Yemen: Development through co-operation

by A G Milroy, Arid Lands Initiative

Renewing Yemen's traditional capacity for local community development through ta'awun, tribe and modern agricultural associations.

Introduction - top down development persists, despite the growth of grassroots development capacity

YEMEN has a very long tradition of shared knowledge of the practical activities and associated organisational capacities needed to tackle shared economic, social and environmental problems at a local level. However, the impact of formal primary education has reduced the opportunities for the young to learn and apply these essentially practical skills from their parents. Urban development and the emphasis for the past 30 years on output-orientated agricultural production have also gravely eroded this indigenous know-how base, much of it related to the careful management of Yemen's scarcest natural resource, water. At the same time political and social transformations and population increases in the region have triggered a massive increase in demand for drinking and irrigation water.

However, international development agencies and the Yemen Government have tended to ignore this traditional indigenous knowledge base and the non formal networks that still exist, in weakened form, at local level throughout the country. Despite this, partial democracy, elections, a new parliament and laws of association introduced after the civil war, have stimulated a remarkable growth of more democratic, fully accountable farmer associations, involving both men and women.

Desperate for practical support and technical know-how, these rural-based 'associations of common interest' are now aware that they alone can solve their problems through the renewal of their traditional capacities, but are obtaining little help at present from donors or central government.

There is now a grudging recognition within development agencies that farmer associations and non-formal groups (the former totalling over 250 and the latter several thousands) have a vital role in delivering a range of development inputs. However, there is gap between the rhetorical stated intentions of donor agencies and their actual capacity to work alongside these networks.

As the Federation of Agricultural Associations grows in all of the 12 regions of unified Yemen, there is increasing potential to develop documentation and dissemination of good practices through practical 'learning by doing' and audio visual means, confirmed by well-documented fieldwork in recent years.

However, as yet there are no formal mechanisms to underpin and support these relatively vibrant grass roots organisations rather than the conventional top-down development structures which have very apparently failed. This is confirmed by a number of recent reports from various development agencies, all highlighting the growth of the network of active farmer associations, despite the absence of direct support in management training and accessing appropriate inputs.

Traditional catchment management through local networks

For over four thousand years Yemen's population wholly depended on its rural environment and economy. This, in turn, depended on a carefully-balanced, highly-evolved relationship between farmers' need to secure an immediate livelihood in a very hot and extremely low-rainfall environment in rugged terrain, balanced against the imperative to conserve soil, water and vegetation for future generations. Catchment management involved a network of non-formal relationships between households, groups of farmers and villages which depend on the same spate floods. The necessary soil, water and vegetation conservation traditions and techniques were handed down from father to son by practical 'learning by doing' and expressed in seasonal agricultural songs.

This unique heritage has been gravely threatened as Yemen moves into the world economy and the perceived need to increase agricultural output. The consequences of the 'rush to the market place', through mono-cropping and intensive irrigation are now very apparent, with widespread evidence of denuded tree cover and the collapse of the remarkable terracing and wadi spate control structures for which Yemen was justly famous.

With over 70% of Yemen's population still deriving its livelihood from agriculture, farmers have come to realise their future prosperity is now in jeopardy and still depends on their own local 'common interests', just as in the past.

Modern farmer associations have thus come to recognise they must use their more equitable and democratic structures to remobilise the traditions of local development and long-term resource management, which underpinned the whole rural fabric until just 30 years ago.

Sustained fieldwork by the Arid Lands Initiative over the past 11 years, working alongside farmer groups in awareness-raising, training and practical initiatives, has convinced us that tribal networks, the ancient tradition of ta'awun ("co-operation") and the modern derivative, agricultural associations, can indeed be remobilised on the widespread scale necessary to tackle the major social, economic and environmental problems spreading throughout every catchment and aquifer in Yemen.

However, Yemen's cultivatable lands and rural population, dependent for generations on scarce and unreliable rainfall and their traditions of water harvesting, storage and spate irrigation, are spread throughout the thousand of minor catchments linked to the major wadi systems throughout the country. Thus thousands of local communities, in qaryas (villages), mamzas (groups of villages under the non-formal authority of 'aqils), and 'uzlas (clusters of mamzas linked within tribal networks, usually represented by a shaykh), are scattered throughout the network of drainage catchments that connect and eventually flow to the western (Tihama), southern and eastern wadis.

Each of the discrete minor catchments within this web is usually characterised by a series of connected ecological zones. This whole system of social relationships landscape and ecology was bound together by the Yemeni farmers' understanding of the ecological imperative of effective soil and water management systems to sustain their basic food production needs. This, in turn depended on a network of relationships, group management and shared task allocations between men and women farmers, their village communities, and the tribal networks, all welded together in a shared 'association of interests' known as ta'awun - local recognition of the necessity for 'a spirit of co-operation' to manage shared problems through group action.

The collapse of rural structures and social systems

Although the advent of groundwater pumping appeared to provide an escape from the fragile dependence on nature, this web of communities still remained largely dependent on rainfall and surface water flows for their agricultural livelihood. The endemic poverty and lack of development investment in these regions forced rural farmers, in the 1960s and early 1970s, to emigrate to the Gulf and Saudi-Arabia and to Yemen's major cities. Failing that they turned on their landscape and its vegetation, to exploit short-term supplies of fuel-wood and livestock fodder for cash sales to support a burgeoning population.

The sequence of events that these desperate actions triggered now threatens the very livelihood and way of life of Yemen's rural society. Moreover the ecological and economic processes have now taken hold, to a great or lesser extent, throughout the whole of Yemen's cultivated landscape. The greater proportion of Yemen's population faces all these problems with varying degrees of severity, depending on their particular geographical position within their local catchment and region.

The discrete sequence of consecutive, concurrent and cumulative events that characterise the degeneration of each and every catchment are complex, and, being part of a closely woven ecological fabric, indivisible. However, throughout the whole country, the primary physical symptoms that characterise each zone's ecological/physical collapse are recognisably linked by a chain of underlying causes and consequences, namely:

Upper escarpments, screes and steep slopes - denudation of shrubs, grasses and soil

Prior to Yemen's Revolution in the 1960s these zones came under traditional rangeland agreements. Individual households from within the community coppiced and selectively grazed particular areas, and generally managed their own demarcated zone so that range productivity could be maintained for future years.

The dislocations of war, emigration and landlord absenteeism shattered these traditional management mechanisms. Virtually all fuel-wood and fodder vegetation was stripped from the screes; the grasses, exposed without shade cover consequently died, loosening the binding mat of perennial vegetation. This exposed the whole zone to catastrophic sheet and gully erosion from the increased run-off from any rain which fell on the denuded upper escarpment areas.

Upper terraces - abandonment, collapse and erosion of uneconomic terraces

Throughout history even precipitous escarpments, with slopes as much as 45% inclination, were terraced, but the massive changes in the economics of traditional sorghum cultivation, due to wheat imports and the impact of the labour exodus of the 1970s, made these areas, in the short-run, uneconomic to cultivate on an annual basis. However, the contribution these areas made to surface water run-off control was vital, so their abandonment and subsequent collapse was a major and catastrophic contribution to down-stream erosion in the short-term and a tragic waste of land assets in the long-term.

Springs, cisterns and wells - buried, abandoned and/or collapsed

On the keyline of every escarpment (the point where contours start to flatten and perennial springs commonly occur), Yemenis exploited this precious water resource, by constructing elaborate cisterns, canals and even tunnels to access the valuable perennial springs, the ghayl water, for drinking, livestock and irrigation. However, the denudation of tree cover and the subsequent erosion of the late 1960s and 1970s effectively removed the capacity of the upper escarpments to absorb the moisture necessary to feed these springs. Even worse, upper catchment erosion often covered these ancient systems with gravel, boulders and soil.

Lower, wider terraces - economically viable but destroyed from above

Wider terraces, on less steep escarpments, were a major resource asset in themselves but, although still economically viable, they were increasingly threatened in the 1980s, by the cumulative and massive increase in gully erosion from increased surface run-off from the steeper escarpments above them. Whole fields were sliced off the mountain and the eventual abandonment and collapse of the whole system is therefore inevitable, unless efforts to stem the domino-effect from further up the escarpment are urgently initiated.

Upper wadi perennial and spate-irrigated lands - virtually destroyed by boulder/gravel deposits from eroded escarpments above

At the immediate base of all the more seriously eroded escarpments within each catchment the effects of deforestation, terrace collapse and increased surface run-offs from above are most dramatic. Extremely fertile and productive ribbons of coffee, mango and maize plantations on either side of wadi channels were devastated, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As flash floods slowed on debouchment from the escarpment, and continued their relatively less violent progress down the flatter wadi-channel, these rich lands were covered by a depth of up to several metres of large boulders and gravels. These catastrophic gravel deposits even covered the perennial base flow streams and springs, along with their associated infrastructure of cisterns and diversion channels.

Groundwater aquifers - rapidly depleting, with increasing salinity

With many of these processes subtly insidious yet cumulative, farmer were distracted by the new underground water resources, which promised a release from their dependence on scarce, intermittent and unpredictable rainfall. Believing these newly-accessed groundwater supplies to be al-bahr - the sea - and thus limitless, farmers have increasingly relied in the past decade on these pumped aquifer waters for agriculture, drinking and livestock. A seemingly free and controllable resource, which had previously been unreliable and scarce, prompted farming communities to fatally turn their back on their traditions of collective management of their natural resource base and the physical assets they had built up over millennia.

The final crisis that now confronts these farming communities in the late 1990s is that this underground resource is itself rapidly draining away, due to over-extraction. Moreover, this process is accelerated by the progressive, thirty year collapse of the catchment management systems which had contributed to the replenishment of the aquifer in the first place - soil, vegetation and surface water management through shared responsibility and collective action.

Abandoning the tradition of collective responsibility for managing natural resources

It is thus apparent that the primary triggering event for the social, ecological and economic collapse throughout Yemen's catchments, which now threatens to destroy the rural economic base, was the abandonment of ta'awun, the non-formal, shared responsibility to manage the system. The very fabric of the society and its landscape had depended upon this system of shared responsibility for millennia, right up until the time of the dramatic political, social and economic upheavals of the 1960s.

These non-formal rules and "associations of common interest" within every catchment and often between catchments were supported by customary law between and within groups of farmers. Therefore, in order to address and tackle the fundamental and inter-related economic and ecological developmental problems of the 1990s there must be some means by which new inputs, skills, energies and financial resources can be reinstated within this frayed social fabric, around a revitalised or entirely new association of common interests' and the shared responsibility of al-ta'awun.

The necessary steps that must be taken by the major 'associations of interest' within each catchment are now apparent. They relate not to the conservation of traditional systems but more often to the reclamation and renewal of long abandoned physical and social structures. A grass-roots development process, applied through whatever rural networks still bind these 'associations of interest' together, could recreate groups of farmers who shared a commitment to tackle and solve their new problems, and the spirit of ta'awun could be renewed.

Fieldwork over recent years indicates that if the more modern agricultural associations and resilient traditional rural networks could be better resourced and mobilised by a productive relationship with funding donors then this crisis of ecological degradation could, instead, become an opportunity to modernise the rural society around the new imperatives of social and economic development and natural resource renewal.

The history, present structure and attributes of agricultural associations

  • Modern agricultural associations are democratically elected, transparent organisations, with officials elected by secret ballot who are answerable to their members, with independently-audited, open book-keeping and accounting, (attributes, it should be said that are not always found in the large parastatal agencies and donor organisations that absorb virtually all the considerable financial resources that constitute development budgets!) Their agricultural associations and constitutions and management structures permit direct contractual arrangements with donors and Government also have the capacity to manage a series of sub-contractual arrangements with specific farmer sub-groups under their umbrella, but are rarely, if ever, invited to participate in the formulation or implementation of development initiatives that are ostensibly for their benefit.

  • The historical roots of modern agricultural associations lie deep within the rural community and the previous traditions of ta'awun. The Local Co-operative Councils for Development (LCCDs) of 1970s and 1980s were, initially, a highly successful attempt to modernise these local, non-formal structures to tackle modern development priorities. Their eventual failure was not due to their own shortcomings. It was their official incorporation into local government in the 1980s that effectively emasculated them, because of the bureaucracies this imposed.

  • Agricultural associations, the even more modern derivative of ta'awun and LCCDs, are therefore determined to retain their autonomous capacity to function as strongly independent, non-governmental 'associations of common interest', willing to work with donors and government but in an equal partnership.

  • Agricultural association members are usually the more dynamic, leading farmers within the community, with links back into every village within the locality. The range of shared skills available within modern agricultural associations; often with well educated members able and willing to volunteer their skills for the benefit of the group, could be used to accelerate the whole development process in rural areas. Indeed the younger members of rural communities who used to drift to the cities are beginning to see that their future may not lie there where they face unemployment and urban deprivation, but back in their own local community.

  • Each agricultural association is linked within a Governorate Federation, itself belonging to a National Federation. Raising the skill base within well-selected examples of this rapidly growing network, allied to the use of modern communication tours such as video and computer networks, could diffuse 'good practice' throughout the country, avoiding many of the gross inefficiencies of present parastatal agencies. These organisations still go through the charade of the top down 'development project process', even though it has so patently failed the nation for the past thirty years.

  • But for this to happen, senior educated Yemeni government officials and their counterparts, the expert consultants from the west, with their own intellectually-formulated perceptions of development, must somehow learn Ghandi's lesson of humility best summarised in the Yemeni proverb, "The wisdom of your fathers is worth more than years of study". This might enable them to accept and adopt Yemen's rural population as true partners, and to acknowledge that the rural household, the village and the tribe usually know best their own problems and how to solve them, through ta'awun and tradition, of course strengthened by modern democratic structures and the education of women.

  • A radical change towards a more grassroots driven, client responsive development industry might then take the next step. Relevant knowledge transfer could then be based on the indigenous Yemeni methods of communication and decision making of the qat-chew, the village meeting and the tribal network rather than the top-down research and extension services, workshops, conferences and consultant reports of an elite that is no longer connected to the rural base it professes to understand and guide.

  • In short, a return to Yemen's traditions of energetic local autonomy, more mature than before and of course set within the strong central Government that the country needs to sustain and develop its international relationships and its own nationhood.

Copyright © A. G. Milroy 1998

Arid Lands Initiative, Machpelah Works, Burnley Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire LLX7 8AU. Tel: +44 1422 843807; fax: +44 1422 842241