Field Notes: Connecting People to the Land

August 26, 2013

Last winter, I was able to spend the month of December working and traveling in the southern highlands of Ethiopia, taking in as much as I could feasibly see and experience in a country that has captivated my imagination for a number of years. The wonders of Ethiopia cannot be overstated. As the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia provides the majority of water for both tributaries of the longest and most recognizable river in the world. The earliest known direct predecessor of humans, Ardipithecus ramidus, or “Ardi” for short (4.4 million years old), and her slightly younger but more famous pre-human sister Australopithecus afarensis, named “Lucy” (3.2 million years old), were both discovered in the arid landscape of northern Ethiopia. The lush, forested southern reaches of the country are just as captivating, being home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity in the world, with rare and endemic fauna like the endangered mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni), a large spiral horned antelope, and the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). The flora is equally impressive with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) noting that “...the conditions and the isolation of these areas have led to the evolution of unique plant communities that are found nowhere else”. This has led to a proposal for designating the Bale Mountains National Park a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

My time was spent in this southern portion of the country, in the high montane forests constituting part of the greater Bale-Arsi Massif, which reach up to 4,377 meters (14,360 feet) elevation. The agro-pastoralists of this region are ethnic Oromo, who not only cultivate barley but also herd to a lesser extent a mixture of cattle and goats. Through the extensive work of Paul Evangelista and his team at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL), a generous fellowship through Colorado State University'sCenter for Collaborative Conservation, and the support of the 501(c)(3) non-profit The Murulle Foundation, I was able to engage my curiosity about local plant knowledge in the Bale Mountains and assess the importance of gender-based differences in local ethnobotanical knowledge. With plants playing a critical role in the daily lives of Ethiopians (some 80% of rural Ethiopians rely on plant-based medicine as their primary healthcare and around 90% of people in the southern highlands depend on small-scale rain-fed agriculture), I hoped to understand, and help preserve this important cultural knowledge; specifically knowledge of women, as their distinct way of knowing the landscape is often overlooked. 

My experience in the Bale Mountains started with twenty-one days of continuous field work, collecting forestry data to add to a robust database containing understory vegetation data previously collected by Paul and his team at NREL from the same sites. This provided me a unique opportunity to see some of the most stunning landscape I have ever encountered, in addition to learning about, and experiencing the region's wildlife, culture and cuisine as we worked closely with our local collaborators.Two wildlife highlights occurred within the first few days of arriving, including being lucky enough to witness a pair of Ethiopian wolves hunting rats on the Sanetti Plateau as we drove to our first field research site, and seeing up close, the hauntingly beautiful mountain nyala inside the Bale Mountains National Park. Hiking in the depths of the Afro-montane forest, I was amazed at how lush and green the vegetation was, and the fairly cool to downright cold temperatures that persisted underneath the canopy of thick tree tops and serpentine branches blanketed with epiphytes and sinewy mosses.

Towards the end of our field work, we were provided the opportunity to interview two groups of local women that live adjacent to the National Park about local plant knowledge. Building on existing research of men's ethnobotanical knowledge in the Bale Mountains (Bussmann et al, 2011), semi-structured focus groups were conducted to catalogue women's floristic knowledge. These focus groups were led by three additional team members: Heather Young, an environmental educator with Larimer County Natural Resources, Christina Kuroiwa, a physician from the CSU Health Network (who has worked extensively with indigenous communities around the world), and our local Ethiopian friend, translator, driver, and tracker-extraordinaire, Aserat Worede. The ethnobotanical data collected were examined in an effort to understand gender-based differences in knowledge and use of plant-derived provisioning ecosystem services (i.e. the material and energetic outputs of an ecosystem, including tangible things that can be directly consumed, exchanged or used by people).           

For nearly six hours at each location, we went through identifying plants from a pool of over 360 plant identification pictures spread out on table tops. The pictures were grouped according to their growth form (e.g. fern, grass, tree, shrub) and the women were encouraged to take as much time as they felt necessary to converse with each other, and walk around the room while examining the photos. All of the women collected pictures of plants they recognized, and once everyone had finished, we sat down as a group and went through each plant individually to discuss their local names and their derived uses. The women at one of the interview sites shared detailed stories, discussing environmental changes recently witnessed, including erratic precipitation patterns and the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters like drought and flooding, and shared detailed knowledge about and array of plants (Luizza et al, 2013), with a number of distinct uses from those of men. For example, the shrub Carissa edulis (or “Agempsa” in the local Oromiffa language) was noted by men to provide forage services, acting as food for livestock and wildlife, but the women explained that it also acts as a human food source, with the fruits of the plant being edible, and additionally provides cosmetic services, with the thorns used for piercing ears. Beyond individual plants,important differences in knowledge regarding plant-use categories were revealed when comparing the men and women's data across the multiple interview sites within the region. Women overall identified nearly twice as many medicinal and veterinary plants as men, while men identified six times as many forage plants and three times as many plants used for construction. These preliminary findings reveal a need to include a gendered understanding of plants when cataloguing this important cultural knowledge. Moreover, the women from one of our interview sites also brought up future project ideas including creating a local seed bank and pooling money to purchase land outside of the town to grow medicinal plants to sell at the market, and they were even interested in us coming back and facilitating a youth education program led by the women, where they would teach local girls about the plants in the area. This latter workshop is something we are currently working on acquiring funding for as we prepare for our upcoming trip in early 2014. This amazing experience in Ethiopia has played an important role in my Ph.D. dissertation research, and has set the stage for what I hope is a long-term collaboration with local communities in the Bale Mountains.

Matt Luizza is PhD student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology (GDPE) and USDA NIFA Fellow through the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. He is co-advised by Paul Evangelista (NREL) and Michele Betsill (Department of Political Science).