In Langscape Magazine Articles

Community and Biocultural Diversity Conservation in Ethiopia: Learning from Each Other

November 03, 2018

Text and Photos by Fassil Gebeyehu Yelemtu

Farming with oxen

Farming with oxen is common in rural Ethiopia. The soil is fertilized naturally by dung and residue of straw from harvested crops. 2018

I shall tell the story of my community in this article, but let me first say a few words about my interest in biocultural diversity conservation. Being exposed to the modern world and looking at unsuccessful stories of nature conservation, I always ask myself what the missing link of conservation is. As we all know, the common approach to nature conservation is demarcation of parks and game reserves to protect them from humans’ intervention and sometimes the delineation of buffer zones to ensure isolation between humans and nature. Because of this, communities are becoming disconnected from their roots and other beings in nature, which implies that the knowledge base about nature is deteriorating over time. Memories from the past, some held since deep ancestral time, are becoming increasingly faded, and eventually the very identity of a people becomes lost, together with their traditions of respecting and loving nature as their host, guide, and protector in the everlasting course of life on Earth.

The community story that I am going to tell is not associated with conservation in protected areas. Rather, it is the story of a community living in a very fragmented landscape, challenged by the degradation of its biodiversity due to population pressures, the expansion of agriculture, and recurrent drought.

Memories from the past, some held since deep ancestral time, are becoming increasingly faded.

On the other hand, I will also tell you about the passion and strong culture of this community in terms of up keeping an intimacy with and knowledge of biocultural diversity. This is the story of my community, in which I was born and raised and have spent most of my life. My community is located in the northwestern part of Ethiopia in the South Wollo administrative zone. My home village is known as Kolo, but I grew up in the Masha and Koreb areas, which are not very far from there.

landscape near community.

The landscape near my community. It is very much a cultural landscape of small-holding farms with a diversity of crops and other plant species. 2018

Memories from My Childhood

When I was about six years of age, my father brought me to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, where my cousin used to live. She sent me to school, and I lived with her until the eruption of the 1975 revolution in which the military regime overthrew the monarchy of King Haile Selassie I. Right after the revolution, I could no longer stay in Addis because the ruthless military administration detained my cousin as well as other members of the extended family. My father then took me back to my home community.

My father sent me to the nearest government school to continue my education, but the school, particularly the junior high school, was far from home, and I had to walk for one and half days to reach it. Because of the distance, I had to take some whole-grain flour with me to cook my own food on a daily basis; I used to stay away from my parents for at least a month at a time. I lived in a rented room in a small township called Fito with some other students. Each of us used to bring different kinds of grains and prepared different types of foods. Consequently, we became accustomed to sharing cooked foods and tasting different types of traditional dishes. We all shared a single kitchen, which also created an opportunity to experience how to cook different stews, breads, and snacks. Some of my friends came with teff (Eragrostis tef, a type of millet cereal with very tiny seeds) and sorghum flour to prepare enjera (a flat fermented bread used as the main type of food in meals). Some of them used to make chechebsa (a flat bread made out of wheat flour that is mixed with hot spiced butter); others used to bring roasted beans, peas, and so on. While sharing and tasting different items, we used to discuss the food we ate, the type of seed it came from, and the seeds’ distinct characteristics in terms of when and where to grow them, how long it took them to mature, and how they could be stored, and so forth. My friends and I were sharing experiences in regard to farming livelihoods that were also complementary to some of our classroom learning, such as biology, geography, agriculture, and home economics.

My school was far from home, and I had to walk for one and half days to reach it.

Claiming My Identity and Cultural Roots

Many of my friends had experiences of working in farm lands with their parents, including plowing with oxen, weeding, digging with hoes, and rearing animals. We also used to share stories that we listened to our parents tell around the fire. I gathered that the common feature of all the stories told was that each was associated with people’s feeling of intimacy with the entire Universe, including the intrinsic relationship with the geographic and cultural landscape of one’s home territory. In this type of lifeways, every creation is recognized as part of the Universe–Earth community. Some parts of the Universe, such as the Moon, have a great role to play in biocultural diversity conservation. For example, a woman from a neighboring community told me that “my father used to cut his sorghum only following the Moon cycle, and he never harvested without consultation with the Moon. The type of sorghum which grows in our area is a long-maturing Sorghum, which takes about nine months to be matured for harvest. My father used to say that if he harvested sorghum before the Moon gets its full, circular shape, then the harvested sorghum would be threatened by weevils and other pests shortly after harvest. The amount of yield would thus also be less when compared to the expected level of production.” She further explained that “the last month of harvest for this particular sorghum is November” (planting being in March) and that “farmers must await until the Moon gets to its full size and shape.”

I remember my uncle told me that, in his youth, people were closely connected with nature and that their day-to-day activities were guided in consultation with the spirit of the territory.

I remember my uncle told me that, in his youth, people were closely connected with nature and that their day-to-day activities were guided in consultation with the spirit of the territory. Some religious and spiritual Elders used to play mediatory roles to connect the material and spiritual worlds. These Elders were knowledgeable about the characteristics of each member of the Earth community. They used to predict rains by examining the direction of wind, the feeling of moisture, the behavior of animals, and so on. Farmers used to consult them on what to do, based on their observations and consultation with the spirits. When they did rituals, they made use of gifts from nature. Such gifts included special food prepared from particular varieties of seeds, special essences collected from particular types of wood from the forest, spices, honey, and many more. Elements from nature such as special types of stones, leafy and root plants, chickens with different colors, sheep, goats, cows, and even wild animals such as hyena, guinea fowl, and others used to be part of the ritual process in different ways.

woman drying seeds

A woman drying different varieties of seeds, both for consumption and for ritual purposes. 2018

I personally was taught that killing animals from the wild is not culturally acceptable, as it is believed that doing so would bring a curse and attract more attacks by them. Another uncle told me that he and many community members knew how to interact with leopards through poetic singing to make them cool down in the case of a sudden encounter. Some people also used to play traditional flute music for the leopard so that it would not attack. In the old days, under this kind of people–nature relationship, life was different. Many people say that the cultural landscape of my home community was very different only seventy or eighty years ago. A number of rivers used to flow then, and wild fruits were abundant. Farmers used to grow many types of crops, and some of them were mainly used to serve as a means of connection with the divine or spirit world to get a blessing for a good harvest. Some of these cultural and spiritual activities were practiced during my childhood, but now most of them are abandoned.

Some crops were grown mainly to serve as a means of connection with the divine or spirit world to get a blessing for a good harvest.

Consequently, most traditional seed varieties are extinct and have been replaced by monoculture crops raised with the mindset of a cash economy. Trees are cut down, and soil erosion has come to be a major problem. Rivers are dried up and wild fruits are no longer available. But still, I remember my roots and believe in the potential power of my community to reverse things so long as their cultural values are respected and memories of the past restored to reclaim a physical, mental, and social connection with the entire Earth community. In sum, the history of my community is embedded in these kinds of practices, connections, and interactions, which form a unique expression of biocultural diversity—values that are, even today, not beyond conservation in the face of stress and hardship.

varieties of crops

Farmers used to grow many kinds of crops. Here, a man stands beside the haystacks produced from different varieties of crops, which serve as animal feed. 2018

Respecting Natural Law as a Guide to Community Livelihood and a Way to Achieve Biocultural Diversity Conservation

This story of my community suggests that biocultural diversity conservation can be achieved through changing the mindset of people while maintaining cultural and spiritual practices. On the other hand, those communities that have managed to retain their diverse culture and spiritual practices need to be encouraged and supported because they are living according to what they know as natural law, which is also referred to in formal legal philosophy as Earth jurisprudence. Earth jurisprudence declares that the welfare of the entire planet is a central legal concern because the well-being of humans and all living things depends on it. I want to reiterate the fact that, despite the pressures of land fragmentation and the deforestation associated with it, erratic rainfall, recurrent drought, and soil erosion, my community is still inextricably attached to their land emotionally. Their perceptions and world outlook are attuned with the formulations of Earth jurisprudence so that they still engage in some cultural practices in the spirit of claiming back their traditional identity. Doing this is the foundation of sustainable biocultural diversity conservation.

Despite the pressures of land fragmentation, deforestation, erratic rainfall, recurrent drought, and soil erosion, my community is still inextricably attached to their land emotionally.

mother and children

A mother and children from one of the neighborhood communities. Children “learn in action”: they internalize their culture while being part of the daily work. 2018

I want to take the experience with my community one step further before ending this short essay. Through the course of my life’s journey, including experience with different African countries, I have learned that many rural communities acquire their insights and knowledge through inspiration and interaction with nature, in which they adapt diverse cultural and spiritual practices to respond to ever-changing human needs and fluctuations in the environment. They recognize the significant role of the entire Earth community in sustaining lifeways so that they build and keep an innate relationship with nature and all of its facets. This relationship provides deep knowledge and multidimensional insights to people in many communities—my own included. It is because of this fact that they can be said to be on the cutting edge of biocultural diversity conservation.

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Fassil Gebeyehu Yelemtu is currently a general coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network, which has more than twenty NGO partners across Africa. His PhD from Durham University, England, explored with small-scale farmers local meanings, uses, and understandings of seeds, and the mechanisms by which these understandings are gained.


Further Reading

Berry, T. (2006). Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Bishop, R., & Glynn, T. (2003). Culture Counts: Changing Power Relations in Education. London, England: Zed Books.

Cullinan, C. (2003). Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. Cambridge, England: Green Books in association the Gaia Foundation

Harding, S. (2009). Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Green Books.


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