A Nuer village in Gambella, western Ethiopia. Photo: Ana Cascão.

Quest for new farmland clashes with pastoralism

Instead of spending money on security, commercial farmers should invest in social relations with herders. It could prevent many conflicts on land issues, according to political economist Wondwosen Michago Seide.

In a new book, he studies the effects of large-scale agriculture on the Nuer pastoralists in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia.

The population of Ethiopia has more than doubled over the past 25 years and the country is today Africa’s second most populous, with well over 100 million inhabitants. This, in combination with a series of severe back-to-back droughts, has created serious food security challenges. There is a need for more farmland and increased productivity.

“Migration is a deeply human experience, as old as human life itself. People have always been moving and they always will, in Ethiopia as well as in the rest of the world. But in the years following the global financial crisis in 2008, when the price of farmland was boosted, Ethiopia experienced a new type of migration”, Seide says.

The idea of ‘vacant space’ has always been contested

Private investors and multinational venture capitalists started to look for ‘vacant space’ to use for large-scale farming of cash crops. For their plantations, they hired skilled labour, mainly from the Highland regions, as migrant workers.

“The idea of ‘vacant space’ has always been contested”, Seide continues.

The quest for new farmland has clashed with the traditional way of life of pastoralists such as the Nuer, who are dependent on migratory herding. Insecurity in the region has further increased due to climate change and climate variability.

“Drought has reduced the size of open woodland and savannah, needed for their cattle’s grazing, which forces them to move their livestock over even larger areas. As their traditional roads to water, pasture or cattle markets are blocked by large-scale farms, the risk of tension and conflict increases. Insecurity has caused many large-scale farmers to hire guards and spend a lot of money on private security to protect their investments”, Seide explains.

The Nuer pastoralists’ traditional way of life of is also challenged by the government’s villagisation and resettlement programmes, which encourage them to settle in villages that are not on flood plains and adjust migratory grazing patterns so that they move across smaller areas of land.

“The government’s position is to discourage mobile herders. Its development strategies, both present and previous, have always promoted a sedentary way of life to facilitate public infrastructure and service delivery”, Seide says.

This approach is based on a paternalistic perception of them as ‘noble savages’

A common approach, which international organisations and donor countries share, he argues, is that the pastoralists’ way of life has to be reformed and changed through outside intervention ‘for their own good’.

“This approach is based on a paternalistic perception of them as ‘noble savages’, admirable for their sustainable way of life, but too primitive to understand their own role in the national economy and to make decisions about livelihood strategies. This condescending view can be traced all the way back to the villagisation programmes of the Derg regime”, Seide says.

According to Seide, traditionally in development research there are two ways of dealing with these problems. One recommends that pastoralists diversify their livelihood strategies so that they become less dependent on their cattle and transhumance way of life. The other insists on a future outside of pastoralism. Seide argues for a third way.

“The government should encourage commercial farmers to adopt a socially responsible approach towards the pastoralists whose traditional lands they have, let’s say, ‘leased’. Providing incentives for them to invest in forage crop and to sell it to their neighbour pastoralists at discounted prices would be one way of doing that. With a steady supply of animal feed, the herders will be less dependent on seasonal migratory herding, which in turn will reduce the risk of conflicts over land user rights. It’s an easy win-win equation, since the commercial farmers will save a lot of money by not having to invest in private security”, Seide argues.

But encouraging a symbiotic relationship is not enough. Seide also advises the government to take strong action in ensuring the herders’ legal right to use traditional cattle routes. He points to Mali’s pastoral trade policy as an example to follow.

“The government of Mali recognises in law livestock mobility routes to market, pasture and water. This is an important piece of the puzzle to avoid potential conflicts between pastoralists and commercial land investors”, he concludes.

But Seide also recommends the Nuer should not hold on to their traditions at any cost.

“With climate change, land leasing and population pressure looming, it is in the Nuer’s best interests to diversify their livelihood strategies; for example, by expanding their partial farming practices and engaging in the exchange economy. The pastoralist communities in the Somali region in eastern Ethiopia could serve as a good example. Many of the Somali herders engage in petty trading and run business activities on the side”, he says.

Text: Henrik Alfredsson, henrik.alfredsson@nai.uu.se
Photo: Ana Cascão, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

ABOUT | The book

The Nuer Pastoralists – Between Large Scale Agriculture and Villagization: A case study of the Lare District in the Gambella Region of Ethiopia
Current African Issues (CAI) No 64
Nordiska Afrikainstitutet 2017

Wondwosen Michago Seide’s research is based on fieldwork carried out in the Lare District of the Gambella region. Primary data were collected from interviews with key informants, focus group discussions and a household questionnaire survey. The book can be downloaded as an open access pdf, read as an Issuu e-book, or ordered from from one of our distributors.

ABOUT | Villagisation programmes

Population density per region in Ethiopia. Source: Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia, 2015 projection.

Ethiopia’s villagisation programmes are based on government decisions to resettle farmers from the overcrowded Highlands, where access to cropland is declining due to population increase, to less densely populated areas in the Lowlands, such as the Gambella region. For more than half a century, federal and regional governments have adopted different strategies and policies to encourage or enforce resettlement and villagisation. 

ABOUT | Large-scale farming

Allthough many efforts have been made to promote large-scale farming, more than 80 percent of Ethiopia's farming is still small-scale. Photo: Synergos Institute, Creative Commons.

Large-scale agriculture, or commercial farming, involves raising crops and livestock to sell for profit. The needs of the market help determine which crops to grow. The opposite of commercial farming is subsistence farming, in which the farmer raises the food needed to provide for family and/or the community. For decades, the policy of the Ethiopian government has been to encourage large-scale commercial farming.

ABOUT | The Nuer and the Gambella region

Map on the Nuer zone in Gambella

The Nuer are the second-biggest ethno-linguistic group in South Sudan. The total Nuer population is around three million people. Only a small fragment of the Nuer live in Ethiopia, but in the country’s westernmost region, Gambella, they constitute the largest indigenous ethno-linguistic group. For their livelihoods, the Nuer mainly practise transhumant pastoralism and agro-pastoralism. With fewer than ten inhabitants per square kilometre, Gambella has one of the lowest population densities in Ethiopia.

ABOUT | The author

Wondwosen Michago Seide is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Lund University. He was a guest researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in 2015, and a Louwes Water Scholar at Oxford University where he got his MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management. Over the past ten years, he has worked as a researcher and consultant in the areas of water, development and environment for various organisations, regionally and internationally. He has produced various publications on hydropolitics, land management and environmental governance issues.

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