CAS Affiliate Awarded Fulbright to Study Social Dimensions of How Different Ethiopian Farming Communities Respond to Climate Change

Teferi Adem

Council on African Studies faculty affiliate, Teferi Abate Adem, has received a 2022-2023 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award in anthropology from the U.S. Department of State and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Adem is a research anthropologist at Yale’s Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), specializing in cross-cultural research on themes related to how humans and local livelihood systems mitigate and adapt to negative impacts of recurrent climate shocks and compounding extra-local stressors.

As a Fulbright scholar, Adem will teach anthropology courses at Wollo University in Dessie, Ethiopia. He will also conduct ethnographic research on the social dimensions of how farmers in two ecologically contrasting rural communities are responding to vagaries of climate change-aggravated irregularities in the onset, duration and intensity of rainfall during local growing wet seasons. While roughly equivalent in demography and other features, the communities vary in rainfall predictability and cropping systems, due to location at vertically contrasting agro-ecological zones. Farmers in the midland receive moderately reliable rainfall to cultivate both in belg (spring) and meher (summer) seasons, while the highland rely mainly on belg rains which proved to be increasingly erratic and unreliable. This contrast makes the communities compelling cases to examine the range of cultural and contextual factors that might differentially affect farmers’ resilience to climate-related agrarian shocks. The project will explore these variations not just between the two communities, but also at the levels of households and individual persons within each community. The comparison will combine data from an existing longitudinal database on household economic trajectories, with new research on access to previously understudied community enforced cultural mechanisms for resource-sharing and effective collective action. The analysis will determine whether resilience to shocks at each of the above three levels was affected by unequal access to potentially adaptive community mechanisms.

This project, which was conceived in consultation with Dr. Carol Ember, President of HRAF, is an important follow-up to nuance key findings of HRAF’s recently completed worldwide cross-cultural research project on possible links between cultural transformations and environmental hazards. Controlling for a range of social complexity variables, findings of this NSF- supported study show that societies that face recurrent natural hazards display many common cultural features including prevalence of a range of cultural mechanisms and institutionalized practices for sharing food and labor in times of scarcity. While cross-cultural comparisons have the advantage of generalizability, they do not enable in-depth understanding of differential impacts of specific mechanisms especially at the scales of communities, households and individuals. Adem’s proposed ethnographic fieldwork in an Ethiopian region with clearly documented greater variability in both rainfall patterns and people’s responses to them will go a long way towards linking statistically tested broad generalizations with context-specific drivers of social resilience.