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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Gender, justice and livelihoods in the creation and demise of forests in North Western Ethiopia’s Zeghie Peninsula Asfaw, Tihut Yirgu


This doctoral dissertation explores how the people of Zeghie, living in a designated sacred area, have confronted and attempted to survive internal and external pressures on their forest-based, coffee-dependent livelihoods. For generations the peninsula has embraced strict rules that have helped sustain the forested and coffee-based agro-ecosystem. Today, the Zeghean economy is at a crossroads and rapid forest harvesting is the norm. This research adopted a number of theoretical approaches including environmental history and political ecology to understand determinants of deforestation and environmental degradation and their impact on the long-term sustainability of the natural resources and people’s livelihoods. While Zeghie’s landscape is unquestionably long-inhabited and also unquestionably regarded as sacred in the eyes of most of its inhabitants, a closer look revealed a landscape that is both historically complex and socially troubled wherein coffee is a newer livelihood than most conservation and aid agencies have assumed it to be, and that other agricultural practices have been used in the past and might be used again. It also suggests that the potential for viable livelihoods may well be over-shadowed by discourses of the sacred and of biodiversity. Research and analysis conducted as part of this work also sought to understand deeply rooted gender and power relations, which are currently fuelling poverty and marginalization. Widespread male emigration and increased numbers of female-headed households have resulted in a fierce struggle for land and have highlighted extreme problems pertaining to the absence of fair and equitable justice for women. The use of critical and feminist legal theory and feminist political ecology has been instrumental to understanding the ways in which local legal and rule-based systems reinforce inequality through imposed community harmony for all at the expense of justice for women. The study concludes that deforestation and environmental change in Zeghie are exacerbated by complex social, political-economic, and historical processes—processes entrenched in the micro politics of property ownership and gendered legal and decision-making institutions. A broader set of policies, institutional and technical interventions will be required for the sake of both local livelihoods and the management of natural resources.

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