Adem Alebachew: Institutions for conflict and resource management in the Ethiopian lowlands: Case of pastoral institutions in South Omo
PhD-project in Political Science, University of Basel
1. The research problem
Since the 1980s, a growing body of scholarship and policy attention has devoted particular attention to linking environmental change, population pressure and resource scarcity to violent conflict and societal collapse (for instance, Homer-Dixon, 1994, 1999; Matthew, 2001; Collier and Hoeffler, 2002). Although such reductionist understanding of the complex relationship between environment and conflict has been severely criticized on theoretical, methodological and empirical grounds (see, Gleditsch, 1998; Dalby 2002; Barnett, 2001; Hagmann, 2005; Hagmann and Mulugeta 2008) , currently the concept has gained renewed currency as a result of the ongoing discourse on global climate change (Péclard, 2009; Hagmann, 2009; Gleditsch and Ragnhild, 2009; Dalby, 2002). Notwithstanding the renewed interest in the environmental security thesis, there is growing concern that two decades of scholarly publication, debate and policy experimentation has not produced any worthwhile results. As a result, critical scholarship is calling for a shift away from the reductionist approach in favor of a more balanced and dynamic analysis of the multi-causality and complexity of resource-use conflicts and of existing resource and conflict governance institutions.
Overall, the challenge for conflict transformation and environmental peace building in the Ethiopian lowlands is to avoid drawing strategies based on oversimplified and de-contextualized understanding of natural resources use conflicts. Given the situation of environmental stress and socio-political marginalization in the south western lowlands of the country, the formulation of effective conflict transformation strategies requires a critical assessment of how natural resource-use conflicts are embedded in social and political dynamics, how such conflicts are managed by local institutions, and how local institutional arrangements can be supported through outside intervention. Focusing on the use of pastoral resources (especially common grazing land and watering points), this PhD project will look at the institutions that mediate in one way or another the link between the environment and wider processes of social and political change both at the local and global levels.
The (agro) pastoral communities in the Horn of Africa are characterized by recurrent and violent conflicts, socio-political marginalization and drought. Neither social and economic services nor political and administrative arrangements have been geared toward the pastoral way of life. Governments in the region generally would prefer to contain and pacify pastoralists through sedenterization and integration in to the national and global economy (Abbink, 1997; Hagmann and Mulugeta, 2008; Getachew, 2002; Ayalew, 2001; Alebachew, 2009). Processes resulting from encroaching interests on pastoral resources and the involvement of external institutions and actors weakened customary conflict resolution and remold property rights regimes, paving the way for conflict of interest to develop into violence. Most of such conflicts go unnoticed and unreported-unless large scale killing and damages tackle place and the state intervenes militarily. Worryingly, contemporary scholarship and policy analyses of the conflicts in the sub-region fail to provide satisfactory explanation (Suliman, 1999). Poor understanding of pastoral conflicts has led to a situation where there are no effective mechanisms for dealing with the challenge. By refuting the neo-Malthusian and primordial understanding of pastoral conflicts in the Horn of Africa, this PhD research will try to draw attention to wider socio-political processes and the dynamic role of local institutions in resource governance and conflict resolution.
2. Research context
Ethiopia is a country that encompasses large pastoral and agro -pastoral production systems in terms of area coverage, human and livestock population and resource diversification in its arid and semi-arid lowlands than any other country in Sub-Sahara Africa. Pastoralism, as one of the oldest socio-economic systems in the country, represents the major means of subsistence for the lowland population (Alebachew, 2009a). Pastoralists occupy 63% of the national territory and constitute about 12%-15% of the total population (MoARD, 2008; CSA, 2008). Being home to one of the most ethically diverse and socio-politically marginalized pastoral communities in Ethiopia, the southwestern lowland region is inhabited by sixteen ethnic groups including the Dassenech agro-pastoralists who practice flood retreat cultivation and small scale fishing around the Omo Delta on the northern side of Lake Rudolf on the Ethio-Kenyan border and the Hamer tribes in the pastoral South Omo district. Despite the relatively good ecological potential, semi-arid attributes subject the area to droughts and extreme forage scarcity, making extensive mobile herding a necessary adaptation (Aklilu and Alebachew, 2009). Hamer and Dassenech pastoralists have thus, until recently, continued to produce livestock with a more flexible production system and remarkable social organization. The system is currently under intense pressure from non-local institutions and actors and from local socio-economic, market, environmental and political drivers of change (Aklilu and Alebachew, 2009). As elsewhere in pastoral Ethiopia, in Hamer and Dasanech there are evidences of disruption of the pastoral production system, to which current resource use conflicts are strongly hypothesized as being related (Abbink, 1997, 2000; Coppock, 1994). Existing policy instruments and social and political processes which outmode pastoralism as a viable mode of life severely restricted pastoral mobility, denied pastoralists access to strategic resources, and weakened the power of customary institutions and eroded the practice of reciprocal grazing and watering rights and other trust and cooperation building methods among multiple/rival user groups (Aklilu and Alebachew, 2009; Ayalew, 2001).
3. Research objectives
Based on field investigations in the south-western pastoral lowlands of Ethiopia, this PhD project will explore the dynamic role of local institutions in regulating access to means of livelihood and mitigating violent resource-use conflicts with the view to exploring possibilities and mechanisms for improving intervention strategies aimed at strengthening the acceptance and legitimacy of feasible institutions which foster environmental sustainability and social and political security. It will do so by specifically questioning commonly held views about a direct causal link between environmental change and conflict. More specifically, the PhD project aims to:
- Map out and critically discuss local resource management and conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms in the Ethiopian lowlands;
- Discuss local resource-use conflicts in the Ethiopian pastoral lowlands in relation to the global discourse on environmental change and environmental conflict;
- Present evidence in support of a wider, contextualized understanding of pastoral conflicts;
- Formulae entry points for improving current intervention strategies for external actors.
4. Data material and research instruments
This is an exploratory study intended to identify and critically discuss institutional responses to environmental stresses and their link to political tensions and conflict in the south western lowlands of Ethiopia taking Hamer and Dassenech districts as case studies. To achieve this, relevant data will be collected from primary and secondary sources. The primary source will include participant observation, participatory rural appraisal (PRA), questionnaire surveys, in-depth interviews, life stories, and network analysis. Key informant and group interviews will be conducted with pastoralists in gathering locations (watering points, livestock markets, nomad encampments), with government officials and experts at local and federal level, and with representatives of national and international NGOs and the donor community. This way, it will be possible to gather both intensive and extensive information that contains a wide range of individual as well as group views. It is also my intention to obtain data that reflect the beliefs and sentiments of the information providers and the true meanings of their utterances. In addition, official documents and field reports of government, NGO/CSO and donor agencies will be used to supplement data collection and field observations. Local level community-led meetings and government and donor sponsored workshops will be attended. A thorough review of the relevant literature will also be done.