Change looms for Ethiopia's ancient salt trade

Fri May 17, 2013 7:21am EDT
 
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By Siegfried Modola

HAMAD-ILE, Ethiopia (Reuters) - Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed was 15 years old when he began trekking with caravans of camels to collect salt in a sun-blasted desert basin of north Ethiopia that is one of the hottest places on earth.

Now 51 and retired, he has passed his camels to his son to pursue this centuries-old trade in "white gold" from the Danakil Depression, where rain almost never falls and the average temperature is 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius).

But the tradition of hacking salt slabs from the earth's crust and transporting them by camel is changing as a paved road is built across the northern Afar region.

Although the road being cut through the Danakil Depression is making it easier to transport the salt, the region's fiercely independent local salt miners and traders are wary of the access it might give to industrial mining companies with mechanized extraction techniques that require far less labor.

"Most of the people who live here are dependent on the salt caravans, so we are not happy with prospective salt companies that try to set up base here," said Abdullah Ali Noor, a chief and clan leader's son in Hamad-Ile, on the salt desert's edge.

"Everything has to be initiated from the community. We prefer to stick with the old ways," he added.

The tarmac road will link the highland city of Mekele with the village of Dallol in the Danakil Depression, a harsh but hauntingly beautiful geographical wonder of salt flats and volcanoes once described as "a land of death" by the famous British desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

The road has cut from five hours to three the drive from Mekele to Berahile, a town two days' trek by camel from the Afar salt deposits that one of Ethiopia's main sources of the crystalline food product.   Continued...

 
A man walks on sulphur and mineral salt formations near Dallol in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia April 22, 2013. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola