Invasive Species Compendium

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Contested margins, complex pathways: the Afar Triangle in the Horn of Africa.


The 'Afar Triangle' straddles Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Historically it has been at the centre of state building and contestation between state and society for over a century. The contemporary relevance of this area lies in the overlapping contestations of power, economic development and nationhood that continue to mark the present-day struggles of the Afar people. Understanding the challenges, dynamics, histories and continuities of this situation can help in providing future support to Afar development - across all three countries, but particularly in Ethiopia where the majority of the Afar live. The paper traces key social, political and environmental issues and argues that the Afar Triangle, rather than a single contiguous shape, in fact represents many overlapping and contested 'margins' which range from areas of contested (political) control to territorial group identity, and from temperature gradients and rainfall isohyets to environmental and agro-ecological margins. These patterns determine the range and extent of Afar pastoral systems and their interactions with other, often competing, social groups. We identify key interrelationships between these margins and how they affect the security of Afar livelihoods, emphasizing the heterogeneity of experience, but also the major challenges that Afar pastoral systems continue to face. The Afar have witnessed states emerge, develop and frequently engage in violent conflict throughout much of the 20th Century. As a group they have been both at the centre of but also marginal to many of these developments and conflicts, and remain so to this day in spite of new Afar political structures. Their influence in key development processes has been low, but at the same time they have been deeply affected by resulting economic and social change, including the impacts of some of the earliest 'land grabs' in the Horn of Africa. For the Afar, such intrusion and loss has caused a legacy of devastation, particularly when lost dry season grazing left them acutely vulnerable to drought from the 1970s onwards. They have not been passive onlookers, however, and their response to these developments has been at many different levels. Whilst land appropriation has continued in recent years, particularly in the Lower Awash, there has been an attendant increased effort at settling the Afar. This has left the Afar at something of a crossroads: settlement can represent co-option and control, but also an opportunity to claim land entitlement at a time when their grazing areas are under more intensive pressure from competing pastoral groups, from state and private interests and from recently introduced, now out of control, invasive species. The 'Afar Triangle' therefore remains a complex arena of contestation between state(s) interests, private Afar interests, and the greater incorporation of this periphery within new trade and development processes in the Horn of Africa. The analysis presented in this paper suggests the need for a more nuanced and complex set of development pathways that can help Afar groups respond effectively to the complexities represented by developments within this 'triangle', building support onto what the Afar do in response, rather than designing responses for them across these often complex and contested margins.