Modern life intrudes on Ethiopia’s ancient salt trade

By Chris Stein, AFP

LAKE ASALE, Ethiopia — Every morning, hundreds of men converge on a dry lakebed in a remote corner of Ethiopia, where they cleave the ground open with handaxes to extract salt, just as their fathers and grandfathers once did. They toil under the gaze of a caravan of camels who will carry their salt bricks to market, in a trek that historians estimate has gone on since the 6th century. But with the Ethiopian government opening the isolated northern region to investors and tourists by cutting new roads through surrounding mountains, the laborers, traders and caravan drivers that make up the industry say their traditional way of life could soon be lost.

“If it continues like this, it will stop our work,” miner Musa Idris said as he stood on the cracked earth that fringes Lake Asale, where the miners work amid temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius, making it one of the world’s hottest places. Salt mining was once so vital to the economy of the depression that the 7-kilogram chunks of salt Idris and his colleagues hack from the ground were used as currency. While the trade is still important, it is no longer the only game in town. Restaurants and hotels have sprung up in the area, also known as the Danakil depression, to cater to tourists who come from across the globe to visit the uniquely desolate landscape formed by the intersection of three tectonic plates. The region has also attracted foreign firms that want to mine potash and send it to Asia. The presence of salt in the area has not escaped the attention of mining companies. A handful of kilometers away from where Idris and his colleagues gather, an Ethiopian company has built a plant that sucks water from the lake into evaporation ponds, creating salt the miners say is of a better quality but costs more than the square blocks they mine from the lakebed.