A Garden of Eden

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The road to the Gamo Highlands in the Great Rift Valley is like many in Africa—long and dusty, with numerous potholes. Leaving the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abba before dawn on our journey to the Gamo region’s largest town, Arba Minch, we were already far from the city as the farmers began their day’s work, threshing the recently harvested teff, Ethiopia’s primary cereal crop used to make injera, the pancake-like bread eaten with every meal.

We had come to Ethiopia to tell the story of the Gamo Highlands and its people and the threats they face as modernity creeps into this ancient land. One of the most densely populated rural regions in Africa, this isolated area has been sustainably farmed for 10,000 years. During this time, it has remained remarkably intact both biologically and culturally, thereby preserving an ancient way of life that, to this day, continues to live in harmony with its environment.

Before leaving Addis, we’d interviewed Dr. Tewolde Berhan, a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award and general manager of the Ethiopian Environmental Authority. He spoke at length about the Gamo’s uniqueness and how fundamental its farming methods and untainted crop diversity are to Ethiopia’s and the world’s long-term agricultural sustainability. In light of the global food crisis it became even more apparent that this country, most often associated with hunger and famine, has another side to it, virtually unknown yet vitally important.

As we drove south through expansive fields, the harvests seemed abundant but we found that food aid was still being distributed by international organizations. We stopped in one small town where people were lining up to receive maize, soya and cooking oil donated by the EU and USA and distributed by the Ethiopian Red Cross. When we asked our fixer why food aid was being distributed he said, “Even if they don’t need the food, people take it because it’s free. Some people even stop growing their own food and just become dependent on the handouts from the government or aid organizations as it’s less work for them.”

It was twilight by the time we drove past Lake Abaya into Arba Minch, the dusty and bustling town situated at the base of the Gamo Highlands, and although the light was failing fast we could still make out the silhouettes of the foothills to the west where we would be heading the next day.

The Gamo

The following morning, we’d already been driving uphill for two hours when dawn broke over the Gamo, revealing a lush and beautiful landscape. Straight lines—the archetypal imprint of modern agriculture and tilled farmland—were nowhere to be found. Instead, fields of different crops flowed into one another, becoming a patchwork of colors and textures. Even viewed from the window of our four-by-four vehicle, the landscape seemed so alive, so vibrant - unlike anything I had ever seen.

Driving past shuttered doors in the sleepy village of Chencha, we approached the homestead of Mazke Gazeto, a local farmer, elder and one of the subjects of our film. Having already met and filmed Mazke earlier in the year at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City, where he and two other elders had come to represent the people of the Gamo region, we were now a world away from that bustling metropolis, passing through fields of barley and maize and thatched huts whose roofs poked through the vegetation. Here, in a land that has barely changed over thousands of years, memories of New York were a fleeting memory at most, for in this landscape it was hard to imagine anywhere else even existed, let alone somewhere as modern as Manhattan.

Having come as far as we could by vehicle, we stopped and began making our way towards Mazke’s homestead, only to find him walking toward us down the path. After a warm reunion, he led us to his home, introduced us to his wife and sons, and before long we were munching on freshly-toasted barley (a staple crop with more than 60 varieties in the Gamo region alone). We walked into the fields with Mazke and his sons as they started their day preparing a potato field for planting, and were impressed by the sight of a field being worked by three men yielding large and powerful hoes in unison.

Mazke led us from field to field, showing us different crop varieties, describing planting and harvesting methods and explaining the traditions and rituals accompanying every facet of agricultural life. In New York, Mazke and the other elders had explained their system of laws, called wogas, governing all aspects of society in the Gamo; now he described them to us in more detail, illustrating how different wogas related to the growing of crops, the use of resources and to social structures. Back in New York, these social constructs seemed to be utopian ideals, but here in the Gamo, standing with Mazke, an elder and custodian of this land, they suddenly became very real. It was clear that this land had not retained its purity and productivity by chance, but only through the close adherence to a comprehensive and interdependent system developed over thousands of years.

As we walked through the fields, pastures, and forests near Mazke’s home, I became more intoxicated by the beauty of this region. Here was a place where the land was recognized as sacred and treated with great respect, not just as a memory of what used to be, but very much alive - here and now. Wanting us to see a communal harvest, Mazke led us down a hillside path for half a mile or so through fields of wheat, potatoes, and peas. Before the harvesting itself came into view, we already heard singing floating up from below, what sounded like a choir of women’s voices. As the scene became visible, our mouths dropped in disbelief as more than 50 women sang and danced as they harvested a field of barley. It’s hard to express in words the impact of witnessing this, but like everything else we’d seen during this first day in the Gamo, the scene was filled with subtle joy; not overt happiness, but real, authentic joy. In so many of the places I’ve traveled, I would hear stories of how things were before being destroyed by genocide, colonialism, corporatization, or industrialization, and yet here I was standing in a field of barley, watching people singing and dancing as they worked. Grateful for the experience, I wondered, “Why can’t we do this back home?”

Looming Threats

Over the next few days we journeyed deeper into the Gamo and realized the vastness of this region. Although we’d known before arriving that the Gamo Highlands covered an area of 300 square kilometers with more than four million people living off the land, it was another thing to see it. This was not a small village in the jungle isolated from civilization, or a commune in California going “back to nature,” but a vast and populous region that was doing what it had done for millennia—feeding itself sustainably—which is something the modern world is being challenged to do. For those familiar with “The Lord of the Rings,” it was almost shire-like, and truly felt like a Garden of Eden. Farmers here weren’t exporting food to other markets, using external inputs to maximize yields or raising monocultures—all things “developed” nations too often push on “developing” nations as a path toward economic prosperity. Instead they practiced large-scale organic farming, saving and using their own seeds, being careful stewards of the land and its resources while understanding the importance of diversity. This land and its people are tightly interwoven.

Intercropping, we learned, is practiced throughout the Gamo, with farmers growing not only different crops (potatoes, peas, barley, wheat, maize and enset), but growing multiple varieties of each, realizing that with diversity comes security. Yet even as many in the modern world are starting to become aware of the dangers of a food system based on monocultures, agricultural multinational corporations and aid organizations continue touting industrial agricultural methods as an answer to Africa’s hunger crisis. Prior to arriving in Ethiopia, we spent several days in Kenya speaking with representatives of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) and the local farmer groups who oppose them, trying to understand the competing viewpoints. We found that AGRA’s intentions to help feed Africa using methods developed in the 1960s for the first green revolution (in countries like Mexico and India) are not welcomed by many African farmers who are concerned that the long-term costs of this top-down approach, now glaringly apparent in the first green revolution countries, seriously outweigh the short-term benefits. They also suspect AGRA’s motivations are ultimately profit-driven.

Although the Gamo has yet to be permanently harmed by AGRA and related initiatives, it is still very much at risk. All too quickly it could end up like the Indian state of Punjab or the island nation of Bali, whose ancient agricultural systems and cultural traditions were essentially destroyed within a few decades by the first green revolution and its effects.

An additional, related threat to the region’s stability also surfaced during our talks with local elders and farmers. While members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the local animist tribes have lived together peacefully for over a thousand years, a recently introduced Protestant evangelical movement is now creating conflict within the community, in a not-so-curious parallel to the imposition of green revolution policies. Wanting to expand their ranks, the evangelical Christians have been building churches on sacred lands and actively working to convert locals to this form of Christianity while ignoring requests to respect local traditions. Citing ancient indigenous traditions as being backward or even “devil worshiping,” local preachers are condemning the view that the earth and its resources are considered sacred. Their efforts are causing rifts in the community, especially among the young who are being deliberately targeted by the church, since the ancient rituals connected to sustainable agricultural methods are being ridiculed and having spiritual connections to the land is seen as ignorant. A local preacher we interviewed summed up the Protestant conflict with local indigenous beliefs: “We see that people are worshiping other things as a part of God. This is ignorance, so we refute that when we understand the gospel.”

The Celebration

We had timed our trip to the Gamo so we could film the annual music and dance festival in Arba Minch, during which representatives from 54 different tribal regions gather to celebrate their cultural heritage. During the filming, I was once again overwhelmed and struck by (a trend on this shoot) the beauty of the people here as the different tribes celebrated their unique traditions through song and dance. Watching the different groups perform, it became even more clear that the Gamo is not simply a haven of agricultural diversity and sustainable farming practices, but is actually a vital center of cultural diversity and indigenous wisdom, and that these attributes are inextricably linked. It seems that in our modern world, where rich diversity is being rapidly displaced by mundane uniformity, we could do well to learn from the Gamo, its people and its ancient ways. As modernity shudders under the weight of its own folly, it is clear we will need to turn, with respect, toward cultures like the Gamo to help show us how to live in harmony with nature. Let’s just hope they are still here when we are finally ready to listen.

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