What’s beyond Paradise

Ethiopia, September 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A traditional village in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

For the four days we were in Arbaminch — a southern Ethiopian city whose name means “Forty Springs” in the local language — we made our base at a local motel called Paradise Lodge. The moniker is pretty accurate: the city sits atop a hill overlooking lush jungle and two sparkling lakes. So, early in the morning and late at night, we were surrounded by all manner of backpackers and sightseers.

But for most of the day, we were well beyond that place, out in some of the region’s most rugged terrain and poorest villages.

Most of Mercy Corps’ work in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region centers on two particular woredas, or districts: Konso and Derashe. The region, which is home to more than 45 distinct ethnic groups, is as volatile as it is culturally rich. Disagreements between these ethnic groups have escalated into conflict in recent years, resulting in many deaths, villages burned, livestock taken and thousands of families displaced.

There are many reasons for these conflicts, but nothing looms as large as competition for natural resources. Poverty is absolute here: in a couple of the Konso villages, income per household is far below US$100 per year. As a result, families must subsist on the meager crops and livestock that they raise themselves.

And making those agricultural systems work isn’t easy: these areas are hit with frequent drought, large swaths are deforested and erosion is rampant. That puts good crop and grazing land at a particular premium, and pits herders and farmers squarely against each other in a struggle for not just resources, but survival.

Case in point: a village from one woreda had always led their livestock to nearby Lake Chamo to drink water and graze by the shoreline. But two years ago, the villagers from another woreda — farmers who didn’t want their croplands damaged by the cattle herds — blocked the path that the herders usually took to the lake. One side attacked and an especially bloody conflict ensued, in which dozens perished and hundreds lost their homes.

The combination of dwindling resources, contentious ethnic groups and different economic priorities may seem intractable — particularly in a place where villagers also compete for firewood and water. It seems like a disastrous recipe for more conflict, not less.

And yet the region is healing.

Through comprehensive, community-focused programs, Mercy Corps is encouraging former enemies to meet, talk out their differences and propose solutions. They’re getting to the root causes of conflict — land and water rights — and letting us know the support that they need. We’re responding by building meeting halls, community health networks and clean water systems. We’re helping link both farmers and herders to local markets, where they can trade together and earn more money to sustain their households.

Because here, in one of the poorest yet most naturally stunning areas of Ethiopia, prosperity helps defuse conflict. Access helps defuse conflict. And, most of all, dialogue and understanding help defuse conflict.

Paradise seems an ideal more suited for tourism. But here in Konso and Derashe — where the views are just as spectacular and the people absolutely amazing — peace seems not only possible, but at hand.