James C. McCann
Ethiopia’s highlands and their lowland peripheries offer a distinctive and, in many ways, ideal setting for human habitation and the evolution of agricultural ecologies. The ranges in climate variability by season and over time framed a sophisticated set of crops, agricultural practices, and local political ecologies. Chief among these was the development and use of the single-tine ox-plow (i.e., the ard or scratch plow) that integrated endemic annual crops with secondary crop introductions and, in some areas, cultivated or intercropped with perennial crops such as ensete and coffee. Animal husbandry to sustain animal traction and pastoral livelihoods in regional ecologies was essential, over time, to regional economies and their political ecologies.
Agricultural patterns existed at the heart of cultural diversities and periods of political conflict and accommodations. In some areas of the south (Sidamo), southeast (Harar highlands), and southwest (Jimma), coffee cultivation complemented annual grain cropping. Yet the plow in its current form as a dominant tool appears in rock painting dating as far back as 500
While Ethiopia’s plow agriculture dominated the region’s political ecology over more than two millennia, in the late 20th century Ethiopia’s agrarian economy began an inexorable set of changes. New crops (such as maize), urbanization, and global migration of peoples and commodities (oil seeds, fibers, and grains) brought new seeds, inputs, and pressures to adapt to change, particularly for smallholder farmers and new enterprises. Heavy investments in dams and irrigated agriculture also foretell new agricultural landscapes of riverain areas that will need to coexist with the classic highland smallholder farms. The story of maize in Ethiopia’s agricultural history is emblematic of the struggle between pressures for change and the inertia of tradition felt by farmers. Their agrarian adaptation to new methods, new materials, and a new climate will play itself out in existing geographies and natural contours.