Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

The Impact of Institutional Degradation on Pastoral Livelihoods in the Horn of Africa: The Case of the Borana of Ethiopia

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

The Impact of Institutional Degradation on Pastoral Livelihoods in the Horn of Africa: The Case of the Borana of Ethiopia

Article excerpt

Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. What the cow needs only the cowherd knows. (1)

There is evidence to show that tradition still works. For example, the traditional deep wells are still working, where as the modern ones are mostly broken ... how can we reconcile old practices and modern times? (2)


Pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and the urban poor in the Horn of Africa (3) face pressing challenges such as desertification, land and soil degradation, recurrent famine and terrorism, (4) Forty-five per cent of the 70 million people in the Horn endured extreme food shortages at least once every decade over the past thirty years. (5) The causes of persistent and widespread food shortages in the region are both natural and man-made. Natural calamities including droughts, floods and contagious human and livestock diseases disrupt food production. Concomitantly, poor infrastructure and inaccessible markets constrain trade. Violent conflicts (6) drain limited resources and trigger massive human dislocation. As important as these explanations are, they do not fully illuminate the underlying causation of social and ecological calamity: institutional degradation. Based on a case study of the Borana--a predominantly pastoral (7) group inhabiting the drylands of Southern Ethiopia (see Map I), this paper argues that, contrary to the "tragedy of the commons" thesis and other neo-Malthusian explanations, the weakening and disintegration of communal resources management regimes due to top-down development

intervention comprises a crucial factor behind rangeland degradation, increased livestock mortality and rising vulnerability of pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa.

The Borana (8) are caught in vicious cycles of deepening poverty, conflict, resource degradation and famine. (9) Following successive droughts (10), the average household herd size is on the decline, (11)For instance, between 1981 and 1997, mean household herd size fell from 128 to 72. (12) In 1990, the total number of cattle per household was 43 before plummeting to just 14 in 1994. (13) Additionally, between 1999 and 2000, the Borana lost 70% of their livestock, which left them with an average livestock lower than the minimum herd size--15 to 20 head of cattle (14)--that is needed for survival and post-drought recovery. (15) This rapid drop in herd size may have to do with the fact that cattle husbandry, the mainstay of Borana livelihood, is under mounting demographic and environmental stress. (16) But underlying this stress is the gradual policy- driven "institutional erosion" (17) of what was "an exceptionally efficient system of managing resources" (18) and "remarkable social organization that has often been cited as a model of pastoralism in sub-Saharan Africa." (19)


Evidence for weakening of the social institutions of the Borana can be found in Angessa and Beyenes' survey of the perceptions of a total of 288 Borana pastoralists from six communal grazing areas in three districts (Yabello, Dirre andArrero) of the Borana Zone (see Table I). (20) Ninety two percent of the respondents indicated that Borana customary resources management was more sustainable than state management. Similarly, eighty nine percent thought that the communal grazing system was more productive than state management. An overwhelming majority (ninety four percent) indicated that household income is deteriorating. These findings suggest that "the traditional management system is becoming unstable and pastoral livelihood is becoming more insecure." (21)


There are diverse perspectives on why the Borana are increasingly vulnerable to droughts. In the past, scholars and policy makers resorted to the "tragedy of the commons" model to explain the plight of the Borana. …

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