The social and human costs to pastoral communities
P. juliflora impacts the environment as a lived space and is closely associated by participants with drought; changes to the water courses, specifically the river Awash; and a lowered water table. Drought augments the competitive advantage P. juliflora has in water-deprived conditions to threaten indigenous species, and reduced indigenous forage and pasture forces pastoralists to travel increasing distances to find suitable grazing. Pastures have been reduced to a ‘jungle’ rendering grazing unsustainable in significant areas. It is not only drought but also the frequency and severity of flooding, as communities blame the weed for changes to water courses. The pastoralists view this battle as greater than the infamous struggles between Issa, a Somali clan, and Afar, and P. juliflora is likened to ‘HIV for the environment’(Female, 40s, Melka Sadi kebele). This level of pasture loss precipitates household poverty, and the increasingly barren environment threatens an abandonment of the land, with invaded areas dismissed ‘as a shed for wild animals’ (Male, 40s, Sarkamo kebele). Communities report an increasing proximity to wild animals. The presence of large carnivores, like hyenas and lions, threatens livestock and children, a threat which is exacerbated when the increasingly difficult search for pasture causes the household head to spend longer periods away from the family.
The importance of the natural context stretches beyond the provision of livelihoods and economic resources. The local environment and biodiversity underpin a cultural heritage, demonstrated by a rich vocabulary and the diverse uses for the numerous indigenous plant species. The name of the same indigenous species subtly varies between kebele, and those kebele identified scores of indigenous plant species. However, a number of key informants expressed the view that P. juliflora benefits the environment through greening otherwise arid areas and preventing wind erosion, impacts rarely echoed within the community.
P. juliflora’s interaction with the local economy is more varied and more nuanced, with frequent acceptance that there were benefits in the form of charcoal production. This leads to economic advantages, with reports that those engaged in charcoal production were sharing the economic benefits with pastoralists. However, this benefit has to be weighed against the perceived impoverishment of soil quality, and the environment more generally, and the potential for conflict between communities over how benefits and costs are divided between charcoal producers and pastoralists. Additionally, the view that P. juliflora charcoal is of inferior quality indicates that benefits are not universally appreciated. Milling, or drying, the pods for livestock fodder is another proposed use for P. juliflora. Despite a number of high profile projects looking at this form of utilisation, both directly and in the form of flour, very few respondents raised this and one community commented that, whilst important for feed, the destruction of local species and impact on access to basic services outweighed this.
In stark contrast, the economic costs of P. juliflora were counted by elders in terms of clearance and diminished livestock. The extent of these economic costs was established by key informants, impacting both Afar and Ethiopian Somalia, stretching beyond Ethiopia into the wider Horn of Africa and undermining and devaluing the pastoralist ‘bank’, livestock. Participants reported a marked change in prospects within communities living with P. juliflora, with the rich becoming poor and food insecure, little milk for domestic consumption or surplus to sell at market and a consequent lack of cash to support education and food purchases. The community in Briforo summarised their own recent history as moving from being ‘ignorantly rich to educated but poor’, a situation to which P. juliflora contributes. The cost of removal of P. juliflora is significant and in some cases untenable, leading to fears that farmland will be re-appropriated and leased to investors.
Daily livestock losses are significantly reducing herd size due to diminished and impoverished grazing; livestock is being lost and predated upon in the thickets and gastric complications and a jaw disease, known locally as armako, caused by the pod and thorns are presenting new ailments which the communities have little understanding or experience of. Morbidity, as well as mortality, is a critical issue, with the loss of local fodder and pasture species impacting the herd’s milk yield. The thorns and pods of P. juliflora respectively cause blindness and lameness and digestive problems which significantly reduce the market price of cattle. Finally, diminished household capital compromises alternative livelihood investment opportunities, and the remaining options, like wage labour and horticulture, fail to generate significant income.
P. juliflora also burdens the infrastructure which supports pastoralism. Access is impeded as roads and tracks are narrowed and blocked, and the thorns render vehicles with inflatable tyres susceptible to punctures. This limits opportunities to access markets as large vehicles cannot transport the livestock long distances, and the herding options are complicated by the propensity to lose stock in the thickets as the roads become less and less clear. Both access to market and to services, including healthcare and education, are diminished. An alarming story of a woman giving birth by the side of the road as she was unable to reach the health centre was shared, and there are frequent reports of children getting lost on the way to school. The schools themselves become invaded, forcing the organisation of clearance parties to restore playing pitches and access roads.
Communities and homes do not remain unaffected. Impeded access also cuts off and cuts up communities, increasing isolation and provoking conflict. Homes are damaged, with disturbance to the cement foundations both reported and evidenced. P. juliflora blocks and damages the complex irrigation infrastructure, including ponds and flood and irrigation ditches, which manage both excess and exiguous rainfall, mediating floods and droughts. An external perception of P. juliflora as a cheap housing material was not echoed within the communities. The lack of indigenous species impacts the supply of building materials, reducing traditional fencing and construction materials and encouraging corrugated houses. These are not as environmentally sensitive as the traditional Afar housing and are not as well suited to the stifling climate.
The perceived impacts on human health cover both direct and indirect costs. Thorn injuries predominantly injure the feet due to the lack of protection given by the customary Afar open footwear, specifically to children and women whose role it is to collect firewood. These injuries, if infected, can lead to a loss of limbs and blindness if the eye is caught, reducing individual, household and community income, exacerbated by the difficulties in accessing health services. There is further evidence of a disproportionate burden. A number of respondents, including the son of a women’s development officer, noted the difficulty women have in accessing healthcare particularly during pregnancy. Children remain particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of P. juliflora owing to a tendency to eat the pods, which causes throat infections, and their higher susceptibility to malnutrition and to suffering from a lack of milk. The health of pastoralists is further compromised by poor availability of traditional plant medicines and a reported increase in malaria in invaded areas.
As one community leader simply stated, ‘if a family can’t feed their children they can’t attend school’ (Sarkamo kebele, 50s). Impoverished access to schools is both physical, due to poor roads and the increasing need to move over longer distances to seek out pasture, and economic, as spending on control and eradication detracts from spending on education and other services.
Socially, dislocation, displacement and distance are undermining traditional Afar social norms and patterns of behaviour. Within communities, P. juliflora acts like, in the words of one inter-governmental representative, a ‘barbed-wire fence’ which forces a barrier between neighbours and limits the reconciliation of conflict. One community counted the cost of this displacement at 70 households who had migrated out of the community. In addition, the pressure on households forces internal displacement and short-term migration, both of which fracture community identity. The increasing distances travelled from the kebele to find pasture cause the household to split more frequently and strain social processes like dagu, a ‘sophisticated system for news exchange’ (Menbere and Skjerdal 2008, p. 19) which constitutes the traditional Afar means of communication across the rangelands.
Conflict is also a concern and exists on a variety of different levels. Within the community, there are tensions between different clans over access rights and how costs should be shared. Pastoralists from invaded areas can find themselves in conflict with other communities who deny herds from invaded rangelands access to their pasture, although other communities do maintain customary traditions of reciprocity. Conflicts simmer with a range of groups outside the Afar communities: with the Issa where the increasing scarcity of productive rangeland adds fuel to pre-existing tensions, with charcoal producers who are generally seen as exploitative outsiders, with commercial plantations which pitch the pastoralists against the formalised bureaucracy and will of the state and with NGOs who promote utilisation strategies perceived as inappropriate.
Pastoral perceptions of P. juliflora and their well-being
Well-being, and an analysis of this, provides a pallet to illustrate the differences between objective and subjective perspectives. Generally imagined as existing across three realms, material well-being, human well-being and social well-being (White 2010), this analysis focuses on elements of social well-being, as this is the area where analysis using the frames of the SLF could be best strengthened. The social well-being of the community is assessed through focusing on conflict, community standing and identity and pastoral relations with the state and other external agencies.
As discussed, conflict exists as a corollary of P. juliflora invasion and as a feature of Afar existence. As a phenomenon, it illustrates the importance of taking a subjective approach which analyses relationships. Within communities, the impacts of P. juliflora, and the conflict that flows from it, are experienced distinctly and dependent upon tribe, upon whether one is benefiting from charcoal production or not, and upon how these benefits are shared and used. Conflict between communities is influenced by the specific ecological context, the perceived risk, the strength of ties between tribe and community and the levels and effectiveness of government involvement. As a process that ‘happens in relationship’ (White 2010, p. 170), well-being forces appraisal of the fact that diminished access and damaged relationships between pastoralists contribute to the state of conflict and that poor communication between individuals and communities is an aggravating factor. When P. juliflora envelops rangelands, it is difficult to determine which land belongs to which kebele, undermining how the community relates to its environment, and pitching community against community. Conflict underscores a diversification of phenomenological positions that occurs within a changing landscape and creates a juxtaposition of radically varying and fractured ontologies which, under increasing pressure from an existential threat, struggle to find a unifying epistemology.
The political identity and community standing of pastoral groups is altered by reduced herd size, the need to divert resources to clearance and general impoverishment. This stark change in fortunes prompted the focus group in Gedeabora kebele to reminisce, ‘we were once rich and able to raise a lot of capital, but now the economy is deteriorating and we are losing capital’. This is most acutely felt through the prospects for children for whom there is little hope. As a community leader ruefully remarked, the ‘children are continually asking what they fate is and their inheritance - the future of the community is at stake’ (Halai Degi kebele, 80s). This sense of standing and stability is further undermined by displacement and resettlement of members, with those who do migrate finding it difficult to maintain their pastoral identity and those who remain living alongside charcoal producers with differing norms and practices. The changing relationship with milk, a particularly strong cultural signifier to pastoralists, was described by the Galila Dura kebele focus group thus:
We previously provided milk to foreigners, but they can no longer do this as there is not even enough for our kids. We used to have to put it in the Awash as there was too much, and are now surviving on the past good times. This is a punishment from God.
The extent to which the community’s standing has diminished is indicated by the fatalistic perception that this is some divine curse and the significance is marked by the conflation of two core tenets of Afar life, God and pastoral culture, symbolically represented by milk, to make some sense of this unfurling tragedy. Whilst there remains some faith in the community’s capacity to respond, with support and resources from the state and NGOs, this needs to be weighted by the existential despair a significant number of pastoralists expressed, with some bemoaning their latter-day inability to be pastoralists. This diminishes their way of life and corrupts and impoverishes their culture, ultimately transforming their identity.
This cultural impasse within which the communities find themselves is rooted in the (poor) health of the indigenous biodiversity. This once rich resource underpins Afar cultural identity, from provision of fodder and grass crops to construction materials, medicines and personal hygiene aids like adaito, which is used as a toothbrush, and casalto, a leaf used to sooth and cool water to provide a refreshing tonic. The variety of species listed by the communities and the subtle differences in dialect between kebele over the study area indicate how important the natural resource base is in both supplying and underpinning an identity which is frequently as one with its environment. The consumption of milk, so culturally significant as a tool for social interaction, as a currency and, in the form of butter, as a product for conditioning and styling hair, is now spoken about as history, a history which, with the invasion of burial grounds and the destruction of statues by P. juliflora, is increasingly difficult for communities to preserve.
State relations are strained at a time when the pastoralists face increasing dependency on it for support, and it is accepted that financing a response to P. juliflora diverts funding from other sources. Communities do see a role for themselves, providing personnel to undertake clearance, but the government has to lead in providing technical expertise and technologies. However, P. juliflora limits interaction with the government and hampers access to support and representatives, diminishing both the political power, and relevance, of communities and their development prospects.
The relationship of pastoralists with the government is complicated by attempts to manage P. juliflora through a variety of interventions. The policy towards charcoal production was, and still is, confused, firstly allowing production as means to utilise the crop and then banning it due to the environmental and social damage and limited economic benefit. There is still some dispute over whether, and where, production is controlled and a suspicion that charcoal producers are ignoring any restrictions. On a larger scale, there are a significant number of policies, frameworks and management strategies highlighted by key informants which were not mentioned at the community level, suggesting that responses and solutions to P. juliflora exist at two different levels, one external and one local. Additionally, the government is required to arbitrate in conflicts and is focused on high-level conflict between the Afar and the Issa with limited success. However, they have established fora to arbitrate between aggrieved clans and communities and supported the customary fines issued for transgressions.
Interaction with NGOs focuses on clearance and utilisation projects, but notwithstanding these initiatives, and an expectation amongst pastoralists for NGOs to fill a gap left by the government, there is limited success due to scale. There is also a presiding view that as a foreign problem, the solution should come from foreigners, and an increasing openness to foreign advice and suggestions amongst the most severely affected communities. This typifies a changing and an opening of attitudes, although it is difficult to promote as a positive development given that it is neither from a position of power or of any significant choice.
Constructing pastoral vulnerability through the relationship between P. juliflora and other drivers and threats to well-being
Returning to the literature, there are a number of contexts within which P. juliflora interacts with existing threats to the pastoral system and drivers of pastoral vulnerability, including the production system itself, conflict, sedentarisation and poor state relations. These interactions collectively and holistically start to indicate why pastoralists experience the impacts of P. juliflora in the manner they do and how it impacts formal and informal institutions to temper the traditional coping strategies and to (de-)construct resilience in an invaded context.
The most widely reported ill effect of P. juliflora is on livestock, the ‘backbone’ of the pastoral economy. Any threat to livestock places pastoral prosperity in peril, but few impact livestock in multiple ways like P. juliflora. It decreases and devalues pastureland and exposes livestock to a variety of different threats, including theft and predation. In terms of an impact on livestock value, P. juliflora reduces the value of the herd across a variety of measures. Economic, productive and reproductive capacities are all diminished, as livestock command less value at market, yield less milk and suffer from increased disease which harms breeding ability, and mortality reduces herd size through disease, theft and predation. This raid on all of the various accounts within the pastoral bank increases exposure, and the few alternative livelihood pursuits that do exist are themselves frequently threatened by the invasions.
Whilst normalised to a certain extent, the insecurity which conflict causes to communities means it cannot be simply dismissed as a ‘right of passage’ (Meier et al. 2007, p. 718) (Meier et al. 2007). P. juliflora, and the consequent resource scarcity and pressures, contributes to pre-existing conflict and tensions, and it exists as a conflict species beyond the simple conference of costs to some and benefits to others to determining and diminishing how these costs are divided and mediated. A position which normalises pastoralist conflict struggles to accommodate the variety of levels that current conflict exists on and the significant pressure that it places on both communities and arbitrating institutions, both formal and informal. It also raises a significant, and concerning, question: when the study area around the middle Awash, which was traditionally a refuge during dry periods, is the locus of conflict, is nowhere safe?
Another complex and nuanced relationship is between P. juliflora and sedentarisation. The majority of respondents were mixing livelihood strategies and none of the communities interviewed were fully nomadic, but pre-existing levels of sedentarisation were exacerbated by P. juliflora. This situation erodes and fractures the communities and traditions of pastoralism. Despite a lessening of pure, transhumant practice, communities were still able to maintain herds and move them between ranges. Political sedentarisation, with which the respondents have a nuanced relationship, pushes them down whilst P. juliflora pushes them in, resulting in a pressure and tension which increases susceptibility to conflict, to the point that communities feel suffocated. There is also a tendency amongst the pastoralist respondents to conflate issues, with the idea that the process of sedentarisation, and the purported benefits like education, works with P. juliflora to impoverish them materially. How these nuanced factors interrelate is complex, but the perception is that they are colluding to devalue the material existence of pastoralists, a perception which is enforced by the radical reduction in herd size and profitability.
Economic impoverishment, conflict and social transformation all impact the adaptive capacity of pastoralists. The diminished economic standing, social health and community well-being undermine the ability of communities to adapt to change and their resilience to environmental threats, and fuel a widespread sense of despair and questioning over their well-being. Common questions around what it means to be a pastoralist indicate the ill health of pastoralism in southern Afar, and the lack of ready answers suggests a knowledge gap which exacerbates impacts and occludes solutions. The dependence on external actors to actually call and manage any response, and provide resources and a solution, questions the vestiges of pastoralist faith in the community’s ability to respond to the threats they face. In terms of the community’s ability to adapt, the invocation to Allah to deliver them from P. juliflora is more telling.
One of the critical reasons why pastoralists are so vulnerable is that the state is perceived as unable to fulfil all of its obligations. The sanguine recognition that the cost of controlling and managing P. juliflora detracts resources from education and health represents the observation that the state’s relationship with the pastoralists has limits. The idea of a centrist state disengaged from a peripheral population is supported by the promotion of confused (charcoal production), misaligned (utilisation and fodder strategies) and deleterious (land-leasing) strategies in the context of P. juliflora. This supports the idea of an essential competition and conflict between the ‘centrifugal logic’ of state-centric formalised bureaucracies and a ‘centripetal logic [which] proceeds in terms of relations, movements and flows of people, animals, resources and tradeable commodities’ (Korf et al. 2015, p. 885). However, there are instances where the two work together, in the form of clearance strategies and the development and testing of forms of utilisation, and the ‘bureaucracy’ is addressing the lack of an effective strategy. Given the extent of the invasion and perceived need, there is a case for exploring alternative options, such as biological control (van Wilgen and Richardson 2014). This requires a synergistic multi-stakeholder approach, as recognised explicitly by the key informants and inferred from the interviews with pastoralists, and presents the opportunity for meaningful, collective engagement with the issue. Whilst the state is engaged, it is essential to identify intermediaries, or bricoleurs (Cleaver et al. 2013), in bridging the two worlds and ensuring that the seeds of cooperation flourish and that distrust is not allowed to occlude the small shoots of hope.
The pastoralists have much to contribute to developing solutions. Their social systems and institutions, unique epistemologies and their environmental stewardship are traditional sources of strength and resilience but have all been undermined by P. juliflora with customary institutions critically endangered. The difficulty in sustaining dagu underscores deteriorating communication between pastoralists which threatens time-honoured institutions. Traditional markers, such as trees and rocks, are difficult to determine within an invaded landscape, and traditional practices, like allowing pastoralists from other areas access to pasture, are increasingly ignored. The loosening of the ties which hold pastoralists together and support the vulnerable reduce opportunities to find a solution internally. Customary institutions which manage common property are viewed as unnecessary when there are few resources to arbitrate, and increasingly, owing to distances covered and having to access unfamiliar pasture, grazing decisions are made unilaterally. However, there are still fora for making decisions related to common property, and within some communities, these have been strengthened owing to the increasing demand that scarcity places on them, and in relation to conflict, there is a recognised need for the government to support the resolution process. Government-brokered solutions tend not to offer long-term solutions and are wholly inappropriate when one of the aggrieved parties, in the case of commercial plantations and through a proxy, is the government itself.
Another traditional source of pastoral resilience is their traditional ecological knowledge. This is underpinned by the natural resource base and, as this diminishes, so too does knowledge and a sense of power over and understanding of their environment. The increasing reliance on the government, NGOs and foreigners to supply a solution reflects this decline. The willingness to embrace suggestions of a solution, like an apocryphal herbicide in Amhara, suggests how far the communities have abandoned their indigenous expertise in the face of this foreign threat. The names that the local community have for P. juliflora, ‘devil weed’ and ‘Derg weed’, capture the ignorance, fear and other-worldliness with which it is viewed by the local community.
One of the principal features of pastoralism is some sense of environmental stewardship, of co-existence and co-evolution with the local ecosystem. Pastoralism is a system which has been demonstrated to effectively co-exist with local environments and to support the maintenance of areas rich in biodiversity. Whilst the alternatives, mono-cropping, commercial plantations and small-scale cash crops, fail to offer the same level of environmental protection, with no incumbency upon users to preserve the unique ecosystem, they do offer the prospect of better confronting the invasion, a fact which offers the most significant threat to pastoralists. The tragedy of the invaded commons is that all of the co-evolved, ecological sensitivity and specialism is a burden rather than a boon.