of Ethiopia’s ancient Rift Valley, speckled with shimmering lakes, stretches before me as our motorized caravan heads south from Lake Langano, part of a study tour on population- health-environment issues organized by the Packard Foundation. Sadly, the country’s unrelenting poverty and insecurity are as breathtaking as the view—Ethiopia currently ranks 170 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index. These numbers become quite personal when child after child sprints alongside the truck, looking for any morsel. Here, I don’t need to read between the lines of endless reports to see the country’s severe population, health, and environment challenges—they are visible in the protruding ribcages of the cattle and the barren eroding terraces in the nation’s rural highlands.
When analyzing environment, conflict, and cooperation, scholars and practitioners most often focus on organized violence where people die at the business end of a gun. We commonly set aside “little c” conflict where the violence is not organized. However, while the Ethiopian troops fighting the Islamic Courts in Somalia garner the most attention, we should not miss the quieter—yet often more lethal—conflicts. For example, Ethiopia, like much of the Horn of Africa, continues to be beset by pastoralist/farmer conflicts over its shrinking resource base—increasingly exacerbated by population growth, environmental degradation, and likely climate change. In today’s globalized world, these local conflicts may also have larger “neighborhood” effects, contributing to wars and humanitarian disasters, as in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Another classic example of local environmental conflict lies in Ethiopia’s national parks, which successive governments carved from inhabited land in the mid-1960s and 1970s. Those disadvantaged by the parks often took their revenge on the state by burning buildings, cutting trees, and hunting wildlife. Some resettled the parks, bringing cattle and cultivating sorghum. This conflict presents a terrible dilemma, but also an opportunity: if the government and its partners can offer residents secure livelihoods tied to sound environmental practices, “parks versus people” might be transformed into “peace parks.”
These intertwined environment-population-security challenges are daunting and sometimes difficult to grasp. Driving past mile after mile of Ethiopia’s treeless “forests” gave me a dramatic snapshot of the scope of the problem. While no weapons were evident, I could see that the lack of sustainable livelihoods produces plenty of casualties without a single shot. Despite these sobering sights, the people I met gave me hope—particularly the energy and imagination of a small farmers’ support group outside Addis Ababa. With some initial technical assistance from the Ethiopian NGO LEM and the Packard Foundation, this 32-member group is undertaking reforestation projects, producing honey as an alternative livelihood strategy, providing health and family planning services, and employing a more sustainable farming strategy. More efforts like these—and better awareness and promotion of them—could help turn deadly environments into safe, sustainable neighborhoods.