism and move to nearby towns.

'The younger generation say they don't want to pursue this livelihood', says a community elder we met, 'but the older generation is stuck in this livelihood now and must look to plough crops to substitute the meat and milk.' Like everywhere else in the world, he told us, pastoralist children in his community wanted to own computers and mobile phones and pursue a different lifestyle to that of a nomadic pastoralist. 'In the past we did not go to school, now children go and earn money,' he explains. 'We can see the benefit of education if they get a job but we can't send all our children at once as we need some to help with managing the livestock.' It is often the eldest male that is held back for fear of, so the local saying goes, "leaving the family blind". However, this can lead to resentment between those going off and those staying behind as well as problems, when those who go to school fail to find work.

'They face a difficult dilemma,' a pastoralist researcher based in Ethiopia later explains, 'some don't make good enough grades at school and are then left in limbo, there is no in-between livelihood for them. The elders can see these problems and that is why not all of them are so in favour of schooling.'

Just like the community itself, opinions amongst aid workers and observers working within pastoralist communities is divided about whether it has a future or not. As well as the declining availability of good pasture and perhaps also to blame for it, is a growing population. Some of it may be internal migration from neighbouring regions, or refugees and pastoralists escaping conflicts in Somalia for example, but population growth rates in Ethiopia are also amongst the highest in the world.

Such cold reality has left many of those long-time observers of pastoralists ready to write its obituary. 'Its days are numbered,' says Teshome Dahessa, who runs one of the Save the Children offices in Borana. 'This mode of life will be more diminished if not abandoned altogether within 50 years. That is the reality as more people get educated and inevitably look beyond pastoralism. Population growth and pressure on resources are all contributing to its decline.'

Despite the many pressures on pastoral populations, aid workers we met insist they have a right to remain as pastoralists and be supported in that way of life. This makes the role of NGOs and charities like Save the Children working in pastoral regions controversial to some. By supporting communities with aid are they helping to preserve an important livelihood that is capable of adapting and coping with climate change? Or are they merely adding a ‘sticking plaster’ to an increasingly vulnerable way of life that needs to change?

Livestock equals wealth

In the bustling town of Negele, in Borana, Saturday is the livestock market day, hundreds of sheep, cattle, goats and camels arrive from all over the region during the morning to be traded and sent off to the capital Addis Ababa and beyond to markets in East Africa and the Middle East. A good camel can fetch $900 or more and is likely to end up on dinner plates in Yemen - Ethiopians still largely prefer beef and goat to camel. Livestock is the mainstay of the Ethiopian economy, contributing 20 per cent of its total GDP. In Borana, it makes up 90 per cent of the local economy highlighting the continued importance of pastoralists.

For all the scepticism of their 'un-modern' way of life both inside and outside the country, it should not be forgotten that many pastoralists are actually relatively wealthy in comparison to other Ethiopians. It wasn't just pastoral areas that needed food aid during the most recent drought crisis. As incomes soar and urbanisation continues, demand for milk and meat products will increase considerably - with the potential for demand to be met by pastoral areas.

What’s more climate change and drought are nothing new to their way of life, which evolved as a coping mechanism for dealing with erratic rainfall in what has always been a harsh, arid environment. The amount of camels in the pastoral communities we visited and in the market today are testament to the adaptation already taking place. Once a rare sight, they are now favoured for their ability to survive on bush and shrub instead of important grazing pasture, and for going up to 14 days without water. Camels are seen as a strategic asset to be sold in difficult times instead of cattle, which retain an important role in many pastoral customs and traditions.

'While it is certainly true that pastoralism is a difficult and unpredictable way of life and that many people are either choosing to leave or are being forced out, the evidence that pastoralism as a livelihood system for millions of Africans has suddenly become unsustainable seems no more convincing today than it was when these brash predictions were first made, decades or even centuries ago,' says Stephen Devereux, from the Institute for Development Studies.

In the Awash Valley, where land formerly used by pastoralists was given over to cotton and sugar cane, the switch has had surprising results. A study in 2010 found returns from pastoralism were actually equal or greater per hectare than state-subsidised and irrigated cotton and sugar farms. The difference, concludes study co-author Roy Behnke, is that these farms deliver taxes and income to the government while pastoralism contributes little beyond the livelihoods of Ethiopians. 'Motives have very little to do with economic efficiency but control, control of money and people.' Previous studies have also found the health of former pastoralist communities did not improve with settlement, creating doubts about assumptions that so-called 'modern' livelihoods will automatically be better.

Even supporters of pastoralism, such as Behnke, expect the percentage of "pure" pastoralists - those that depend solely on livestock for their income - to decline as more continue to diversify and become semi-settled. This strategy allows some family members to trade and work. ‘The key is that livestock remains mobile to take advantage of Ethiopia’s vast rangelands and environmental variability,’ says Behnke. Something being lost to pastoralists across Ethiopia by foreign "land-grabbing" deals and irrigation projects designed to settle them and encourage large-scale farming.

In arid regions like Borana where water sources are limited, aid workers insist livelihoods must include livestock to remain viable, even if they are likely to include more crop farming in the future - so-called agro-pastoralism. 'In these regions, livestock and animals are wealth and insurance in times of crisis,' says a local aid worker.

'It’s obvious they cannot continue living in their current form of life, says Dr Zerihun Mohammed from the Ethiopian think-tank Forum for Social Studies. 'But unless we change with them they will face an even worse future. It is easier to try and adapt pastoralism rather than abandon it, yet the trend is that they will lose more and more access to rainlands and be pushed to the hinterlands.’

The bigger question for aid organisations and many observers is not whether pastoralism will survive but whether it will be allowed to.


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