Afar, salt and their land | qasboo kee ken baaxo
Surreal landscapes of green acid ponds, iron oxide and salt deserts plains, the remote area of Dallol is the heart of the Danakil depression (Northern Ethiopia), middle earth of Afar territory. Erupting craters dot the salt flats as if mother earth is grasping for air. For centuries the Afar crisscross these deserts with their livestock regardless of current borders with Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. The hostile environment made of the Afar master-ecologists since the environment determines the survival of their herd, their sole asset. Through history they have developed intricate traditional laws on land-use management and the preservation of tall natural resources.
Around 15 years ago, the Afar society were still relatively self-sufficient living off their prolific herds of goats, camels and cattle. Enough milk to literally throw at each other in joking as well as to make powdered milk by drying the curds and smashing them with a stone. Environmental challenges due to climate change reduced the annual rain seasons from 4 to 2 unreliable months of rain. Today, an Afar household scrounges for enough milk to put in there tea, let alone to utilize as the basic protein in their diet as they were accustomed. Incessant droughts, flash-floods when the drought breaks, high inflation and the steady encroachment on the grazing lands through both commercial farming on the main Awash River and the weed shrub, prosopis juliafora has laid to waster 10’s of thousands of hectares of grazing land. As a result, the Afar herd has greatly diminished to the current 30% of 15 years ago. Consequently, the extensive natural resources present in the Afar region became even more vital for their survival as ever before. Since the beginning of time the Afar came up with inventive ways to make best use of the land available. With rain almost nonexistent in these parts of the world, the Afar harvest the steam coming from streams as they pass through sub-terrain active volcanic lava. This steam is captured, condensed, and turned into the only water source available to humans and their herds. For centuries the Afar are extracting salt bars in the desert plains around Dallol becoming the only supplier of salt in Ethiopia and beyond. The Afar rock salt was a medium of exchange, and paid in the form of tax and salary.
The extraction of salt in both the Danakil depression and the Salt-rich Lake Afdhera remains a lucrative business and an absolute necessity for the livelihood and survival of the Afar. Aware of the significant ` economic` importance, the central government has facilitated ` conducive `conditions for alien investment and promised the implementation of programs aimed at bringing `development`. What we see today is that the `white gold`, the prosperity, the wealth, the so called ` development` is shipped out of the Afar region without returning in any form to the indigenous Afar community.
A UN report states;
' The Afar region is a poignant testimony to the emptiness of past commitments and promises, made by both governments and aid agencies, to the development of Ethiopia. The region`s historical neglect and relative underdevelopment implies a legacy of imperial exploitation and exclusion from the `progress` other parts of the country have enjoyed. The vast majority of the Afar population, perhaps 80% or more of whom are pastoralist, have seen virtually no improvement in living standards for decades, if not centuries. Health services, education, water development, where present, are most of the time inadequate. In most of the region, they do not exist at all.
`Development`, when taken place, has usually taken the form of assimilation by the central Ethiopian state and annexation to Ethiopia`s highland economy. A progress which represents economic and cultural imperialism rather than `progress`. Development schemes in the Afar region have historically reflected the priorities of central government or select commercial and political interests, while the needs and aspirations of the Afar people have been chiefly disregarded. Many projects in the Afar region such as the Sugar Plantations, the Salt Mining at Lake Afdhera, the Addis Ababa – Assab highway have been no direct benefit to Afar natives of the region but rather to the flock of migrant workers from the Ethiopian highlands. These projects reflect the archaic philosophy that nomad populations must be `sedentarised` for their own good. These projects evolved into a micro-economy dominated by highlanders and alien commercial interests: the commerce, bars and hotels, associated with the transport sector, are owned and managed by members of other ethnic groups. Prostitution and alcohol flourish. Services like education and healthcare are often only available in Amharic (language Highlanders) or not at all, and primarily benefit migrant workers rather than the indigenous Afar. Undoubtedly, some Afar have benefited from these `developments`. Destitute nomads may have found new livelihoods working as wage laborers on the Sugar plantations, the Salt Mines or by participating in the truck-stop economy of the towns along the main road. But the statement that impoverished Afar are better off serving as underpaid wage laborers on the salt mines / plantations or working with other alien commercial enterprises, rather than resuming a nomadic lifestyle with their herds would be hard to justify. If the prime indicators of human `developments` are applied to the Afar region, human health, life expectancy, maternal mortality, status of women, vaccination, education and access to clean water, etc. Then the vast majority of the Afar have been totally unaffected by these `developments`. All of these services remain at a rudimentary level, and rarely exist beyond the concentration of the highland populations. The newly build Serdo to the Salt-rich Lake Afdhera road (Salt mines), intended to `open up` a previously inaccessible area, proves to be more of the same. With these extensive natural resources available on Afar territory, the Afar could define their future in terms of their own priorities, needs and aspirations instead of shackling themselves to alien and outmoded concepts of `development` but rather set their own agenda.'
This ongoing project aims to highlight the ongoing struggle of the Afar Nomadic Tribes in Northern Ethiopia.