Photo by: Patricio Robles Gil
Surrounded by cultural and historical sites, the Simien massif was traversed as a trade route between Askum, Lalibela, Mekele and Gonder. For over 2,000 years, the Simien Mountains became home to immigrants, settlers and cultivators, of which some of the first recorded were the Ethiopian Jews. However, following the decline of the Jewish kingdom in the 14th century, many Ethiopian Jews converted to Orthodox Christianity. Small populations of Jewish settlers remained in the Simien massif, with another 30,000 living in the immediate vicinity of North Gonder Zone. In the late 1990’s the remaining Jews emigrated to Israel. Today the majority of the population are Orthodox Christians although there are a number of long term resident Muslim communities.
The people of the Simien Mountains live predominantly by agriculture but many also own some livestock, mainly sheep and goats, but with cattle. Oxen or equids are used as beasts of labour, with horses often used for ploughing. Over the years the human population has increased beyond the productivity and carrying capacity of the land, at least what can be realized through traditional agricultural methods. As a result of subdivision over the generations. land holdings for each family are now very small and many households are food insecure and receive food or other assistance under the Government’s Productive Safety Net Programme.
The problems of settlement and uncontrolled human use have been present since the park was gazetted as a number of villages and tracts of land used by local communities were included within the park’s boundaries. The World Heritage List nomination document explicitly mentions settlement as an issue and when attempts were made to forcibly relocate seven villages from the northern escarpment, tensions and conflicts increased between those communities and park management.
The human population has, however continually grown over the years, doubling in size every 35 years. For example in 1967/8 there were 122 households (610 people) at Gich rising to some 360 households in 2006 (~1,670 people). Realignment of the park boundary in 2003/2004 excluded some villages at the edge of the park and reduced the human population and by 2012 around 436 houses were counted in the park. Around 2,280 hectares of the park, about 3.6% are estimated to be cultivated, mainly in the Gich area.
In 2009, 167 households were voluntarily resettled from a newly formed village at Arkwasiye, located in a critical wildlife corridor to a newly extended park area. In 2013 a voluntary resettlement scheme is being offered to the Gich inhabitants by the Ethiopian Government and it is probable that the number of households in the area may decrease in future years.