Gurracha: 'The forest belonged to our forefathers... unfortunately our children will not have it'
“Poverty made it die out. Conflict devastated it.” This is how 67-year-old Gurracha says the forest was destroyed in the area that “belonged to our forefathers”. He reflects on the complex process leading to such poverty and devastation and says that there is a “direct relation” between deforestation and desertification. He says agriculture has not proved a viable alternative to pastoralism for the Boran, as it also depends on adequate rainfall.
According to Gurracha, conflict over land with the Digodi (the neighbouring ethnic group) has been the main reason for overgrazing and deforestation. He outlines the recent history of this conflict, and mentions the Digodi’s greater military power and what he sees as the government’s bias towards them.
“The government is as important as God for us”, Gurracha says, as he proposes solutions to his community’s problems. “If the government allows us to possess more land, if we get water sources, for our cattle in particular, if we are able to rehabilitate the land, it is possible to ensure food security.”
The grazing land we owned previously was taken from us and given to the other ethnic groups. We have been using that range land as a rainy season grazing area and that area was a suitable cattle-breeding environment – where the livestock give plenty of milk, where the livestock get fat. We have lost that land that we owned before. Now the land area is becoming too small and the drought has started killing the livestock…
Now we do not have enough range land. We do not move beyond the place called Dhuguru. Therefore our livestock have no place to move; and [the Digodi] have…advanced and occupied our territories that were not given to them officially by the government, like the place called Warsale. Hence we are losing very important range land for sustaining our livelihood…
The forest belonged to our forefathers. That land also belongs to us because we are born there and grew up there. We used to possess the land in the forest area. Unfortunately our children will not have it. For that matter in our children’s time [there will be] no forest like we used to have before.
Poverty made it die out. Conflict devastated it. People do not have enough food. They came to the point where trees are used as food. When there is no food people are forced to consume the trees.
“The rains stopped coming”
There is a direct relation between absence of trees and desertification. Previously, when there was a highland type of climate, it rained all the time in the higher areas. With the absence of this climate, the rains stopped coming. The [forested] land mass became smaller and smaller. As a result of the lack of rain the temperature also climbed higher and higher.
In the past the higher areas were wet and cold. As the volume of the forest dwindled, the rains decreased in quantity and conversely the heat increased. In the process, our possession of land decreased, our animal resources declined. Deaths of both animals and humans are on the rise.
The need to plant trees
The solution to the problem is planting trees. Even if we adults fail to plant trees, we have to tell our children to do it. If the land is covered by plantations, I hope the climate would be rehabilitated.
The type of tree under which we are lying, and other varieties, regulate the weather. There is no fresh air where there is no tree. If you moved a few metres away right now, you would feel the blaze of the sun because there are no dense trees to regulate the air. The heat is really like a flame…
No rain, no fodder, no milk, no calves
There is not enough rain to grow grass. In the absence of moisture, the grass won’t grow. Hence, there is not sufficient food for the cattle… It is only when the cattle consume enough that they can give more milk. Declining of grazing land, lack of rain, change of climate all together brought about lack of pasture. That is why the cattle became less productive. Previously we had sufficient pasture for the whole of the dry season. Now we don’t…
The animals simply survive the intense climate because they are more or less accustomed to the hardship. Breeding? How can they breed well under such harsh conditions? Decline in output is reflected in all products: meat, milk, and quality of breeding. They do not get fatter. They lack all that they had before. Previously it was only occasionally that animals became thin. Now you find them always thin. The cause is inadequate fodder plus extreme heat…
In the past we used to kill the animals for food when the dry season became severe. We also used to feed ourselves with milk. Now there is no such opportunity…
“We can’t sustain a livelihood from crops”
Now the lifestyle of the community is changing. We think we have exhausted animal breeding [as a livelihood] and have started crop cultivation. But that is not reliable either – because it is rain-dependant. When there is rain you may harvest enough. When the rains are not in abundance there is no good harvest.
It may seem satisfying for the time being to get a certain amount of produce from the farming. However, it wouldn’t substitute for the products obtained from the cattle… We plough the land just to get a small amount of produce. That wouldn’t even sustain you until the next harvest. At the most you would escape the food problem for three or four months.
It is better to take the animals to town and sell them at whatever price they can fetch and buy grain in exchange. In fact, we know there is no problem if you can get both milk and crops. But we do not earn much from crop production. We use the animals for food and cash as well.
We can’t sustain a livelihood from crops. To cultivate crops, rainfall is important. But there is no dependable rainfall.
Food aid is temporary solution
There is serious food insecurity… The government hands out some kilos of grains to minimise food insecurity. But it is not reliable. It supports families’ food requirements at most for about 20 days. If used little by little it sustains a family for 30 days. Such charity would not bring about a fundamental difference. Fundamental change would only come through God, who can reverse the situation and bring back the rains…
Camels versus cattle
Previously cattle and camels were kept separately. Camel’s urine is not good for the health of cattle. Now the cows are suffering from the disease caused by camel urine. Camels can keep going for 30 days once they have drunk enough. Those who possess camels do not face the problem that we who look after cattle face, because they look for water for their camels once a month while our cattle need water daily.
There is no water in Siminto area and its environs. We have to travel long distances to get water for our cattle. The streams are available only in the gorges. Even if available, the water is not sufficient, particularly when the dry season is acute.
Camels can go without water in the area where there is rainfall; [there] they can go for 60 days without drinking water. In the absolute dry season they can go for 30 days without water. But cows cannot go without water for more than three days. They die. So where to take them as the land [for grazing] has become more and more restricted?
Diseases called dadhi (causes blindness) and the lung attacker (tuberculosis) are severe here. There is also another disease named ciita (anthrax). These diseases did not exist in the past. But now animals are being affected by newly emerging diseases like tetete (affects the spine), ciita. These diseases have no cure.
Mainly those diseases attack lactating cows, bulls… One may lose as many as 30 animals in a day when such diseases occur. It not only kills the animals but also spoils the meat and the skin. It affects the blood and the animal hide too…
We do not have access to dirty water, let alone clean water. You fetch water from somewhere and use it up straightaway. You do not have the chance to keep it in a water jar.
The problem is not new. There was a water dam; we have been using it since the time of the Dergue (Ethiopian military committee, 1974-1991). But the dam dried out. It is because of the absence of rain. There is no water pouring into the dam from outside…
There is another water point around Qencho which is very far away… In the dry season you can’t be sure that you could find water there. You have to travel at the night. You set out for the journey at midnight, or at 2:00 am, for the queue is so huge to get water for your cattle after arrival. You travel at night, and stand for long hours in the daytime until your turn comes…
In the past they did not travel such long distances. They used to use donkeys to fetch water. Now they go long distances carrying jerrycans on their backs. The other thing is lack of firewood. In the past there was dry wood here and there – now you can not find it. Therefore women go long distances in search of firewood.
There is also a serious problem with building houses. Normally the Boran had no iron sheet roofs on our houses – our iron sheets are grasses, which do not exist today as much as we need them. This situation has increased the burden of work to be performed by women.
In terms of food preparation also there is change. Previously women didn’t have to ground cereal in a mortar. Now they have to grind food items day in and day out. When the women become busy with such things they have no time to take care of the family and the family members cannot get food at the right time.
The other thing is that women feel discomfort due to sanitation problems because of the lack of water… All these difficulties are associated with desertification.
Still another problem facing women [is that] in the past, women had enough milk to drink during delivery. The Boran provide bountiful milk for women when they give birth. They also slaughter animals to feed the mothers because it restores the blood levels of lactating women… that is no longer usual.
In the past, mothers became fatter after delivery because they were well fed. Now there is no milk, there is no butter. The option is to buy cereals from Negele to feed the women. Not milk but cooking oil is bought from the market. Now it can be said that the women eat the products of trees instead of the products of animals. These do not build their body. Oil, for instance, is the product of a tree; it does not build their body. This is also one of the changes that women have undergone.
Increased vulnerability to disease
New diseases for people are making their presence felt. With regard to [the supply of] health professionals we have problems too… As I told you earlier, I am now 67. I have never heard of a “cold” causing illness. We used to know a disease called binni (malaria). Since my childhood time I have known this disease. But this binni is not prevalent here. It is found in the gorges area…
But the “cold” (can be flu, respiratory disease or tuberculosis) is a new variety of illness. We never experienced serious human diseases. Now when we go to health institutions they tell us the cause of sickness is typhoid. We never used to know a disease of that name in the past…. The problem is that only the person whom God helps, can recover from illness.
Conflict with the Digodi
The Digodi are stronger than we are. They are powerful. They prevent us from using the land… They have [support from] their own regional government. They are well armed… Our militias are not armed. They have only sticks. Those Digodi militias are always with their guns… They have the capacity to defeat their opponents. They are feared as a result. And also they are respected rather than us on the government side. That is why their armed force is able to stay in one place.
To our mind our government, which is father to both of us, respects them more than us… They have machine guns; they have more power than we have. The government treated us unfairly and oppressed us so that we just keep silent. And also due to the regionalisation (creation of Oromiya and Somali regions) the Digodi obtained self-government and this contributed a lot to them advancing into our territory using force, and with support from their government.
The government is as important as God for us. If the government allows us to possess more land, if we get water sources for our cattle in particular, if we are able to rehabilitate the land, it is possible to ensure food security…
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.