1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. East Africa
  4. Ethiopia

Who rules the range?

Camel trader and mother-of-five Osub Fahid in Jijiga market, Somali region, Ethiopia
(Andrew Heavens/Flickr)

The border land between Kenya and Ethiopia is a vast, open plain under a big sky. Hard red earth shows through the thin grass of the sun-baked landscape, an expanse of thorny scrub, flat-topped thorn-trees and tall red anthills. There are no fences or other visible boundaries, and few people, just occasional groups of cattle or goats with their herders. To the untutored eye it can look like empty land, where wandering nomads graze their animals at random.

But there is nothing random about it. This unpromising landscape can provide a good living for livestock if it is carefully managed, and the herds are kept on the move across the seasons so they make the optimum use of each area of pasture and each water source. Over the years, the herders have built up a great body of expertise about how best to manage the area's resources.

And the land is also definitely not "empty" in the sense that it belongs to no one - the people of the area are quite clear about whose land is whose, in terms not of individuals, but of different communities.

Sara Pavanello, who has just completed a three-year study of how natural resources are managed in the area, says: "The pastoralists I spoke to very often used collective terms, saying for example, 'Our resources, we decide, we manage…' For pastoral communities, the rangeland as a whole is perceived as one single economic resource that’s communally owned, even if this tract of rangeland has been divided by the international border. At the same time different ethnic groups own, or exercise control over specific territory and the natural resources found within it."

This does not mean that they exclude everyone else. They understand that other groups need access to the pasture and water sources at certain seasons. That kind of temporary access is traditionally negotiated between the elders of the different communities. Elders told Pavanello: "Today they need us; tomorrow we will need them." She describes this kind of sharing as being seen as an "insurance policy for the future".

Land ownership conundrum

It is a model that makes perfect sense to the Borana, Gabra and Garri, the three ethnic groups which live along and across the border, but one that the conventional authorities struggle with, both in Ethiopia and Kenya. Land in Kenya is, for the most part, in private ownership. In Ethiopia all land belongs to the people, represented by the state. Neither system is designed to cope with private land, communally owned.

In Ethiopia, farmers are granted land to cultivate, and have security of possession under the constitution. Pavanello and her co-author, Simon Levine, say pastoralists’ rights are much weaker. The constitution gives them the right to use free land for grazing but, they write "the operative word here is free; the moment the state chooses to claim any grazing land, and declare it no longer 'free' the pastoralists lose any right to graze."

The authorities also tend to want to introduce resource management schemes to make the rangelands more productive, failing to see and understand the subtle and flexible management systems already in place involving elders and community institutions.

In their research Pavanello and Levine found cases where local administrators were enforcing ideas of ownership, citizenship and nationality which cut across the communities’ traditional right to manage their lands. In Kenya they say district officials reportedly cited the principle of freedom of movement for Kenyan citizens under the constitution in order to allow Somali clans into the rangelands of Borana clans around Moyale, despite the elders’ protests that it would exhaust the grazing. 

More on pastoralism
EAST AFRICA: Freedom of movement to help pastoralist lifestyles
KENYA: Push to put pastoralists on the map
ETHIOPIA: Pastoralism against the odds
KENYA: Dry data

On the other side of the border Ethiopia’s policy of "ethnic federalism" puts the Garri in Somali Region and the Borana in Orommiya, and has led, say Pavanello and Levine, to administrators pressing pastoralist communities to adopt a more exclusionary approach to natural resources, failing, they say, “to recognize the fact that granting secondary users rights of access is in customary law a legal obligation, which reinforces, rather than undermines the primary holders' claims of ownership rights and sovereignty over their territory”.

Cross-border mixed committees

The challenge is clearly how to harmonize traditional and formal regulation in a way which allows the flexibility and freedom of movement on which the productivity of the rangelands depends. Here the paper focuses on the growth of cross-border mixed committees on which both local government officials and community elders are represented, along with other groups such as young people and women. Set up mostly to deal with cattle raiding, the committees have also had some success in the joint management of pasture and water resources in the border areas, with communities from both sides sharing the resources and jointly negotiating access for other groups.

The idea of these mixed committees generated a lot of interest at the launch of the report earlier this month at London’s Overseas Development Institute. Jeremy Swift, a pastoralist development specialist with a lifetime of experience in the field, said bringing formal and customary regulation together was necessary, but likely to be difficult. "Formal rules have to be uniform throughout the country; customary rules are place and time specific. This is only likely to work if there is a real delegation of authority, which governments are not usually happy about and not likely to do willingly."

John Morton of the University of Greenwich cautioned against any attempt to bypass formal government structures. "Clearly this border is very fluid, but the states are still real, and you have to respect state authority and boundaries. You don’t do people any favours by over-stressing cross-border action which may label pastoralists as having divided loyalties."

The co-author of the report, Simon Levine, said they also had some reservations about the hybrid committees. "For example, in a case where it is the committee which decides who can use a water point, you are in effect negating the idea that the people who used to call themselves the owners of that land now have the right to exclude anyone. Now that may be a good thing or it may be a bad thing, but it does seem to me that it is not necessarily always going to be a good thing, especially where you know that the power relations within the committee may not always be equal… I would have thought the idea of hybrid committees is possibly and hopefully a way forward, but one that needs an awful lot more caution than I heard expressed today."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.