Chris Flower is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. His PhD evaluates shifts in livelihoods in the Afar region of Ethiopia. His PhD is in collaboration with the International Land Coalition (ILC), of whom SIID is a member.

In the drylands of the Horn of Africa, pastoralism – a livelihood system based on strategic and extensive livestock mobility – is one of the few productive uses of such harsh and unpredictable environments. Pastoralism is crucial not only for the agrarian populations it supports through the food, goods and ecosystem services it provides; but also for the significant economic and cultural contributions it makes to the region and its nations. Despite this, pastoralists often find themselves marginalised in mainstream development efforts, and limited and uncertain statutory land tenure are long-term, fundamental constraints of pastoralism.

In Ethiopia, pastoralism is not viewed as a viable long-term development option by the government. As a result, pastoralists are being encouraged to settle through the pursuit of sedentarised agriculture. The rationale for this shift is that crop cultivation will result in improvements in household food security and resilience, and bring populations within reach of government and basic services. Alongside settlement, the government, through its Growth and Transformation Plan 2011-2015, has earmarked large tracts of land for investment in intensive commercial agriculture. Pastoral rangelands have been disproportionately targeted by these investments as their use, value and productivity continues to go unrecognised.

The fieldwork component of my PhD, undertaken over seven months in the Afar region of Ethiopia, set out to analyse these trends for their food security, climate resilience and social justice implications for pastoralists.

Coinciding with the 2015/15 El Niño-induced drought (one of the worst to hit the country in over 50 years), my fieldwork findings suggest that mobile pastoralists utilising common pool resources remain best placed to respond to climate variability and episodic environmental shock and stress in the region. Whilst sedentarised farmers have experienced some improvements in food production in regular years, during the drought they suffered acute food shortages due to inadequate irrigation for crop cultivation. On the contrary, pastoralists were able to migrate their herds in search of areas of relative resource abundance, and thus avoided the worst of the drought. Where households employed a combination of crop cultivation and mobile livestock herding (so-called agropastoralism), they were forced to fall back on livestock to maintain food production.

The economic performance of pastoralism, its capacity to support human populations and to ride out drought depend on continued and flexible access arrangements to areas of communal rangeland. Both large-scale land acquisitions and individualisation of tenure for household crop production have resulted in the fragmentation of previously communal rangeland, thereby threatening their capacity to cope. If pastoralism – and therefore climate resilience and food security in the drylands – is to be maintained and enhanced, security of tenure for pastoralists must be assured.

With land being a highly politicised issue in Ethiopia, and given the lack of understanding of the multiple benefits of pastoralism among some policy makers, dissemination of findings among those in positions of influence in the country will be key to facilitating change. Through collaboration with the International Land Coalition (ILC), this project is well placed to do exactly that.

In particular ILC’s Rangelands Initiative, under which this PhD sits, facilitates learning between, and provides technical support to governments and other actors working to make rangelands more tenure secure. In Afar, the Rangelands Initiative is working alongside the Ministry of Agriculture, GIZ and Afar Regional State to pilot participatory land use planning in the Chifra Woreda (district), a vital first stage in securing tenure for pastoralists. As my findings serve to inform and justify such work, I hope they will provide a useful resource for Rangelands Initiative partners to scale up their efforts into the future.

What is more, by communicating findings more widely among ILC members working at the forefront of pastoral policy and practice at global and regional scales, this research can help facilitate a reframing of pastoralism. It needs to shift from a narrative which continues to perceive pastoralism as unproductive, narrative and in need of transformation, to one which conveys pastoralists as resilient, innovative and rational managers of drylands.

In addition to my own research – and since becoming a member at the Global Land Forum in Dakar, Senegal back in May 2015 – SIID is also busy building its relationship with ILC. To this end, SIID will be participating in a meeting of European and Middle Eastern ILC members hosted by Community Land Scotland in Edinburgh in the coming weeks. The meeting will be used to identify areas of future collaboration between SIID, ILC and their partners, in the hope that this project is just the beginning of a much longer-term research partnership.

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