Salt: Ethiopia’s White Gold

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As foreboding as the name ‘Danakil Depression’ perhaps sounds it is nothing more than a case of calling something that it is. First, northeast Ethiopia forms part of the 100,000 square kilometre Danakil Desert measured as being one of the hottest and lowest places on the Earth’s surface. Second, it lies at the junction of three tectonic plates – a triple junction – each drawing apart from its neighbours and leaving a basin, or depression, in the land. Eventually the separation of these tectonic plates will split the horn of Africa off the continent completely and the Danakil Depression will either become part of the Red Sea’s floor, or the bed of a new sea entirely. In approximately 100 million years.

Although the depression, which sits at 130 metres below sea level, is (very) dry land for the moment the region’s volcanic activity has meant that the area has been repeatedly flooded by the Red Sea and then sealed again with the most recent incursion being a mere 30,000 years ago. Each time the waters evaporated thick layers of salt remained and current estimates suggest deposits 800 metres thick in parts of the salt plain. Visually it is not as stunning as the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – appearing more of a dirty brown-white against Uyuni’s blazing white expanse – but looks are only one way to measure the worth of something. The Danakil salt plains – part of the region National Geographic has called the ‘cruelest place on Earth’ – prove that man can live anywhere if he has the will. And Ethiopians have the will.

White Gold: A Tradition Spanning the Centuries

For centuries this inhospitable and remote location has been the centre of a booming economy in salt – indeed for a long time salt blocks were the currency. Even today, when currency in measured by the Ethiopian Birr, the salt blocks mined here still have significant importance in a country 4.5 times the area of the United Kingdom. But despite the centuries the process of mining and transporting the salt has remained unchanged.

Thousands of workers spend six hours a day, six days a week, ten months a year working in small teams to mine the salt. The first job is to crack open the surface of the salt plains with pick axes and wooden poles. These large fragments are then shaped into small, rectangular blocks approximately 35cm long and weighting 4kg using only a small, bladed, hand tool. It is gruelling work in the intense heat of the desert often north of 50°C and the workers have little protection against the constant contact with salt.

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With little to protect them from the heat and salt the workers spend ten months a year crafting the salt blocks.

Whilst I believe that still photography has an impact that is usually – over time – more powerful than video, this is one of those times where video adds a lot.

 

Despite being in the Danakil region of Ethiopia, an area that is home to the Afar people, most of the salt workers are Tigrayans from the highlands to the west who have come for the work. Whilst it was unclear how many Afar salt workers there are – if any – it was clear that they owned and operated the camel caravans with their costs (and profits) coming from the 400% mark-up between how much they pay and subsequently sell the blocks for.

Once cut to size the salt blocks are tied into bundles and loaded on to camels for the two-day journey back to the town of Berhale stopping overnight at the village of Ahmed Ela.

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Camels have a well-earned rest whilst the salt blocks are cut, shaped and tied into bundles.

 

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The camel train, now in much smaller groups, arrives at the village of Ahmed Ela for the evening.

Once at Berhale the salt gets loaded onto trucks for distribution across Ethiopia ending up in factories, restaurants, and local markets.

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Salt blocks inevitably get broken along the way and these normally end up in markets.

Brown Gold: An Uncertain Future

Inevitable though it may be progress is threatening this centuries-old tradition and many of the Ethiopians I spoke to view the completion of a tarmac road – which by the end of 2014 had reached Ahmed Ela – with uneasy concern. It may seem an odd investment; roads are expensive things to construct and a camel-stop town seems an unlikely destination, and you can perhaps be forgiven for assuming an ulterior motive in its construction. And there is.

Being a geologically active area the area is exceptionally rich in minerals, especially potash which is an excellent fertiliser and one much in demand. Although potash is not scarce, its proximity to the surface in Danakil makes the region an extremely cost effective source – if you can get there. Attempts have been made in the past to mine these minerals on a commercial scale, such as the Canadian mine from the early twentieth century, but the inhospitable climate and remoteness made commercial mining uneconomic. But combine cash-rich foreign investors with an eye on long-term financial returns with modern automated machinery and mining on a large scale becomes possible, and profitable. All you need is the means to get there.

Whilst the road, which as of 2016 is apparently complete – is the first step toward the mining of mineral deposits such as potash- the salt flats are an easy target and many of those who depend upon the traditional process of salt mining  (the Afar, the Tigrayan workers, the camel-stop towns and villages) see the dawn of mechanised mining as a clear and present danger. It would be the end of a centuries-old way-of-life and put many people out of work in an area where work is hard to come by.

It would also destroy one of the few remaining wildernesses left on the planet. If that seems melodramatic, here’s a fact for you: Three mining companies have already been granted licenses to mine potash in the Danakil area and one company alone – Yaro International – is gearing up to mine 600,000 tonnes. Per year. Now imagine what that will do to the landscape in the photograph below.

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It may look a barren wilderness, but whilst I stood on the rise drinking my third litre of water that morning with the temperature edging close to 50°C and a French tourist collapsed due to heat exhaustion somewhere behind me, it was difficult to believe that a people had not only managed to survive here, but actually built a business that supported them and their families…

Hopefully the mining will be done with care and consideration for the surrounding environment, but here’s some more images of the region at the end of 2014. Just in case…

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The morning sun slowly rises above the last remaining rainwater that washed down off the Tigray highlands. Deserts are not always dry…

 

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One of our military escort walks ahead to check the valley, unusual in that everything is made of salt. Years of erosion has crafted peaks and gullies.

 

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The rainwater seen above dissolves surface salt and as the sun’s heat evaporates the water the salt crystalises out again leaving an oddly geometric pattern.

 

It may be approximately 100 million years until the horn of Africa becomes its own continent, but signs of movement are visible in this highly geologically active area.

It may be approximately 100 million years until the horn of Africa becomes its own continent, but signs of tectonic activity are always visible in this geologically active area.

 

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One of the most unique landscapes on the planet is – perhaps soon to be was – Dallol. The rich geologically active environment provides a wealth of minerals, here the yellow of sulphur. This is also its downfall; Danakil holds the World’s largest deposit of potash – an excellent fertiliser.

 

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And perhaps my favourite image from Dallol…

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5 Comments

  1. Pam Harris March 13, 2016 at 20:09 #

    I love the photos Dave – fabulous. But I also appreciate the commentary and the information in this post. It is good and interesting to learn about the area, the culture and the life in a place I am unlikely to get to. I agree that it is a tragedy that the sealed road and the granting of mining licences is inevitably going to destroy the region as you saw it.

    • Dave March 14, 2016 at 19:55 #

      Thanks, it has been a post that I have being trying to write, on-and-off, for a over a year now. The delay has been that I wanted to concentrate in the salt miners and what can only be described as brutal work conditions, but kept finding myself getting drawn into potash mining.

      In the end I decided to finish the piece an publish it as, despite not being the best article I’ve written, I hope it will raise awareness of the Afar and Tigrayans who have continued this tradition for centuries and whose livlihoods may be under threat.

  2. Alexia Barnes June 3, 2016 at 16:15 #

    this is awesome. i never knew what happened in Ethiopia till i read this. amazing pictures and awesome commentary… Keep it up.

  3. Christine Boston October 31, 2017 at 00:36 #

    Dear Mr. Hoggan,

    My son Gabriel who is in 7th grade is doing a project on Ethiopia and stumbled upon your website. He is going to incorporate some of the information you wrote about salt mining in Ethiopia for his project. I would like to know if you would be willing to send us a few of the photos you took, so he can show them as part of his project presentation. He especially loves the black and white photo you have of the camel train at the beginning of your article. You can e-mail me at masnieve@hotmail.com and I can send you my address. It would be great to have the photos soon as his presentation will be on November 9th. I just started the project a few days ago. Thank you so much, Blessings, Christine

  4. Adam August 19, 2018 at 22:52 #

    Hello I need salt urgent 100 containers to Mozambique please give me your contact and cotation

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