In Ethiopia, climate change leads herders to retrain as farmers

  • By Sebastien Malo
  • 12/02/2019

Men part of the Hamar tribe work farm their plot of land in the countryside of Demika, a town in southwestern Ethiopia, on January 17, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo


DEMIKA, Ethiopia - The first time Mukulo Orgo cut open a tomato, he expected a mango-like fruit. Did it come from a factory, he wondered?

"People said first you wash it, and you cut with a knife and you prepare it with onion and you cook it, using oil," said the 40-year-old.

But the first time he butchered a cow, well, he knew perfectly well what to expect.

That is because, like many of his peers, the herder - born in a community where caring for livestock goes back millennia - is retraining as a farmer due the pressures of a changing climate.

For herders like him, an occupation long scorned has become an unlikely lifeline amid droughts that come with ever more frequency in this East African country.

With extreme droughts as much as five times more likely than 60 years ago in parts of the country, the estimated 12 million pastoralists in Ethiopia living off flocks of cows, goats and sheep have been hit hardin recent years.

In the Hamar region, where Orgo lives, 1.5 million of the 3 million animals that herders owned perished during the particularly brutal 2015-2016 drought, when the region saw poor rainfall for 18 months, according to district authorities.

Locals speak of foul-smelling, dried-out carcasses littering the ground as far as the eye could see, flies buzzing only over the freshest specimens.

Orgo, who lost nearly two dozen cows and a dozen goats, said he worries his children's childhood will not be the same without the animals.

"Without the livestock there is not childhood," he said, reminiscing about their companionship when he was a small child. "Livestock is everything for Hamar people."


Still, with two wives to feed and seven children, Orgo was the first herder in this town of 2,000 people to take the offer of a free quarter-hectare (0.6 acre) plot of land to cultivate two years ago.

The initial bush clearing was not done without the mockery of other villagers.

"They laughed," he said. "Why are you working on this land?"

Traditionally, pastoralists have grown only sorghum and maize, relying on the ancient method of sowing seeds on the floodplains, then leaving them alone to grow.

But when he grew 1,900 pounds (850 kg) of tomatoes and onions on his tiny plot the first year, the stocky man who wears a white and blue beaded headband took a liking to the new produce.

A tomato omelette is "sweet", he said. Skewered goat, though, remains his favorite dish.

Orgo has since purchased a cow with the profit and plans to expand his business selling oil and sugar from a small shop in town.

Amsalu Amane, whose non-profit Farm Africa has been helping the neophyte farmers with materials - including a drip-irrigation system - and aiding them in finding financing and in selling their produce, said farming is gaining in popularity in the herding community.

Some snubbed clearing bush at first, said Amane, the project coordinator. Eventually, however, curious residents paid visits to the plots.

One elder, after making a 3-mile (5 km) trip to the farm by foot each day, eventually took up farming as well, Amande said.

Nearly 70 people have since elected to become "agro-pastoralists", working on adjacent parcels, usually while holding onto their animals as well.

And the project has expanded to three more areas, said Negusu Aklilu, who heads the aid project, funded by Britain's Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, for UK-based Farm Africa.


If all goes well, nearly 70,000 herders will have diversified their income by the end of the aid project in March, through farming but also other activities such as honey and timber production, Aklilu said.

"It's not easy (to make changes) but they don't have any other option," he said.

Climate change "is putting more pressure on the communities to do something else, or to eat something else, rather than just depend on that earlier kind of lifestyle."

Experts disagree about how effective a pastoralist lifestyle is in the face of worsening drought, with some arguing herders well supported with enough land, water points and veterinary care can continue to thrive.

But shrinking amounts of land available to herd animals, as many African nations try to develop and expand farming, is making herding more challenging - and vulnerable to conflicts with farmers - in many places.

Herders or farmers who can expand the number of products they produce and their sources of income are likely to be more resilient to climate and other shocks, experts say.

Hamar and Borana people, and other pastoral tribes who live in arid and lowland parts of Ethiopia, have long felt government pressure to conform to a sedentary lifestyle.

As they cross borders in search of feed during transhumance journeys, the herders are sometimes viewed as a security threat, amid fears they could traffick weapons to rebels, said Argaw Ambelu, a professor at Ethiopia's Jimma University.

The moving population also is a challenge to the government's ability to provide herders with basic public services, from hospitals to schools, Ambelu said.

Ethiopia's booming economy, as well, has meant public land on which animals once grazed is increasingly dedicated to industrial projects.

Ethiopia's plan to develop its sugar industry has extended to this area, with sugar plantations planned in two districts neighboring Hamar, according to the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation.

The result, said Ambelu, has often been herders feeling frustrated as their way of life slowly withers under new constraints.

Still, cattle weigh heavily in Hamar traditions. A young man who has proposed, for instance, must jump over a line of up to 30 bulls, one by one, under the judging gaze of his love, said Farm Africa's Amane. A fall means he is not yet wedding material.

Cows are also offered as dowry.

"Settlement activities definitely erode the rich culture of pastoralists," Ambelu said.


Back in the Demika countryside, 42-year-old Turimi Turga, for one, said she liked how adding farming to her skills was working out.

"Before, out grandfathers, if there was a drought, they traveled nearby and they took water. Now they fight each other ... for water and grazing land" as water becomes scarcer, she said.

She could not wait for plump tomatoes and shiny green peppers to hang from her plants come the April harvest.

Turga and another three dozen women share a small plot of land neighboring that of Orgo, on a flat plane broken by a lone acacia tree and crisscrossed by black rubber hoses - the drip-irrigation system.

She said she hoped to purchase cattle with the profits she expects to reap from selling produce.

She still views herself as a pastoralist - but it has been some two years since she last had cattle to care for. The 2016 drought killed all 15 of her animals, she said.

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