Climate change is increasingly becoming a serious challenge to Ethiopia’s’ socioeconomic development. Various manifestations of its impact are evident in Ethiopia, which include increase in drought, scarcity of food instigated somewhat by irregularities in rainfall and over flooding.
Anthropologist Teferi Abate Adem (PhD) who is living in the U.S argues that Ethiopians are tired of crush campaign and top-down power and have to look for more innovative strategies to unleash the knowledge and energies of rural people to do better job in climate problems.
Teferi is a development anthropologist with expertise in land tenure, natural resource management, organization of agrarian labor and household/community-level effects of policy changes and emerging environmental and political issues.
Capital’s reporter Tesfaye Getnet talked to Teferi to learn more about the challenge and the possible remedy in combating climate challenges. Excerpts
Capital: As an anthologist who did a lot of studies on the ways humans have been responding and adapting to correlation between culture and environment hazards , do you feel much work has be done in the world to let culture to promote climate-smart natural resource management practices? more positive or ‘responsible’ environment protection ?
Teferi Abate Adem: “A lot of studies” would be presumption. Since 2014, I have been part of a multi-disciplinary research team at Yale University that received a generous award from the National Science Foundation to study how local communities across different cultures and contrasting ecologies may have mitigated and adapted to climate change aggravated natural hazards.
As your readers may know, climate scientists have done a great job of predicting not only accelerated global warming but also greater impacts of extreme events such as droughts and floods. Both media reports and scholarly studies show that such extreme events severely threaten the livelihoods of millions of people especially in resource-poor countries. While understanding these consequences, a major premise of our research is that climate-related disasters are not new and therefore it is imperative to understand how human societies in the past adapted to unpredictable environments. Sure enough, our ethnographic explorations show that societies living in more unpredictable environments have a range of cultural mechanisms such as wider social networks, more diversification and more cooperation, as compared with societies living in more predictable environments.
A case in point is nomadic herding which, as we all know, has been the culturally favored livelihood strategy of many communities living in the arid and semi-arid parts of Africa. As the name suggests, this strategy involves improving herd survival (and hence human wellbeing) by moving across a relatively large area. By staying mobile, herders find enough pasture and water in areas where these resources tend to be patchy and unreliable. Unfortunately, the adaptive roles of mobility and other similar cultural practices are often overlooked by policy makers and development practitioners. This omission is a barrier to effective climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Capital: As you are well aware of that the population of Ethiopia is alarmingly increasing, how will or is affecting the environment?
Teferi: The environmental consequences of rapid population growth is not as straight forward as previously presumed. In the wake of the 1984/85 tragic famine, Ethiopia adopted a neo-Malthusian development policy framework. The presumption was that demographic pressure on the land, especially in the drought vulnerable highlands, forced farmers to expand cultivation into fragile hillsides and common pasture. This in turn caused, the argument goes, dramatic soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, etc. etc. The narrative is strong. It continues to influence public opinion and media reports as alluded in the way you framed this question. But what do you empirically? There are some scholars that questioned this narrative. The evidence these scholars present show that an increase in household size can be an additional hand to help in farming, herding, and other off-farm and non-farm activities. It is not just an additional mouth to feed. There is also the roles played by population movement (including international migration), improved access to schools, skill training, etc. These processes can reduce demographic pressure on the land, suggesting that the environmental effects of population growth may not necessarily be dire.
Capital: PM Abiy is planning to plant 4 billion trees in the country to widen the small forest coverage of the country .How kinds of things need to be done to do properly such a big plan?
Teferi: Hmm! Four Billion tree sounds a lot but the truth is Ethiopia needs to plant more than that. As you may know, Ethiopia is one of the signatories of the Bonn Challenge – a global pledge to reduce carbon emission by replanting trees on 150 million hectors of degraded land. I don’t know how much land four billion trees cover but as part of the Bonn Challenge Ethiopia has pledged to forest cover 15 million hectares of land by 2020. Note that this pledge was made in 2011 (obviously way before the rise of PM Abiy) and we will hit 2020 in about five months. Contextualized this way, PM Abiy is not proposing something unrealistic. He is doing Ethiopia’s business which happens to be his job as a Prime Minister. He deserves every support there is!
The second part of your question is anthropologically exciting; what needs to be done for such a large-scale tree planting project to succeed. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s past experience with environmental reclamation programs is total failure. During the transition from Derg to the EPRDF, for example, a study by the sociologist Yeraswork Admassie shows nearly twenty years of tree planting and hillside tracing efforts were destroyed just in few weeks. This experience calls for policy rethink. A good point to start maybe to the top-down approach which continued under the EPRDF too. Ethiopians are tired of crush campaign and top-down power! A second issue to address maybe tree tenure. A new policy is needed. Farmers need to derive maximum benefit from the tree planted on or near their farms, homesteads and pastures.
Capita: Some argues that the Western is advocating climate change as a political agenda to limit the growth of developing countries .What is your thought about this issue?
Teferi: Let me begin by emphasizing the global consensus on climate change. From the work of climate scientists, we know that climate change is real. Furthermore, we know that humans are the most important drivers of global climate change. To this effect, the geological time period we live in is named the Anthropocene, meaning human-influenced, or anthropogenic. The agency of humans raises politically charged questions; which humans (read countries) caused the problem the most, and what should they do to address it? I didn’t follow the international debates that much but I know there is a lot of blame to go around. The USA and western Europe are blamed for consuming much of the world’s energy and emitting bad stuff. China and India are scolded for doing much harm but contributing very little. Developing countries like Ethiopia do not want to be considered a party in the blame as they remain unindustrialized. These are all real concerns for politicking and negotiating. But I am not sure if they can be reduced to a conspiracy theory.
Capital: What is the environmental Impact on workers’ productivity?
Teferi: In theory, fostering productivity, whether in agriculture or other sectors, should not be at odds with sound natural resource management practices. One can do both at the same time. If you see Ethiopia’s national tourism strategy as an example, you find an ambitious agenda of increasing tourist visitation while also promoting biodiversity while also strengthening sustainable agrarian livelihoods. This is a climate smart strategy and I hope there will be clear indicators to ensure that this balance is kept at implementation. I am sure other sectors are also looking for effective strategies of combining economic growth and environmental sustainability.
Capital: From your years of experience working in culture and environment, what have you found to be the biggest obstacle to effective conservation?
Teferi: The challenges vary from country to country and across different livelihood groups within each country. For rural Ethiopians, especially in drought vulnerable areas like Wollo, the main barrier is poverty and destitution. In the absence of income generating opportunities, poor farmers exacerbate climate change-induced events by cutting down trees, cultivating on fragile hillsides and protected forests, etc. Farmers lack the capacity to break from the chains of such environmentally unsustainable strategies. There is also a power issue. As I mentioned above, we have a long-standing policy culture that wrongly portrays rural people as hopelessly backward, tradition-bound, inefficient and incapable of improving their lot without strong guidance from above. And if there is any gleaning from decades of top-down approach, it is the consensus that this strategy takes us to nowhere. Government have to look for more innovative strategies to unleash the knowledge and energies of rural people. To the minimum, this means building on proven strategies through which people have been mitigating and adapting to natural calamities.
Capital: Can you give an example of locally-led conservation in partner with local culture you have seen that has been particularly effective?
Teferi: There are many excellent examples of climate adaptive and resilience local practices in the literature. Within Ethiopia, the terraced hillsides of Konso people and the intensively cared enset gardens of Guraghe stand out as exemplary strategies. In all other cultures, one also find collectively sanctioned norms and taboos that humanize the land as a living and breathing thing that should be cared for. You see this, for example, in the concept of “safuu” in Oromiffa.
Capital: With bird eye’s view looking anthropology has become increasingly marginalised in development debates of Ethiopia where macro-economic and political reforms rather than contextualised socially and culturally sensitive development interventions have been promoted. What are we losing by forgetting anthologists?
Teferi: In my understanding the marginalization of scholarly work is not limited to anthropology. Government officials rarely listen to other professionals too. Bilateral and multi-lateral development projects often have in-built mechanisms that call for improved understanding of social, cultural and environmental effects. It’s common to see anthropological perspectives somehow included in the official documents of those projects. As a whole, you are right there is more room for including local cultural and contextual factors that might influence the outcomes of intervention programs. And, I agree that Anthropological perspectives are more fitting for bringing these previously overlooked factors to the fore.
Capital: What kind of anthropology one may and should currently implement in development operations and why?
Teferi: I would say “Development anthropology” which is a well-established sub-field within sociocultural anthropology. The basic premise of this sub-field is improved understanding of the perspectives of multiple layers of decision makers, from farmers to bureaucrats and international donors, in shaping the implementation of development programs including agricultural extension, environmental protection, and social service provisioning.
Capital: Anything you would like to add?
Teferi: If I have to add something personal, it would be urging Ethiopian politicians and government officials to have more policy content in their political platforms and mobilization works. It’s disquieting to see nothing being said about climate change, land tenure, poverty, destitution and a range of other burning issues. These are “bread and butter” or in our case “Injera and wot” issues. We need effective engagements on strategies for addressing them.