Failing livelihoods among the Gumz shifting cultivators of Ethiopia

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Failing livelihoods among the Gumz shifting cultivators of Ethiopia crises in the farming systems and the need for innovative strategies in the Metekel region
Gebre Yintiso
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Agriculture -- Metekel ®Astadåadar ®Akåabåabåi (Ethiopia) ( lcsh )
Gumz people -- Metekel region
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"A term paper for the course AGG 5813: Farming Systems Research and Extension, Srping 1997, submitted to Professor Hildebrand."
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Crises in the Farming Systems and the Need for Innovative Strategies in the Metekel Region

By Gebre Yntiso

A Term Paper for the Course
AGG 5813: Farming Systems Research and Extension
Spring 1997

Submitted to
Professor Peter Hildebrand

Crises in the Farming Systems and the Need for Innovative Strategies in the Metekel Region

By Gebre Yntiso

A Term Paper for the Course
AGG 5813: Farming Systems Research and Extension
Spring 1997

Submitted to
Professor Peter Hildebrand


Crises in the farming systems and the need for innovative strategies in the Metekal Region

By Gebre Yntiso

L Introduction

Since 1985, the traditional farming systems of the Gumz people' have been threatened by increased

population pressure and environmental stress. This has happened mainly because the former Ethiopian

government resettled over 82,000 people from famine prone and over-populated parts of the country

into Metekel. Several Gumz communities have been displaced from their residence and relatively fertile

farmlands to hillsides that are more fragile and less fertile. Traditionally, the Gumz supplemented their

basic income from shifting cultivation with hunting, gathering, bee keeping, and fishing, but now, they

have very limited access to the natural resources (forests and rivers) to pursue such off-farm activities.

As a result, the Gumz have become extremely vulnerable to food insecurity as the primary and secondary

livelihood activities can no longer guarantee annual food requirements. Since changes took place

rapidly (from 1984 to 1988), the Gumz were unable to develop alternative subsistence strategies.

The main problem is that the Ethiopian authorities have given little recognition to shifting cultivation as

a way of life that deserves policy attention. Although there are provisions of land tenure systems and

property rights for sedentary agriculturalist and nomadic pastoralists, there is no policy provision for

shifting cultivators. For example, no mention has been made about this mode of production in the 1975

1The Gumz are predominantly shifting cultivators. Livestock production is the second
most important productive activity followed by food collection (gathering, hunting, honey
collection, and fishing), and craft work.

land reform proclamation and the three constitutions which Ethiopia has had (Gebre 1995). Instead of

examining the shifting cultivation system and trying to understand what improvements can be made,

authorities have sought for abandonment of the practice. Such erroneous ideas resulted in a resettlement

program that dramatically changed and severely affected the subsistence of the Gumz.

The subsistence system in Metekel can be considered as being a crisis as evidenced by the loss of

productive assets, deteriorating living conditions, and increased mortality. These problems can only be

overcome through research and the application of appropriate technology. Effective solutions can be

found if research and extension activities are based on a sound understanding of the local conditions,

including the resource base, socio-economic factors, the intricate nature-culture relations, indigenous

knowledge and practices, and potentialities for adapting/adopting technologies. It is equally important

to study the interconnection between local and extra-local contexts (regional, national, and even global)

as one cannot be understood without the other.

The comprehensive nature of such a project requires an integrated and holistic approach based on

interdisciplinary work. To this end, Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSRE) appears to be an

appropriate strategy for addressing the kind of difficulties confronting the Gumz. FSRE provides a

means to develop more appropriate technological alternatives for low-resource agriculturalists. The

objective of this paper is, therefore, to discuss the problems facing the Gumz and examine how FSRE's

approach might be used in identifying solutions. The paper consists of six parts: introduction; shifting

cultivation as a way of life; new developments in Metekel; shifting cultivation in crisis; constraints and

opportunities for innovative strategies; and concluding remarks.

IL Shifting cultivation as a way of life

2.1 Crop production and labor organization

The Gumz grow a number of different crops and their respective varieties. The most commonly

cultivated crops are (1) cereals, including four varieties of sorgum (mera, bobi, jampa, Kauncha), two

varieties of finger millet (tanqua, yanzegumga), two varieties of maize (gisra, wofkocha), and womasay

(indigenous crop with fine seeds); (2) root crops, consisting of three varieties of yam (awna, boqa,

dilma), potatoes and ginger; (3) oil seeds, including two varieties of sesame (woqosha, gisqua) and noug

(biliza); and (4) pulses consisting of three varieties of beans (gogoha, arenguay, woppa). Cotton, okra,

pumpkin, cabbage, pepper tobacco, and a variety of indigenous leafy plants are also cultivated. Finger

millet, sorghum and maize (in order of importance) are the principal subsistence crops. Cotton, sesame

and noug are the main cash crops. The major crops are also used for religious functions, rituals,

ceremonies, and gift-giving practices. Inter-cropping is less common. Harvested crops may be stored in

the field or at home in a granary.

Theoretically, women have control over grains stored at home, while men maintain control over

unharvested crops and grain stored in the field. In the context of Gumz reality, however, control refers

to responsibility, charge, and greater access, rather than exclusive power to decide on the use of

resources. Cash income from crop sales is kept with the wife for family use. All members of the family

have equal access to consumer items, agricultural tools, and household facilities.

The Gumz clear their lands in November and bur them in April, a month before the sowing period of

most crops. Melekia and lantsia are two major types of work parties in which all families participate to

work on each others' fields in rotation. Melekia refers to an association consisting of related families

(about 20-50 families) living in a close proximity. Here the host provides the guests with food and drink

before, during, and after the work. Lantsia refers to age- or sex-group work parties that do not involve

the sponsoring of food and drink for participants.

Regarding division of labour at the household level, women seem to bear heavy responsibility and work

more hours (about 16 hours/day) than men do. Besides their participation in agriculture, women are

culturally expected to shoulder household chores and take care of children. Grinding, cooking, and

brewing local beer are activities that women undertake during the evening. Men are responsible for

agricultural activities, house construction, looking after animals, and defence of the society. Children

represent economic assets as they make considerable labor contributions. Most households prefer girls

because of the female-exchange marriage practice that brings reproductive women to the family.

2.2 Livestock production

The Gumz raise cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. According to elderly informants, the Gumz

were great herders in the past. In the course of time, however, they lost their cattle because of disease.

Earlier writers quoted informants as stating that livestock production in Metekel was discouraged by

recurring cattle diseases (Dessalegn 1988:38) and by appropriation of cattle by highlanders (Fekadu

1988:52). Among the Gumz, oxen are not used for plowing, nor are cows milked. Under normal

circumstances oxen and cows are not slaughtered unless they are old enough or seriously sick. The

function of cattle is largely explained in relation to social and cultural significance. In a village where the

majority own few animals, a family with many head of cattle is considered rich. Rituals, ceremonies and

certain cultural practices related to death and purification involve the use cows or oxen for sacrifice.

However, this does not undermine the economic importance of cattle because oxen and cows play a

central role in generating cash income. Animals are owned and controlled exclusively by men.

Cooperative relationships between Gumz and other ethnic groups are maintained through a special cattle

raising arrangements. Many Gumz families, particularly those with cattle, establish bond-friend relations

called mijima in neighboring Agaw and Shinasha groups. During rainy seasons, when tse-tse fly

infestation is high, cattle are sent to Agawland and/or to Shinasha. The Gumz reciprocate by taking care

of their bond friends' cattle during dry seasons. According to the mijima arrangement, possible death of

animals is tolerated if the bearer can produce the skin and horns of the dead animal as evidence. Failure

to do this may lead to suspicion that the animal might have been sold, which in turn leads to aggressive

reaction and the consequent breakdown of bond relationship.

Goats, sheep and chickens serve a number of economic and non-economic purposes. Although they are

basically raised for meat, they can be sold to generate cash income to be used for (1) paying government

tax, (2) buying food during grain shortage, and (3) buying clothing and other household goods. Small

ruminants and poultry are highly valued for functions related to rituals, ceremonies, and gift giving.

Donkeys are used for transporting people and goods.

2.3 Food collection

The Gumz do not rely only on food production, but also on food collection. They engage in hunting,

fishing and gathering. Metekel consists of an expanse of forests and savanna that harbor a variety of

large and small game. These protein resources balance the diet and supplement the subsistence

requirement of Gumz people, particularly during periods of grain shortage. In recent years, however,

hunting has diminished in importance partly due to the government's ban on the hunting of endangered

species. Moreover, according to informants, the number of wild animals has decreased remarkably

because of indiscriminate forest clearance. The Gumz also gather a wide range of wild roots, fruit, and

leaves to balance and supplement their diet. Those living along larger rivers fish using locally made nets.

Hunting is performed by men, while women are said to be responsible for gathering wild food. Today,

most of these activities have been constrained due to loss of control over forest/river resources.

2.4 Craft Activities and apiculture

Woodwork, pottery making and basket making are the most important craft activities undertaken by the

Gumz. Men practice carpentry and women make pottery, while making baskets appears to be the job of

both sexes. A close look into everyday life of the Gumz shows that woodwork and basket making seem

to be ongoing activities. During their spare time, the Gumz generally occupy themselves with some craft

work. People spend more time in craft activities during summer seasons in order to generate cash

income to buy food. Honey, usually collected from the forest twice a year, is another source of food

and cash income for the majority.

To sum up, the livelihood system of the Gumz was characterized by heavy reliance on a variety of

natural resources such as land, forest, and river. This intricate man-nature relationship can be explained

by the 'Natural Resource Community' model developed by Dyer, et al. (1992:6)2. The central idea of

this theory is that in communities where cultural survival is based on exploitation of natural resources,

social and economic relations are shaped by the pattern of resource utilization. Thus, a perceived or

actual loss of subsistence resources can have severe and prolonged economic, social, and psychological

consequences. As indicated earlier, at the moment some of the Gumz are in a critical situation due to

the loss of their economic base. Their livelihood system is failing; internal conflicts are escalating; the

problem of peace and security is getting worse; the health situation is deteriorating; and alternative

avenues to cope with all these problems are non-existent.

II. Exogenous Factors as Causes of Change

3.1 The Beles State Farm

The Beles State Farm (BSF) was established in February, 1978 on fertile land lying between Beles and

Gilgel Beles Rivers. Gumz informants mentioned that they were using that land for crop production,

grazing and hunting for several years, however when government claimed it for a state farm, they had to

retreat to the bush and hillsides. A year later, the government claimed another area, while still

maintaining control over the land previous taken from the people. Although the farm went bankrupt in

2 Natural Resource Community is defined as 'a population of individuals within a
bounded area whose primary cultural existence is based on the utilization of renewable natural

1980, the then President of Ethiopia urged local authorities to go ahead with the farm and increase

efficiency. In 1985, 15,000 ha of land were under direct control of the farm (ONCCP 1984:40-41). The

farm did not have any positive impact on the lives of the indigenous people, but rather displaced them

from their residences, farm/grazing lands, and hunting grounds. It also contributed to land degradation

because of the deforestation that took place in order to establish large-scale agriculture. Beles State

Farm ceased to operate with the establishment of the resettlement scheme. One of the two farms has

been used for the resettlement purpose, while the other one is currently leased to a private investor, who

produces cotton, sesame, and noug.

3.2 The Resettlement Program

From November, 1984 to March, 1986 about 600,000 people were transferred from famine-affected and

over-populated parts of Ethiopia to western and southwestern regions of the country. Of this total, over

82,000 people moved to Metekel (also called Beles) resettlement area a place originally inhabited by

the Gumz people. The government explained the relocation program in terms of reducing demographic

pressure in drought prone and over populated regions; attaining food security; and promoting

development activities in scarcely populated areas. However, no feasibility study was undertaken prior

to the implementation of the resettlement scheme. Neither the newcomers nor the original inhabitants

were aware of what was being decided as to their fate. This had important ramifications for the initial

adaptation of the settlers as well as the long term consequences of resettlement in the area.

3.4 The Italian Programs

In 1986, three Italian aid agencies began sponsoring quite a number of programs ranging from high

standard kindergartens to large-scale mechanized agriculture. The settlers were provided with free

tractors, medical, educational and transportation services, while the Gumz were totally left out. The

largest Italian-funded project, known as 'Tana Beles Project', focused on two major activities:

(1) agricultural development, by bringing 100,000 hectares of virgin land under cultivation and

(2) the development of general infrastructure, such as electricity, water supply, and road construction

(Dieci & Roscio 1992:18). According to an unofficial research report, the project encompasses a gross

total area of 127,000 hectares. The maximum land ever cultivated was only 18,000 ha.

The Tana Beles Project involved the use of sophisticated technologies, the development of cash crops,

and commercialization of the farm. A highly mechanized agriculture and a capital-intensive development

approach was expected to fit into the existing archaic agrarian system. The second Italian organization

was known by the name Socio-Sanitary Program (CICS) and focused on health, particularly on the

development of clinics. CICS provided medical, financial and technical assistance to the various clinics

in the settlement scheme. The third agency, known as International Committee for the Development of

People (CISP) sponsored a multi-sectoral program focussing on three major development components.

These included promotion of sustainable agriculture, promotion and development of handicrafts, and

primary school education. However, the government change in Ethiopia in 1991 caused a sudden

termination of Italian assistance, at a time when the settlers were not prepared to be left on their own.

Following this development, tensions and conflicts between the settlers and Gumz escalated; food

production declined; social services (education, health) closed; and infrastructure (road, electricity,

water-pipes) began to deteriorate. At the moment, therefore, it is not only the Gumz, but also about

30,000 settlers who are in a critical situation.

IV. Shifting Cultivation in Crises

It is necessary for every farming household to produce not only enough to feed the family, but also to

produce a surplus for meeting other requirements (e.g., clothing, tools, tax, etc.). Among present-day

Gumz communities, particularly among those directly affected by the new development projects, there is

little or no surplus for sale. The yields are small because farming is done on relatively unproductive

marginal lands. Moreover, shortened fallow periods have not allowed the recovery of soil fertility

through natural processes. And as explained below, increased population due to resettlement

accelerated soil erosion and land degradation.

4.1 The effects of resettlement on Gumz communities

As indicated earlier, a significant portion of Gumzland was taken away in favour of the State Farm and

the resettlement program. Because of this, many Gumz villagers that used to live in the vicinity of Beles

and Gilgel Beles rivers were displaced (Dieci & Roscio 1992:120). The alienation of land continued to

be an ongoing process after the original migrants had been accommodated. In other words, more and

more lands continued to be taken away from the Gumz because of internal population growth within the

resettlement area and continued spontaneous resettlement taking place in different parts of Metekel.

The appropriation of land by the Tana Beles Project limited the traditional access of the Gumz to forest

and water resources. The overall situation created problems between settlers and the Gumz, which later

resulted in loss of lives from both sides. Informants from the Gumz and the resettled population

mentioned that several clashes of varying severity have taken place. Since the beginning of the

resettlement program both groups lost many of their members as a result of retaliatory measures they

took against each other. Of all the clashes, the ones that broke out in December, 1991 and September,

1993 were reported to be the most severe. Although government officials claim to have put the conflict

to an end, the relationship between the two groups is characterized by hatred and enmity, indicating

insecurity and potential danger in the area.

4.2 The effects of resettlement on the environment

As indicated earlier, 82,000 people from different parts of Ethiopia have settled in Gumzland in a period

of just over four years. Viewed from the perspective of allocation of national resources, this could be

seen as a rational matching of population to natural resources. When viewed from the perspective of the

Gumz, however, it was a total disruption of their livelihood systems. The settlement project has had

devastating effects on the ecosystem, including human subsistence. The indiscriminate clearing of

forests with heavy equipment has removed the top soil, which is crucial for maintaining soil fertility.

Wild animals fled due to lack of shelter. The settlers never gave the land a chance to recuperate its

fertility through fallows.


The other major problem is the deforestation taking place in the area to meet the increasing demand for

house construction, fuel, and carpentry. Wood and wood products are becoming a source of cash

income to many settlers. With the aim of bringing about sustainable development, CISP has trained a

number of settlers in woodwork. These people together with other self-trained carpenters are

contributing to the depletion of forest resources. Deforestation and the subsequent loss of soil through

rain and wind erosion, alters the hydrological cycle. This results in quicker runoff, reduced moisture

storage, and would create higher peak flows and floods. Besides causing loss of forest products and

genetic resources, deforestation will eventually cause the loss of indigenous technical knowledge about

the use of forest resources.

V. Opportunities for Innovative Strategies

5.1 Local capacities and resources

Gumzland seems to be reasonably endowed with natural resources, such as forests (presently

diminishing), wildlife (currently disappearing), minerals (unexploited iron ore), and water (with high

potential for irrigationn. These resources have not been constructively exploited mainly due to

technical, material, and financial constraints. There are quite a number of well-adapted indigenous farm

practices, which deserve close investigation. One of these practices is diversification of agricultural

activities through multiple cropping. Mixed cropping minimizes total crop failure that might be caused

by natural disasters. Thus, there is a high possibility of harvesting some crops even when others fail due

to drought, waterlogging, disease, or pests. As different crops are not equally susceptible to certain

problems, crop combinations ensure a more stable pattern ofintra- and inter-seasonal food availability.

The year-round mixed cropping practiced in home gardens also ensures the maintenance of soil fertility

because the vegetative cover reduces runoff, thereby preventing soil erosion and the leaching of soil

nutrients. Crop combinations, particularly intercropping, minimize the need for weeding since weeds are

outgrown and dominated by crops. Mixed-cropping may also facilitate symbiotic and efficient use of

resources by crops which have different heights, root structures, and nutrient requirements. Although

data are lacking about the nutritional status of Gumz foods in the past, it can be assumed that

diversification of productive activities coupled with wild food collection provided a nutritionally

balanced diet. But this has now been disturbed by the resettlement project.

The use of wild plants and animals for food needs to be seen as a wise strategy to cope with problems of

malnourishment and undernourishment. The heavy reliance on food gathering may have an important

role in the gradual domestication of useful wild plants. The Gumz people's concern for environmental

protection seems to be quite encouraging. Their desire to maintain forests and wildlife is clearly

manifested in their conversations and the way they practice farming, although one might argue that the

use of fire to prepare fields is inconsistent with resource conservation. However, through the fallow

system they facilitate the regeneration and recuperation of soil fertility. The Gumz are willing and ready

to accept innovation unless it contradicts their basic values and cultural practices. For instance, some

communities have been trying to adopt new crops and new cropping styles with the help of CISP; an

Italian NGO which has returned to the area with the objective of helping the people according to local

priorities. However, CISP's goals have not been achieved because the research and extension activities

have been poorly coordinated.


5.2 Farming Systems Research and Extension approach

From history we have learnt that the process of expanding agricultural production by bringing virgin land

under cultivation (what Ruttan (1990:89) calls the Frontier Model) is no longer viable in many regions.

According to Ruttan, the twentieth century has witnessed a great transition from resource-based systems

of agriculture to technology-based systems of agriculture. In view of the growing mismatch between

food production and food requirements in Metekel, it is a matter of necessity to develop appropriate

technology for improved productivity. This seems to require effective on-farm agricultural research and

extension to encourage wider adoption of new technology. It is unfortunate that in Ethiopia research

and extension have not be given due attention by planners and policy makers. Consequently, as a USAID

report indicates below, technology development and the dissemination of technical information to

farmers have never been achieved.

On the technology generation sides, weak linkages and communication between research
and extension, the limited size of the extension services given Ethiopia's dispersed
population, the division of the service into a number of separately managed units and the
dispersal of staff following decentralization have combined to weaken further government's
ability to extend technical information to Ethiopian farmers (USAID 1995:27).

In Metekel, certain steps have been taken during the last five years by government and non-

governmental organizations in the area of research and extension. First, some research projects have

been sponsored by the Ethiopian government and Italian agencies. However, none of these studies have

produced meaningful solution to the problems of Metekel because they lacked coordination and

orientation. Second, the Institute of Agricultural Research of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture

established a research station in Metekel some ten years ago. Although the researchers (all of whom are

technical experts) have been busy with on-station trials, no technology adaptable to small farms has been

developed. Third, during the last four years, the government has deployed several hundreds of extension

workers for the first time in the history of the Gumz. But these are urbanized high school graduates

with no experience with shifting cultivation.

Given the pressing conditions discussed above, the Farming Systems Research-Extension approach

appears to be an appropriate strategy for developing and disseminating technology. The FSRE approach

is holistic in that it is farmer-oriented, system oriented, problem-solving in nature, and interdisciplinary

(Hildebrand & Russel 1996:8), to mention a few. It provides an approach which will allow research and

extension to develop more appropriate technological alternatives to solve the problems of low-resource

agriculturalists (Poats 1986:1). What can be done to alleviate the problems of Gumz? What are the

recommended intervention spheres relevant to Farming Systems Research and Extension? To answer

such questions it is important to undertake needs assessment survey through such research techniques as

Rapid Rural Appraisals and Sondeos. On the basis of previous studies, however, one can expect FSRE

to address the following issues.

1) Improving production tools and techniques: The Gumz continued to rely on simple production tools

(axes, hoes, and digging sticks) and techniques (shifting cultivation) which are no longer adequate in

view of the current crises discussed earlier. A thorough examination of the overall living conditions of

the Gumz clearly shows that the simple tools and techniques place constraints on the level of food

production. Thus, there is a need to improve such instruments of production.


2) Effective use of animals: Culturally, the Gumz do not use oxen for ploughing purposes and nor do

they use cows for milking. Animal traction is one possible alternative technology that can be introduced

or reintroduced to promote agriculture. Since there is no cultural prohibition, it might be possible to get

people interested in milk and milk products (e.g., butter). Like the case in many pastoral and agro-

pastoral societies of Ethiopia, butter might become an important source of cash income.

3) Introduction of new crops. In 1994, some Gumz communities willingly received seedlings of coffee

and banana from CISP for adoption. The attempt was unsuccessful because people were not given

sufficient extension services. The FSRE approach can be used to introduce crops that can give good

yields under a short fallow period. In Addition to coffee and banana, other crops such as cassava, fruit

trees, and potatoes might contribute to food security in the area. Identification of fast-growing trees,

shrubs, grasses, and cover crops might be important for maintenance of soil nutrients.

4) Erosion control and weed control. The indiscriminate clearance of forests and the reduction of fallow

practices may result in increased soil erosion. There is a need to develop a strategy to control loss of

soil due to runoff or winds. Striga has been a troublesome pest and now the reduced fallow practice

made the situation even worse. A solution for this problem can be found through research.

5) Apiculture. Honey is an expensive item in Ethiopia. The Gumz used to hang their beehives on trees

in the forest, but this practice is no longer viable because forests are steadily depleting. Other groups

and farmers in Ethiopia keep their bees (using improved beehives) in residential areas thereby increasing

and stabilizing honey production. The Gumz may have to adopt such traditions to raise their income.

Concluding Remarks

The livelihood system of the Gumz people has been failing due to exogenous factors that resulted in loss

of control over and access to resources. The development of appropriate agricultural technology

appears to be a necessity if the downward trend in food production is to be reversed. An introduction

of new technology alone cannot be successful if it does not take into account the physical and the socio-

economic constraints under which farmers operate. In this regard, Farming Systems Research-Extension

is an appropriate strategy to address complex problems of'Natural Resource Communities', through on-

farm testing and generation of technology compatible with local resources, capacities, and potentialities.

In other words, the interdisciplinary orientation of FSRE is instrumental in terms of ensuring the

development of economically viable, ecologically sound, and culturally acceptable technology. I firmly

believe that this approach, if executed properly, can effectively address the current crises in Metekel.



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