Shots depicting the Lower Valley of the Omo River, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inhabitants of Southern Ethiopia. Anna Maria Donnoli

Pastoralism’s Crisis in East Africa

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Luke Glowacki


Shots depicting the Lower Valley of the Omo River, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inhabitants of Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of AnnaMaria Donnoli

Lower Valley of the Omo River, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inhabitants of Southern Ethiopia. Photo courtesy AnnaMaria Donnoli, Wikicommons.

Anthropology has a long history in East Africa. Well-known works by Dyson-Hudson and Evans-Pritchard have introduced generations of undergraduate students to the richness of pastoralist cultures and the complexity of generation and age-sets. Popular accounts of similar groups have riveted the public imagination and featured prominently in well-known films and novels such as Out of Africa and West with the Night. But the 21st century reality is decidedly less cinematic for those pastoralists living along a huge swath of land on either side of the Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan and South Sudanese borders.

Pastoralist life here today is perhaps best characterized by immense transitions and challenges that threaten its future. Foreign investment in infrastructure, markets, and large-scale agricultural projects are driving rapid, pronounced change. Dams threaten to end seasonal floods on which pastoralists depend for small-scale planting. Rangeland is being consumed by agricultural projects totaling hundreds of thousands of hectares, leaving local populations with few alternatives for subsistence. The commercialization of livestock trade is escalating violent intergroup conflict, resulting in myriad downstream effects such as habitat loss and the erosion of cultural traditions.

Anthropology is situated at the nexus of these issues. Much of our knowledge about external pressures and their effects on local populations are the result of detailed ethnographic and cultural studies. We are in a unique position: our research can tell us how these changes may affect local communities. Will they be deleterious, such as by reducing their self-sufficiency or weakening traditional structures? Or beneficial, by creating much-needed sources of income, or providing health and educational opportunities? The challenge anthropologists face is how to best convey the practical findings of our research to a broader community.

These changes began in the 1970s when automatic weapons flooded the region. Communities initially responded to the abundance of AK-47s with local arms races, contributing to a dramatic increase in violent conflict. Anthropologists David Turton and Serge Tornay estimate that when automatic weapons first appeared in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia, between 5 and 10% of the Mursi and Nyangatom peoples were killed in raids. Contemporary research among the Turkana of northern Kenya show that even today up to 60% of male deaths during reproductively active years are caused by violent conflict.

These are staggering numbers, but beyond immediate deaths there are numerous unforeseen downstream effects that can be equally harmful. Careful scholarship by Terrance McCabe on livestock subsistence among Turkana pastoralists showed that many decisions such as herd division and migration patterns are affected by the possibility of conflict. This frequently results in large underused border zones anywhere from 15–50 km deep that are an all-too-common feature throughout the region.

These unused buffer areas often contain valuable rangeland. This results in decreased availability of nutritional resources and may have pronounced consequences for mothers and children including reduced immune functioning, increased parasite load, and malnutrition. Scholarship by University of Kansas anthropologist Sandra Gray and colleagues showed that in northwest Uganda, Karimojong children had reduced anthropometric indices (height and weight) when compared to the same population two decades prior. Startlingly they found that by age five Karimojong children had measurements comparable to other groups. This equality is likely not due to differential growth patterns but rather results from an increased death rate among smaller children. Among the Karimojong nearly a quarter of children die before age five, and 10% of deaths above age five are due directly to famine exacerbated by conflict.

Changes brought by the introduction of the automatic rifle have also affected basic social structures. Michael Bollig’s long-term fieldwork among the Pokot shows that firearms have created a situation that encourages cattle raiding. Individuals feel compelled to obtain firearms because their neighbors may have them. However, rifles are frequently extremely expensive, costing up to 60 cattle for a single weapon. This expense reduces the livestock available for a family to use for bridewealth. As a result young men are faced with a decision to delay marriage or to engage in cattle-raiding as a means to overcome their lack of cattle for bridewealth.

Through a series of thoughtful publications, Dutch anthropologist Jon Abbink has documented the slow fragmentation of traditional institutions among the Suri of southwest Ethiopia. These changes typify the challenges faced by many East African pastoralist societies. The glut of guns has increased the internal tensions present in any society, most significantly between elders who may want to restrain the impulses of youth striving for notoriety and status through violent conflict. This has resulted in the deterioration of social traditions in a number of domains. Exchange relations through the establishment of bond friendships with individuals from other groups has all but ceased due to conflict. Conflict resolution mechanisms are also eroding. A few years ago, traditional compensation for killing members of differing descent-groups required the payment of livestock. Now blood revenge is more frequently sought, leading to escalating feuds. The power of traditional ritual leaders is waning along with many other elements of ritual life. This is partly because of intra-group feuds and the rising independence of youth armed with guns, leading some anthropologists to argue that the future of pastoralism is in danger.

Against this backdrop a new series of challenges is emerging due to globalizing forces. Significant investment in infrastructure is providing much needed access to economic engagement as well as educational and health opportunities. This change, however, also threatens to bring potentially destabilizing forces. The increased prevalence of markets creates conditions for the commercialization of livestock theft. Stolen cattle are not only used for bridewealth but sold to traders and quickly shipped to urban centers giving rise to what some scholars call “Traiders.”

The investment in infrastructure is also facilitating rapid commercial development of pastoralist lands. In the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia over 300,000 hectares are slated for agricultural development, much of it on precious grazing lands in Omo National Park. It is not clear how pastoralists such as the Nyangatom, Mursi, and Bodi who rely on these areas will meet their basic subsistence needs. Their displacement threatens to escalate violent intergroup conflict as they search out new pasture likely to be already inhabited. Perhaps to prevent this the government is instituting widespread resettlement or “villagization,” which will eliminate their livelihoods by denying them access to the mobility cattle production requires and forcing them to live in permanent state-supported settlements. While local governments and their donor agencies claim this will improve pastoralist conditions, a significant amount of anthropological work such as that done by Elliot Fratkin and colleagues has shown that settlement of nomadic populations usually leads to negative health outcomes. This is especially acute for children, likely due to decreased diet breadth through the loss of access to cattle products such as milk.

Less saliently, local traditions and values are also under external assault, further marginalizing traditional communities. Discussion of “harmful traditional practices” is rife among state and NGO actors. While NGOs such as Save the Children may increase access to health care and education and work to end harmful practices, in some instances their outreach advances a state agenda that threatens to erode important cultural traditions. These can include seemingly innocuous traditions such as ritual scarification, marriage rites, and simple ornamentation including traditional beadwork.

North of the Omo Valley, the Gibe 3 Dam nears completion, threatening to end the seasonal floods of the Omo River and the food production cycles on which a quarter of a million agro-pastoralists depend. At the Omo’s mouth, the Turkana warily wonder if this presages the desiccation of Lake Turkana on whose waters they and the Dassanech depend for their livelihoods. Anthropologists such as Richard Leakey have been vocal about the impending crisis, but yet foreign-funded construction continues.

Where my own research occurs in southwest Ethiopia, agricultural projects are planned on important reserve grasslands. This will not only reduce the survivability of pastoralists here but also block traditional migration routes, effectively ending transhumance in this region. From the perspective of policy makers in Addis Ababa who may be under-informed about pastoralist land use, the entire area may appear uninhabited or underused when in fact certain areas are crucial. Nearby there are large unused border areas and buffer zones providing alternative locations for agricultural development.

Pastoralism in much of East Africa is in crisis. Development projects plunge ahead while basic subsistence needs are barely met and violent conflict is common. Policy makers justify plans by stating that the consequences of changes are unknown or will only bring benefits. However, decades of anthropological studies give us a good idea of what the future holds and can answer crucial questions. How will local populations respond to changes? Will the loss of grazing land for agricultural projects create famine, or can development target non-crucial areas and thus coexist with pastoralist populations? Will resettlement increase access to health care and nutritional resources, or result in overcrowded villages where people have no means to provide for themselves? How can economic opportunities be increased without introducing destabilizing or harmful pressures?

Anthropologists are uniquely situated to anticipate how modernization and development may affect populations. But often there is a disconnect between academic discourse and policy decisions. There are no easy fixes, but if anthropologists are to have a role in informing these decisions, we should seek out forums in which our work can be applied and shared among a broader community.

Luke Glowacki is a PhD candidate in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. His research combines the quantitative methods of evolutionary anthropology with ethnographic and cultural studies. His fieldwork is primarily with nomadic pastoralists in the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia focusing on conflict, cooperation and demographic transitions.

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