Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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GESSESSE Dessie, Independent researcher

The cultivation of Khat (Catha edulis) is expanding to cover significant areas of agricultural and natural land to meet the ever-increasing demand for the psychotropic leaf from the growing number of consumers in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The contribution of khat to Ethiopia’s national economy, its impact on landscape dynamics and its importance as a source of livelihood for producers, are undeniable. At the same time, Khat’s psychotropic characteristics are blamed for causing consumers physical and mental damage. The emphasis in the national debate about Khat has been on the health of users and its sociocultural impact. Despite the fact that Khat is an agent of change in landscape dynamics, agricultural production and livelihoods, the effect of its expansion on farming landscapes has received little scholarly attention. The changes reflect the ways in which the entire Khat production and supply chain operates on producers and consumers. This paper assesses the sustainability of Ethiopia’s socio-ecological landscapes in the light of the expansion of Khat production. Sustainable landscapes balance economic, social, ecological objectives in a context of conflict over the spatial, temporal and governance objectives of land-use. Moreover, given limited per capita land availability, smallholder farmers in Ethiopia need to maintain a balance in the growing of food, wood and psychotropic crops. The expansion of Khat cultivation affects two spatial categories: 1) existing farmland, replacing established land uses and 2) new, previously uncultivated land. Cultivation on existing farmland affects the production of food and other agricultural products. When Khat takes over natural landscapes, ecologically significant areas become degraded and land that could otherwise be used to grow agricultural products is lost. In the case of farmland replacement, crops that are not of high priority for subsistence and that bring limited economic return are targeted. In the natural landscape, Khat cultivation requires the claiming of forest land, bush/shrub land, riverbanks and steep slopes. The paper argues that sustainable landscapes are affected by the wide-reaching environmental, economic and cultural ramifications of farmers’ decisions to produce Khat. Societal attempts to restrict the growth of a controversial crop like Khat govern the sustainability of socio-ecological landscapes.