Ethiopia: Pastoralists struggle with drying environment (Alertnet)

| October 28, 2013

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Dida Gemechu is in his fifties and has never known life to be so hard. The Borena pastoralist from Oromia State in southern Ethiopia relies on cattle for his livelihood. But the increasingly frequent droughts have made it harder to find enough water for his livestock.

Pastoralists make up eleven per cent of Ethiopia’s population, though they occupy more than 60 per cent of the country’s land. Pastoralists are especially vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

Mr. Gemechu says population growth has caused conflicts between pastoralists and farmers over grazing land. Many pastoralists have had to reduce the size of their herds.

Herd size is a traditional status symbol for the Borena. These days, a prominent family might have a herd of 500 animals, half the number they used to have. And a typical family might care for 150 or 200 cattle, many fewer than in the past.

Dida Kampara is head of the Oromia Pastoral Technical and Vocational Education College. He does not think pastoralists need to change their livelihoods completely, but must adapt by reducing the size of their herds.

Mr. Kampara says pastoralists also need to protect forests and keep grazing land clear of underbrush. He says, “There has been an invasion of alien shrubs that have been decimating … the natural flora of this semi-arid area.”

Ethiopian authorities encourage people to uproot the invasive shrubs and burn them for fuel. But some impoverished pastoralists are also chopping down native trees to sell as charcoal to city dwellers. Mr. Kampara says that forests are especially vital in this area, where there are no rivers within 300 kilometres. When trees are cut, the soil dries out.

The impact of deforestation is serious for pastoralists. And because they depend on a few livestock species in a fragile environment, they have much more to lose than other communities.

Some pastoralists are using traditional methods to manage their resources and adapt to the changing environment. The Borena still practise the traditional Gadaa system, a complex arrangement of social and political rules. Gadaa is used by the Borena and other clans from the Oromo ethnic group to define boundaries, ownership and other legal matters without resort to the Ethiopian courts.

Mr. Gemechu says, “We … slaughter a [cow] near boreholes … as a way of warding away other communities from sharing the finite resource, or to prevent any kind of deforestation in the area surrounding the water point.”

An animal’s blood near the borehole indicates to other pastoralists that the water source has already been claimed. Those who jump the queue for water, or cut trees near boreholes, can be fined.

The Borena say this method has helped them reduce often-deadly conflicts between themselves and other clans. It helps them conserve their resources as available pastures shrink and droughts worsen.

The Borena have added camels and goats to their herds because of these animals’ resilience and ability to graze on almost any plant. Many use a rotational grazing system and fence their cattle during the dry season. Some are growing crops such as beans which mature quickly in the short period of good rain.

But Mr. Kampara believes the most effective way for the Borena to adapt to the changing climate is to find good markets for their livestock. He says, “Borena cattle are renowned for their quality in Ethiopia, but because of distance from markets [they] have been unable to be a boon for the pastoralists.”

Mr. Gemechu says that their remoteness from central markets makes pastoralists vulnerable to exploitation by local middlemen. He would like the Ethiopian government to open up markets with northern Kenya, so that he can trade cattle there.