Ahemedu Koka used to keep 30 cattle. Each week, he would herd his livestock through hundreds of kilometers of drylands. In this way, he made his living in Ethiopia’s Afar Region, just as his ancestors did for centuries. But gradually, Mr. Koka realized the landscape was changing drastically. And it was time for him to abandon his traditional livelihood.
The change Mr. Koka observed was the widespread appearance of a certain tree. The scientific name for the tree is Prosopis juliflora. But to pastoralists, it’s known as the “devil tree.” It is an extremely hardy tree that was introduced to Kenya and Ethiopia in the 1970s in an effort to rehabilitate old quarries. Because it thrives so well in harsh environments, it is taking over dryland areas, displacing indigenous vegetation. As a result, pastoralists struggle to find grazing land. Some are turning to new livelihoods.
For his part, Mr. Koka now makes a living from the so-called devil tree. He harvests the tree and sells charcoal. He earns enough money to feed his eight children, but not enough to send them to school. Mr. Koka says he would prefer to keep livestock. However, as he puts it, “the environment has forced us to change.”
Charcoal production is illegal in most of Ethiopia. The practice was wiping out indigenous trees such as neem and acacia. However, as the devil tree continues to spread its roots, the government has allowed charcoal production in the Middle Awash Valley.
In Kenya’s Rift Valley province, pastoralists are equally unhappy about the tree. Farmers in Baringo District are demanding compensation for grazing and arable land lost to the devil tree. They are suing the government for millions of Kenyan shillings.
Raphael Mworia is a spokesperson for the Kenya Forestry Service. He says the government is developing a policy to manage the tree. In the mean time, the forestry service is showing farmers and pastoralists how to live with it.
Devil tree pods can be crushed to make a nutritious animal feed. Crushing the pods has the side benefit of destroying the seed. Mr. Mworia also suggests a benefit to using the tree for fuelwood. It saves the indigenous acacia from being used for this purpose. According to Mr. Mworia, pastoralists must make use of the devil tree, instead of just looking at the negative aspects.
Even if pastoralists – or governments – wanted to eradicate the devil tree, the task may be impossible. The tree makes very deep roots and re-grows quickly if chopped down. Australia’s attempts to rid its land of the devil tree have been unsuccessful. They have tried various chemical solutions and now manage the tree with controlled burning.