Liban Pastoralists Development Association (LPDA) Success Stories
By Coco McCabe
Coco McCabe is a former newspaper reporter who now writes for Oxfam America about its humanitarian work around the world.
You can call me Loko now.
It’s a Borena name, given to me by Ethiopians working hard to help isolated herders find ways to fight poverty,
Huka Balambal checks the water in an irrigation ditch he built along the Dawa River. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson
I have a new name, and I’m thrilled with it. It’s Loko—a Borena name that means tall and thin.
The sobriquet was a gift, bestowed on a starlit night over the coals of a dwindling bonfire, by our Ethiopian partners with the Liben Pastoralist Development Association, or LPDA. Several colleagues and I had just spent two days with them trekking to some of the hardest-to-reach places I’ve ever been on any Oxfam story-gathering trip. The mission was to see some of the work LPDA has undertaken since last year’s drought and food crisis left so many people in this region near the Kenyan border facing hunger and hardship.
For two hours, we lurched in a truck down a rough, rock-strewn road—hacked through 45 kilometers of bush by 230 community members with machetes and hammers—to reach a tiny farm on the banks of the Dawa River. It belonged to Huka Balambal, a 64-year-old herder and a leader of this far flung community of 600 households. The road was his brainchild, sprung from the determination to find a way to help his community prosper. For years, no social services at all—no schools, no medical facilities, no way to get to market—had penetrated this hilly terrain, leaving families entirely on their own to cope with the consequences of increasingly erratic weather. So Balambal called a meeting of elders, women, children—everyone—and they decided to ask for help. Would LPDA work with them to build a road? With hand tools and 200 sacks of grain LPDA offered in a food-for-work program, the road was born.
But it wasn’t just material support LPDA gave to this isolated community. It was passion. It was heart. It was total belief in the idea that if people make up their minds to do something—even something as epic as carving a road through ledge and bush without the help of heavy machinery—that resolution is all-powerful, and the key to self-reliance.
“After this road, everything is possible!” said Kote Ibrahim, LPDA’s founder.
Those words have been ringing in my ears since he spoke them: Everything is possible. They are words of hope and deep strength and complete faith in a community of people that others have forgotten. And that’s why, on our last night with LPDA when Ibrahim and other LPDA staffers made us part of their world by giving us our own Borena names, the names of their people, I felt so honored.
I’m Loko now.
Didi Liben Pasture Restoration
A short distance outside of the town of Negele in southern Ethiopia is a vast expanse of pastureland—once famous for its productivity—known as Didi Liben. Grasses here grew tall. Wildlife was abundant. And domestic herds of cattle were fed well off the land. But today, most of Didi Liben is bare, with only patches of stubby grass spotting the red earth and the invasive fulessa shrub, with its spiky thorns, creeping into the degraded landscape.
But that’s not the whole story of Didi Liben. Drive into its heart, and you’ll see something remarkable: a sea of cream-colored grasses, thigh-high, waving in the wind and stretching as far as you can see. Surrounding this 112-hectare preserve is a thorn-bush fence built with local hands from the tangle of invasive plants they pulled from the pasture. It’s a project of the Liben Pastoralist Development Association, an Oxfam America partner determined to find lasting solutions for herders in the region whose long-term well-being has suffered as a consequence of the increasing number of droughts brought on, perhaps, by climate change. By setting aside pastureland and allowing it the time it needs to regenerate, herders can guarantee themselves a source of food for their animals during the critical dry season ahead. By one estimate, these 112 hectares of grass could support 3,000 heads of livestock for one month—a far more cost-effective option than buying hay in Addis Ababa (the distant capital) for 48 birr per bale and shipping it south. Each hectare of preserved pasture can produce about three tons of grass—right here, where it’s needed.
“This is a grass bank for pastoralists,” said Kote Ibrahim, the founder of LPDA.
“The whole of Didi Liben, when I was young looked like this,” said Kotola Buyale, a 78-year-old elder, as he sat in the tall grasses, sheltered from the cold wind on a damp gray morning in mid-August. “We didn’t worry about drought. We had never seen farming. Everyone had milk. Everyone had livestock.” Then, about 40 years ago, things began to slowly change.
Gelma Liben, a 51-year-old local man, said that in the past people would cope with drought by migrating to places where the pasture was better. But for the past two-and-a-half years, the whole district has been equally affected by the lack of rain.
“We live on cattle. The cattle live on grass. If there’s no grass, there’s no cattle—and eventually there is no man,” said Liben. But these 112 rehabilitated and preserved hectares will help the community’s cattle weather the dry season ahead. And the community plans to enclose more land now that it sees how effective conservation efforts can be. The community, he said, has learned a lot from this LPDA initiative.
“We never had this idea before. We never knew it was possible,” said Liben. “Now, no one is willing to go ask for pasture from a distant place like before. We can take care of ourselves now. Now we are on our own feet and we can support others in trouble.”
Even the wildlife is returning. The Liben lark, which once made its home in these grasslands but disappeared when its habitat was lost, has come back—attracting bird watchers from abroad.
Road In, Road Out
For the 600 or so households living on the rangeland near the Dawa River in southern Ethiopia, the rough road that now connects them with the rest of their country promises a world of hope. For years, herding families in this remote region had virtually no access to social services of any kind—no schools, no medical help, no easy access to markets. Even the country’s polio eradication program failed to reach this impossible location. But now, thanks to a food-for-work program launched by Oxfam America’s local partner, Liben Pastoralist Development Association, last year when a food crisis and drought had left many families in dire straits, a 45-kilometer dirt road leads from the banks of the Dawa River through the Hadhesa PA toward more accessible areas.
LPDA calls it a “community road,” constructed with the labor of people determined to improve their chances of prospering. With hammers, machetes, and sweat, they cleared miles of brush and chipped their way through rock outcroppings along a trail that, in some places, had barely been wide enough for a single file of cows. The road was the brainchild of herder-turned-farmer Huka Balambal, a rail-thin man who is now making part of his living along the banks of the Dawa River. Frustration drove him to action after a portion of his onion harvest rotted when he couldn’t get it to market fast enough during the five-day camel trek to the nearest village center. When the engine on his water pump broke, it took him two and a half days to reach Negele to find a technician who could help him repair it.
“The road is everything,” said Balambal. Recently, when the motor on his pump broke again, he was able to send it to Negele, have it repaired, and get it back—all in one day. And when his wife became ill, a car traveled down the road to bring her to the hospital, something that had never been possible before.
‘”After this road, everything is possible,” said Kote Ibrahim the founder of LPDA, after lurching along the 45-kilometer stretch for two hours in a small pickup truck. “The important thing is access. Quality comes later.”
The government has taken an interest in the new road, too, and plans to assign workers to continue improving it through the federal Productive Safety Network Program, or PSNP, an initiative that offers some of the region’s poorest people work in exchange for food.
Farming to Survive
Along the banks of the chocolate-colored Dawa River in Malka Guba in southern Ethiopia, 200 families are engaged in a brave experiment: They are giving up some of their old way of life to embrace a new one that may hold the key to their long-term well-being. They are going to try farming, an enterprise that requires stationary persistence, and is quite unlike the herding life many of them have lived.
The initiative is part of a plan by the Liben Pastoralist Development Association, Oxfam America’s local partner, to help people in this drought-prone area move beyond the need for regular emergency assistance, especially as climate change makes their traditional means of earning a living increasingly tenuous by destroying pasture and weakening or killing their herds. Within a nine-month span in 2008, LPDA launched three emergency projects to help pastoralists weather the drought and food crisis that gripped the region.
“We cannot do this every time the weather goes bad,” said Wario Jilo, a program coordinator for LPDA. “That’s where the idea of this irrigation came up. We consider this a permanent solution to getting out of hunger. People can feed themselves and their animals as well with the byproduct of the farm.”
Now, across these 100 hectares, piles of brush have been cleared from the land by the families, making way for the fields that will feed them once the irrigation system fed by the Dawa has been constructed.
“This is a new settlement. It’s survival,” said Jilo. “These people are doing the clearing. Nobody is doing it for them. These rivers have been flowing for thousands of years. We have to make use of them.”
“We are exhausted by asking for food,” added Kote Ibrahim LPDA’s founder, and a native of the region. “Drought is part of our lives. How can we get out from it? We reached consensus: we need sustainable development interventions.”
Edo Godana, a 55-year-old father of 17 children and one of those who will be moving his family to the new site, recalled what life used to be like in the region—before everything began to change.
“During our father’s time, it was very nice rain and a lot of milk and grass,” he said. “Now, things have totally changed. I’ve been trying to cultivate land by rain, and it frequently collapses. We have fear for our children. What’s going on? That’s why we’re here: to support our life and exist on this land.”