Paul Rogers, Business Development Manager at CABI, visits Badahamu to understand how invasive weeds affect their livelihoods
As we arrived in Badahamu, in eastern Ethiopia, negotiating the by-now familiar thickets of Hara Dergi, “Derg weed” as Prosopis is known in the local Afar language, the impact of last autumn’s floods were painfully apparent. We passed rows of half-destroyed and half-built houses and were warned to avoid local water due to the risk of cholera, which is now endemic.
The story of Badahamu is common across southern Afar. One best told in the words of its inhabitants, it is a tale of the usual challenges of drought and flood being complicated by an invasive species, which removes land from productive cultivation and pasture, and challenges the wealth and identity of households and communities.
The real human impact of this stressed and vulnerable habitat was apparent when we found the group of community members who we had arranged to interview. They had gathered near the village storage barns, where the latest consignment of food aid was being unloaded. A hundred or more villagers were waiting around the trucks, keen to see what was being delivered and what would temporarily alleviate their chronic hunger.
When we started to discuss Hara Dergi the community listed a number of critical indigenous species that are disappearing due to the invasion of three-quarters of their land. These included trees like cassalto (Acacia nilotica), which is used to feed camels, build houses and as a fuelwood, angalita (Cadaba rotundifolia), which goats and camels browse on, and hedayito (Commiphora habessinica) which provides good grazing. When it invades the banks of the Awash river, the region’s lifeblood, it causes silting which obstructs and deviates the flow, increasing the frequency and severity of floods and reducing the community’s ability to manage dry season droughts.
There were bitter complaints over the cost of clearance, which places a significant financial burden on households and the community. The fierce thorns of Hara Dergi are causing both lameness and jaw deformity in livestock, and is likened locally to “AIDS for cattle”. It is also reducing income that could be used to fund local measures to control the spread of the weed.
It is not just the animals that suffer from thorn injuries – the local administrator estimated that the thorns had caused over 30 disabilities within the community, a human tragedy worsened by the effect Prosopis has on obstructing access to the local health centre.
Hunger and despair are driving the community to increasingly drastic and destructive measures. The encouragement, and then discouragement, of charcoal production by the government has caused anger and conflict amongst pastoralists who suspect that the few remaining local trees, rather than the intended Hara Dergi, are being used. Then there is the sugar cane plantation. Positioned adjacent to the community’s lands as a tauntingly green, year-round oasis, over 15 of their members have been imprisoned for illegally grazing their herd around its edges. Despite warnings and sanctions, the scant rewards outweigh these evident risks.
This is the real tragedy. Such is the devastating impact on their livelihoods, and the desperation that this causes, that members of the community are engaging in illegal activities that risk ostracization by officials whose support is crucial in improving their circumstances. Once proud, the community now recognizes that it cannot confront Hara Dergi alone but is coincidentally conscious of the fact that it was introduced not by them, but by foreigners – tempering shame with indignation. Whoever’s ultimate responsibility it is, a solution will only be found through collective action, action which above all must be quick.