The Lugbara plateau is extremely fertile, supporting, in its center, a population density of more than 80 to the square kilometer during the 1950s. The Lugbara are highly efficient peasant farmers, their staples being grains (traditionally millets and sorghums, now with some maize), root crops (traditionally sweet potatoes, now also cassava), and legumes of many kinds. With increasing dependence on cassava, the formerly highly nutritious diet of the Lugbara has been drastically worsened. Cash crops were encouraged during the colonial period, but, owing to edaphic and climatic factors and the long distance to the nearest markets for cash crops (some 800 kilometers to the south), few have been profitable. Groundnuts, sunflower, cotton, and tobacco have all been tried, only the latter two with success. The main export has been that of male labor to the Indian-owned sugar plantations and the African-owned farms of southern Uganda; about one-quarter of the men are absent at any one time. Until the Obote atrocities of the 1970s, the Lugbara peasant society could maintain its members on a level of nutrition and health that was at least equal to those of most Third World societies.
The Lugbara keep some livestock: cattle, goats, sheep, fowl, dogs, and cats; before the cattle epidemics of the 1980s, they had far greater herds. Cattle, goats, and sheep are not killed for consumption, but rather for ancestral sacrifices (although the meat is actually consumed by those attending); the sale of hides and skins earns valuable income.
Traditionally, local exchange of surplus foodstuffs was in the form of gifts between kin and barter with others. Small local weekly markets came into being during the 1920s, with the introduction of cash, maize (used for beer brewing), and consumer goods such as kerosene, cigarettes, and cloth. (As late as the 1950s, women wore only pubic leaves and beads, and elder men, animal skins.)
The division of labor is sharply defined. Men and women share agricultural tasks, the men opening the fields and the women doing most of the remaining work. Men hunt and herd cattle; women do the arduous and the time-consuming everyday domestic tasks. Formerly, men were responsible for the physical protection of their families and for waging feuds and war. Men hold formal authority over their kin, but older women informally exercise considerable domestic and lineage authority. Land is held by lineages, as land is traditionally not sold or rented. Women are allocated rights of use by their husbands' lineage elders.
The country is open, composed of countless small ridges with streams between them; the compounds and fields are set on the ridges. Houses, round and made of mud and wattle and thatch, are dispersed throughout the almost continuous fields. Few settlements today have more than three or four houses. A century ago compounds were large for defense, but colonial administration removed the threat of war and feud. A house is the dwelling place of one wife and her children. If she is the only wife, her husband also sleeps there. If a man has more than one wife, he moves from one house to another in turn. The house, and especially its hearth, is very much a female domain. A compound, of one or more women's houses, is typically surrounded by a euphorbia fence, often with a nearby cattle kraal; beyond lie fields. The fields vary in type: small gardens typically on the sites of earlier houses, home fields under permanent cultivation and often irrigated, and farther fields under shifting cultivation, the fallow used for grazing. Stretching out beyond the fields is untilled grazing land, and near the edges of the country are wide extents of bush and forest, used for hunting.