Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Learning to Survive Ecological Risks among the Sidama of Southwestern Ethiopia

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Learning to Survive Ecological Risks among the Sidama of Southwestern Ethiopia

Article excerpt


Since the early 20th century, the Sidama of southwestern Ethiopia have experienced profound changes due to population growth, changes in government policies, climate variability, and market forces such as the expansion of coffee and other cash crops (Brøgger 1986:49,57; Hamer 2009; Hameso 2014). The Sidama living in low and midland areas currently experience erratic rainfall, recurrent drought, crop failure, livestock loss, and subsequent food shortage (Quinlan et al. 2015).

Ecologists Berkes and Jolly (2002) and anthropologists Moran (2006:13-15) and Nazarea (2006) argue that local people are not passive victims of ecological uncertainty-they have a philosophy and accumulated knowledge acquired through generations by cultural transmission to help them understand environmental variability and survive difficult times. This paper examines how Sidama farmers identify and define ecological risks and how they construct knowledge sets for survival. The paper also compares adults' and adolescents' risk perceptions, and examines how adolescents acquire the knowledge that prepares them for future social-environmental shocks such as drought, rainfall failure, and food shortage. Data from adults and adolescents indicate that diverse forms of socially acquired knowledge and skills enable the Sidama to respond to various forms of culturally demarcated times of hardship.


The People and their Ecology

The Sidama are Cushitic speakers located 270 kilometers south of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Sidamaland constitutes one of the administrative zones in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). In 2013, the total population of the Sidama was 3,514,491 living in an area of 6,538 km2 with a population density of 536/km2 (Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia 2013). The average household size is 4.9 persons. The majority of Sidama are smallholder agriculturalists while a few live in urban areas (8.8 percent).

The Sidama population has increased dramatically in the last 30 years-more than doubling in size. The total population was 1.5 million in 1984 (Hamer 1987), 2 million in 1994, about 3 million in 2007, and 3.5 million in 2013 (CSAE 1994, 2008 and 2013). Increase in population size had a significant impact on land fragmentation, which has become a source of food insecurity and interpersonal and ethnic conflicts (Alan 2011:163; Quinlan et al. 2015).

The Sidama were incorporated into the modern Ethiopian state in the 1890s, which impacted their traditional economic and socio-economic life. The Imperial administration introduced the gabar system, and the people had to pay heavy taxes to balabats ('landlords'). The system reduced Sidama peasants to the status of tenant (Hamar 1987:132). The Derg government, which took power in 1974, abolished the gabar system and instituted land reform to redistribute the land to the peasants through government-established peasant associations. The state held land-ownership rights, and the government set the limit of the land size that an individual peasant could own (Quinlan et al. 2015). As a result of land reform, farmers were relieved from the Imperial regime's landlord-tenant relationship and the burden of paying tribute to the landlords. However, in the late 1970s, the government introduced cooperative farming, confiscated peasants' smallholdings, and forced coffee producers to sell through the cooperatives for a lower price than they could obtain in the markets. These policies provoked strong local resistance against the government, and people experienced armed conflict and revolts (Aalen 2011; Vacchiato 1985).

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), which came to power in 1991, reversed the military government's policies regarding traditional practices and religious freedom (Aalen 2011:97; Freeman 2002:42), and thus some traditional practices were revived. This was followed by the rapid expansion of Protestantism due to massive and pronounced proselytization by local missionaries that was not possible during the previous regimes. …

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