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The Aräqe Dilemma: The Socioeconomics of Traditional Distilled Alcohol Production, Marketing, and Consumption in Ethiopia
[ Abstract ] [ TOC ]
There is no singular explanation for Ethiopia’s underdevelopment. Impediments on its progress are innumerable and multifaceted. These include: negative natural/physical factors such as its unfavorable location, land-lockedness, rugged terrain, erratic rainfall, chronic drought, and land-degradation; its long lasting institutional lacunae that include the well-known ambiguous property rights and tenure insecurity; its age-old political instability that often culminated in civil wars; the high growth rate of its population; its unfavorable balance of trade and overall economic backwardness; the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In addition to these impediments to development and wellbeing, a few negative social phenomena of relatively recent origin have begun eroding its human resource base and overstretching its limited social services. Such is the case with the galloping addiction to, and abuse of, substances, of which the most prominent are è'at and home-distilled alcohol; the spread of pornographic dens and gambling hangouts.

Yet, Ethiopian society, like many others in the developing world, has ignored the issue of substance abuse. Instead of addressing the issue, the Government, for instance, has passively encouraged the cultivation, marketing and consumption of è'at, because of its importance as a source of cash income to many farmers and its significance as a major foreign currency earner to the nation.

Aräqe, the subject of this study, is a ubiquitous feature of present day Ethiopian society – with the exception of the predominantly Muslim communities. Its production, marketing, and consumption are so widespread and so entrenched that the issue of illicitness is almost never raised. Throughout the fieldwork informing this study, its legality was not questioned even once – by ordinary folks, police officers and local administrators alike.

Aräqe is more than the alcoholic drink of choice for people living in rural and small towns of Ethiopia, and its popularity is on the rise even in the big towns and cities. Thanks to its qualities of divisibility, long shelf-life, portability, and high unit value, it is also an important commodity that is produced by, traded between, and consumed in most of the rural and urban areas of the country. Its negative effects notwithstanding, it is a major object of exchange that ties cities to their rural hinterlands and with one another, thus becoming an important component of the social fabric of the society. Thus, it is an important social fact that cannot be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon.

In spite of the substantial amount of aräqe that is distilled, traded, and consumed within the informal sector, and the important place it holds in the socioeconomic fabric of the society, no comprehensive study has to date been undertaken on its interrelated aspects and at a national level. The few studies that have been made so far are all on one or another aspect of aräqe and also focused on single areas. The three MA theses (Endalew 2008; Nejibe 2008; and Wolde 1999) are, respectively, on the socioeconomic impacts of aräqe production and consumption in Arsi Nägälle Wäräda, on impact of aräqe production on the degradation of woodland vegetation and emission of CO and percolated matter during distillation in Arsi Nägälle Wäräda, and on the contribution of aräqe production to urban informal sector employment and income in Assäla Town. Thus, not only are the studies limited in their scope, but also geographically restricted to only two wärädas of Oromia Regional State that are located close to each other and surrounded by rural areas with predominantly Muslim population.