Magazine article New African

Ethiopia: Life Is Hard for Pastoralists

Magazine article New African

Ethiopia: Life Is Hard for Pastoralists

Article excerpt

Pastoralists want the choice to continue their lifestyle, yet in a changing world, and with the impact of climate change, they also need development. "We're trying to adapt, but we cannot do this overnight," explains Idris Ali Igma, an Afar pastoralist. He wants the government to adopt a flexible approach, taking account of local needs. Kate Eshelby reports


In the past there was a dry and wet season, with one short period of rain and then the much-needed long, heavy rains. Now the rains only come for a short time, if at all, and the dry season has become very extended," says Ahmed Abahoo, an Afar pastoralist, herding his cattle into a thorny enclosure, as fiery winds whip up a storm, and a line of cows stride out of the sand haze, like a mirage.

Africa is getting hotter, with increased droughts and extreme weather patterns. "Communities where we work are reporting unusual climatic changes, beyond customary variability," John Magrath, Oxfam programme researcher, says.

Recent government reports on climate change predict that the continents temperatures are expected to rise twice as fast as in the rest of the world, and sub-Saharan Africa will endure the worst water shortages. Their lives are desolated the most from natural disasters--despite Africa contributing least to global warming.

Pastoralists will be one of the groups most affected, although compared to other land use systems, pastoralism is best adapted to unpredictable weather--they have developed a way of surviving, after centuries of eking out a living from the world's harshest places.

"Water and rain are the most important things," Hassan Abdullahi says, taking his depleted herd to a well in Danan village, Somali region. "I lost more than half my goats last year to drought. It will take time to rebuild my stocks, in the meantime my family suffers terribly."

Each time pastoralists confront emergency situations, their means of resistance become lessened to survive the next blow. The peripheral areas of Ethiopia, low-lying and arid, with spiked acacias, volcanoes and open desert, surround the fertile central highlands. Covering 61% of the country, they are home to eight million pastoralists from diverse ethnic groups: the four largest are the Afar, Somali, Guji and Borana.


Pastoralism, as a way of life, is little understood. Depending entirely on traditional animal rearing, the availability of grass and water is essential to their livelihoods, and when these are lost to drought they are faced with no alternative means of survival.

In response, they have cultivated complex coping mechanisms: when their provisions become scarce, they simply move to another place. They also have cultural strategies to share limited means. For example, the Borana, have a traditional co-operative system called Ga'ada, functioning as a form of social welfare, with clan members helping each other in times of hardship, and careful management ensures resources are not overused.

"Unlike what people think, pastoralists protect the land from overgrazing, and subsequent desertification by their mobility," says Sally Crafter of FARM-Africa Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has the largest livestock population in Africa. It is a valuable part of the economy, with pastoralists contributing far more than is acknowledged. The size of the regions livestock trade is masked by inaccurate figures that only count the legally-registered animals sold across the borders, ignoring the high numbers of contraband livestock. Pastoralism, however, is entering a critical period. Today it suffers numerous threats on top of global warming. "They have less land to graze, and their routes to find pasture and water are being cut up," Alastair Scott-Villiers, director of the UN's PCI (Pastoralist Communication Initiative), says. "Farming, seen as more economically viable, is constantly expanding into their grazing areas. …

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