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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ASEBE Regassa Debelo, Dilla University, Ethiopia

Since the 1960s, successive Ethiopian regimes have embarked on a broad policy of converting the pastoralist frontiers to mechanized agriculture by adopting high-modernist development discourses and practices. In the process, the three regimes (imperial, military and Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front – EPRDF) transferred lands in pastoralist and agro-pastoralist areas of the country to private and state-affiliated companies, mostly by resettling the local communities. Likewise, in 2010, over 14,000 ha of land in Abaya Valley, West Guji zone, was given to a certain private investor for the purpose of cultivating sugarcane and other commercial crops. For the implementation of the project, the federal government started a medium-level dam construction on Gidabo River in 2010, which is not yet finished, and resettled over 1000 households. This paper departs from studies on land grabbing, which often see the phenomenon from above, by investigating the agency of local communities in confronting and appropriating the state’s discourses while at times devising their own strategies for livelihoods and access to resources. It probes into livelihood changes resulting from the large-scale agribusiness project, which has brought a radical shift from cattle herding to charcoal burning. It also critically analyzes the capabilities and knowledge of the local communities in using resources at their disposal (e.g. networks, infrastructure, market and social capital) to connect themselves and their spaces to broader networks (e.g. the charcoal market). The data for this paper were collected through an ethnographic approach at different intervals over the last four years. The paper argues that large-scale agribusiness projects in Ethiopia’s pastoralist frontiers are mechanisms for emptying land for private and state-affiliated companies. On the other hand, local communities devise their own strategies for turning the transformations to their advantage, hence creating a nexus between local and extra-local spaces.