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Pastoralism as adaptive as irrigated agriculture in Ethiopia's Awash - study

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sat, 16 Mar 2013 07:51 AM
Author: Chelsea Diana
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By Chelsea Diana

LONDON (AlertNet) - Despite Ethiopia’s heavy investment in irrigated cotton and sugarcane farming in the Awash valley, pastoralism could be just as effective a way to deal with changing climate conditions there, researchers from the Imperial College of London say in a new report.  

The study found that pastoralism, a traditional lifestyle in the region, is in some cases more profitable and less harmful to the environment than cotton and sugarcane farming, according to researchers Roy Behnke and Carol Kerven.

The study, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, analysed the costs and benefits of irrigated farming versus pastoralism in the Awash River valley, a lush green area in the middle of arid desert in central Ethiopia.

“Reasonably sound (pastoralism) still has problems, but I think pastoral farming is as well or better adaptive than the alternatives,” Behnke told AlertNet.

Pastoralism is a system of raising livestock in which a farmer and his animals move between areas to find fresh pasture and water. It is particularly common in arid areas where settled agriculture is more difficult.

According to the report, the Ethiopian government said pastoralism was a good option 30 or 40 years ago, but with falling rainfall levels and recurrent droughts, settled livestock and crop farming would be a better option.

But research has “chronicled the remarkable resilience, creativity, and increasing sophistication of African pastoral societies and of the civil society and advocacy groups that represent their interests,” the study said.

Ethiopia’s herders already are no longer strictly nomads. These days, researchers said, some educate their children, farm some crops, sell livestock, take up paid employment, hold high positions in government and teach in universities. 

But as their land is turned to irrigated farming, there is little evidence the new systems have increased stability, according to the report. In fact, evidence suggests the large plantations and processing complexes are more exposed to environmental and economic problems.

DAMS AFFECTING PASTORAL FAMILIES

Families in the area now suffer “man-made famine” due to dam construction and irrigation that exclusively benefits farm owners and their migrant labor force, the study said. The capture of water for irrigation has caused loss of grazing and water resources and environmental degradation, the study found.

In this case, government programmes aimed at building resilience to climate change “are not a solution, but a cause of increased instability in pastoral livelihood support systems already exposed to (changing) rainfall, disease and security risks,” the report charged.

While Behnke recognizes dam construction has benefits – including the creation of hydropower, which Ethiopia needs and which could lead to it earning income from power exports – the dams have taken money away from projects to support local farmers, he said, and may have political overtones.

“Why was all this money invested in making these huge changes when there was no clear advantage except that it was a way for authorities to take over property?” he asked. “The motive was more a political one, to maintain control over these resources, rather than a purely economic one.”

Behnke believes a combination of pastoralism and irrigated agriculture could provide a balanced economic solution.

“Ethiopia should move toward a mixture, and figure out an estimate of when it’s economic to do pastoral farming and when it’s better to do sugarcane or cotton farming,” Behnke said. “ . . . Any economy needs diversification in its agriculture.”

“But there needs to be more careful investigation,” Behnke said. At the moment, there is no current census cataloging the number of pastoralists in Ethiopia, he said.

As land and water is taken away from traditional pastoralists, the country “needs to pay these people off appropriately,” he said. Right now, pastoral communities are simply losing resources and “it’s not okay.”

Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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