Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Change looms for Ethiopia’s ancient salt trade

A paved road being built across the northern Afar region would make it easier to transport salt mined in the region’s salt basins, but some residents fear it would affect their old ways of life

By Siegfried Modola  /  Reuters, HAMAD-ILE, Ethiopia

“Thousands of people benefit from this work as the salt here is exported throughout the country,” association head Derassa Shifa said.

For now, tradition and modernity coexist — the organization buys salt from the caravans that make the four-day trek to the salt flats and back, then sells it to merchants who carry it away by truck.

The salt blocks, which were once used as a unit of money, are sold across Ethiopia, many of them to farmers to provide their animals with essential minerals. Ethiopia has the largest livestock population on the African continent.

Life is harsh for the thousands of camel herders and salt extractors who use traditional hoes and axes to carve the “white gold” out of the ground in the Danakil Depression.

Many of the salt diggers live in Hamad-Ile and hire out their services to different caravans.

However exhausting, the work still draws thousands onto the baking salt flats.

“You forget about the sun and the heat,” said Kidane Berhe, 45, a camel herder and salt merchant. “I lost a friend once on the salt desert because he was working too much with no protection from the sun. Eventually he just collapsed.”

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