AND METHODS OF PUBLIC DECISION MAKING
Senior Associate, Department of International Development and former Director, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
These notes were sent (unsolicited) to African Parks Foundation (APF), as two separate documents, in May and August 2005 respectively. The aim was to help APF staff understand the complex seasonal movements of the Mursi, and to consult them in a culturally appropriate way.
Mursi dependence on natural resources within the Omo and Mago National Parks
The Mursi make use of agricultural land along both banks of the River Omo (in the Omo National Park) and in the upper Mago Valley (in the Mago National Park). They also make use of grazing land in the Elma Valley, which also lies within the Mago National Park.
Those trying to improve conditions for local people in this area, whether government officials or development planners, have rarely taken the trouble to understand the economic and environmental logic of local systems of natural resource management. Instead they have tended to believe whatever was most convenient for the administrative or development objectives they had in mind. For administrators, the image has been of people wandering around aimlessly, ‘hanging onto the tails of their cattle’. For development planners and advisers, the (equally unfounded) image has been of local people destroying their own environment through the use of ‘traditional’ methods of agricultural and pastoral production.
The Mursi depend on three main subsistence activities: flood retreat cultivation, rain-fed cultivation and cattle herding. Cultivation accounts for at least 75 per cent of their diet while cattle, apart from being an important source of milk (especially for children) and meat, are a vital standby at times of crop failure, when they can be exchanged for grain in the highlands. Because of their relatively low cattle numbers, the low and unpredictable local rainfall and the wide annual fluctuation in the level of the Omo flood, the Mursi must integrate all three of these sources of subsistence by means of a complex cycle of seasonal movements. This mix of subsistence activities, and the seasonal dispersal of people and cattle it depends on, has been the main condition both of Mursi survival and of the sustainable use of renewable resources in this area.
Planting begins at the Omo in October, as the flood recedes, and the harvest comes in December and January. This is the most valuable agricultural land the Mursi possess, since its fertility is annually renewed by the silt carried in the flood water. The main crop is sorghum, of which the Mursi possess many drought resistant varieties. Areas liable to flood lie on both banks of the river, depending on the curvature of its meanders. Between October and February, when the bulk of the population is at the Omo, the cattle are kept in the wooded grasslands which rise towards the Omo-Mago watershed. The Elma valley is particularly important at this time, because it is relatively free from tsetse flies and water can usually be found at various points, even at the height of the dry season.
If denied access to the Omo banks and the Elma Valley, the Mursi would be confined to the wedge of territory lying between the Omo and Mago Parks. This would reduce their subsistence base by at least 50 per cent and make them permanently dependent on food aid. There being no permanent water sources in this area, for either cattle or humans, boreholes would have to be drilled. With thousands of cattle concentrated around these boreholes, overgrazing would quickly result in an environmental disaster.
The Lower Omo Valley is an area of high biological diversity because of, not despite, thousands of years of human use and occupation, including the interaction of wild and domestic animals. The fact that it can be mistaken today (e.g. by tour operators) for a ‘wilderness’ is a tribute to the benign environmental impact of local natural resource management practices. Human activity has not (so far) destroyed this environment. It would be a tragic irony, but one not without precedent, if it were destroyed in the name of conservation.
The standard method used by government officials to communicate with the Mursi on important policy matters is to bring a group of ‘elders’ together from different parts of the country, tell them what the government has decided to do and explain why this is in their best interests. These meetings are usually held in the zonal or wereda capital. There are two problems with this as a method of consulting local people and gaining their trust and cooperation.
First, who is an ‘elder’? The word is best applied to a man of a certain ‘social’ age – in particular, a member of the bara age grade. Some bara are more politically ambitious than others, and these will be more active in public life. Some are also more highly regarded than others, for their ‘statesmanlike’ qualities and oratorical skills. But none have the right to make decisions for the community as a whole. The Mursi do not have elected representatives or hereditary chiefs. Decisions are made at meetings of all adult men of the local community, at which the pros and cons of a particular course of action are debated. Second, meetings to which ‘elders’ are summoned to hear about government plans and policies tend to be conducted not only on the government’s own ground but also on the government’s own terms. Not surprisingly, the Mursi have come to regard such ‘top-down’ meetings, so different from their own methods of political decision making, with scepticism or simply indifference.
Ideally then, APF would consult the Mursi, from the start, on their own ground, and by using their own procedures for reaching consensus about issues that concern communities as a whole. This would mean attending public meetings in at least three of the major territorial divisions (buranyoga) of Mursiland – e.g. at Maganto for Baruba, at Ma’do for Biogolokare and Mugjo and at Kurum for Ariholi and Gongulobibi. These meetings would be hosted by the local communities in question and would be called specifically to enable APF to lay out its aims and objectives and to listen and respond to local views, opinions and concerns. Above all, it would mean APF being prepared to negotiate compromises – to adjust its plans in accordance with the interests, needs and concerns expressed by a consensus of local opinion.
Attending meetings of this kind would be hard work, time consuming and physically uncomfortable. But the effort would be worth while, because it would help to persuade the Mursi that APF really means what it says, when it talks of local people as ‘collaborators’ in its project. It would show that APF was taking their views and concerns seriously; that it saw itself as a guest in their country; and that it recognised their right to participate in its planning processes. It would also help APF staff to understand the highly organised and democratic methods of public discussion and decision making of the Mursi, an understanding they would undoubtedly find valuable in their future dealings with local communities. Above all, it would mean that any decisions and agreements resulting from such meetings could genuinely be represented as having the backing of the community as a whole.
Although it is necessary – for effective communication as well as to gain the trust of local people - to make use of local decision making institutions, I’m not saying that these institutions are in all respects beneficial to all members of the society. In particular, women do not have a public voice in political decision making amongst the Mursi. APF will therefore have to find ways of listening to women’s views, perhaps by holding separate meetings, attended by women only. Apart from considerations of gender equality, women are the people who are chiefly responsible for agricultural production, which provides the main component of the diet of most people. Their knowledge of, and views about, agricultural land lying within the Omo Park (i.e., along both banks of the Omo) therefore need to be understood and taken into account.