Box 9.3: The making of unsustainable livelihoods: eroding the community-conserved landscape of the Oromo-Borana (Ethiopia)
(adapted from Tache, 2000a; Tache, 2000b; Bassi, 2002)
The whole ethnic territory of the Borana, in Ethiopia, can be considered a community (ethnic) conserved area. The territory has been managed for centuries through rules that assured the sustainable use of renewable natural resource. Some specific provisions embedded in culture assured bio-diversity conservation per se and the sound management of natural resources was promoted through norms of inclusion/ exclusion designed for all pastoral activities and known as seera marraa bisanii–-”the law of grass and water”. The Borana “law of grass” shares the basic principles of most East African pastoral groups. It differentiates between dry season pastures (with permanent water points) and wet season pastures (with good grass, but only accessible during rains), imposing the maximisation of use of wet-season pasture whenever possible (during rains), to minimise pressure on the most intensely utilised rangelands served by permanent water points. The “law of water” is instead peculiar to the Borana and their environment, which is characterised by the presence of numerous well complexes (the tulaa wells being the most famous among them). This law is extremely articulated, regulating in various ways the social and economic investment necessary to develop traditional wells and water points, access and maintenance. Through the normal cycle of well excavation and collapse, over-exploited dry season areas are abandoned and new ones are developed.
The juniper forests found in Borana lands have a special role, which is common to many East African forests used by pastoralists. Being too humid, they are not suitable for permanent pastoral settlement. Some open patches, however, contain excellent pasture and the forest also provides permanent springs. For centuries such forests have never been permanently inhabited but reserved as dry-season pasture. They had a crucial function as last refuge for grazing in case of drought, reserve for medical and ritual plants and overall symbolic and ecological meaning. They were not subject to special management provisions besides the very strict prohibition to start fires inside them, but were an integral and essential part of the survival system of the Borana.
The environmentally sound management of natural resources in Borana land assured the conservation of a unique biodiversity patrimony (including 43 species of wild mammals, 283 species of birds and many unique plants and habitats) until the 1970s, despite the establishment of some small towns close to the main forests already at the beginning of the 20th Century. From the 1970s onwards, however, the Borana environment was confronted with major changes in land use. The government limited movement within the ethnic territory and promoted agriculture, facts that deeply affected the Borana natural resource management system. The situation dramatically collapsed after the change of government in 1991. Political representation of the Borana within the local government became utterly marginal and policies that could only be described as “actively destructive” of their livelihoods were implemented. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated the resettlement of people in Boranaland who were not actually from the area (the great majority of them being neither Borana nor Oromo speaking), multiplying the number of permanent settlements in the region. The resettled villages were assisted through international aid and agriculture was promoted as their livelihood strategy.
Among the newcomers were also some non-Oromo pastoral groups that managed to manipulate international aid and gained political support. They obtained large tracts of Eastern Borana territory, which were annexed to “their” region, including critical pastoral areas of the Borana. More land resources were lost by the Borana in the process of “economic liberalisation”. Large ranches were acquired by international investors and extensive portions of land around the towns, located in their critical dry-season pastures, were assigned to town dwellers for small-holding cultivation. The majority of the town dwellers are neither Borana nor Oromo. A high inflow of migrant Muslim Oromo was also allowed, and those undertook extensive farming, especially in the Liiban area.
The local government has been acting as if common property land is no-man‘s land, to be assigned to whoever is claiming it. Indeed customary common property and community conserved areas are not currently recognised in Ethiopia. This process of land alienation has been affecting the most productive lands and the crucial ecosystem patches. The Borana have been squeezed into the driest pockets, bound to become overgrazed. Scarce rain during the last decade produced devastating effects and acute livestock destitution. The only possible survival strategy for the Borana has been to engage in farming in the remaining least suitable places, hoping for a harvest next year. Thus, the amount of land put under cultivation and alienated to the pastoral mode of production dramatically increased, as a sort of chain reaction. The patches of biodiversity in forests got exploited for a variety of commercial purposes, with no regard to sustainability. But, as everyone should have known, the traditional land of the Borana is not suitable for agriculture due to both low and irregular rainfall. Since 1998, the Borana and millions of other pastoralists and agro-pastoralists survive in Ethiopia on the brink of starvation, often entirely dependent on food donations from abroad. Neglect and active tampering with traditional resource management systems created a pattern of unsustainable livelihoods for an entire people and are effectively destroying most of the unique biodiversity harboured in the area.