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Newsday (New York) December 15, 2004

Ethiopia's plan to rapidly move millions to fertile ground to avoid starvation could harm more than it will help; An unsettling resettlement

By Samson Mulugeta

METEMA, Ethiopia - In the closing chapter of his life, 63-year-old Abba Chané has arrived in this broiling, malaria-infested corner of northwest Ethiopia, far from his home in the Wello region of this nation's famine belt.

His wife refused to abandon her ancestral home so, a few months ago, Abba Chané packed his plough and seeds and struck out alone for this unfamiliar land near the Sudan border, where the terrain is more fertile but illness and heat are constants.

"This land is alien to us, but I was desperate," said Abba Chané, the regal, copper-skinned, unofficial leader of his new village, Kumar Sefer. He rubbed a day's stubble with a callused hand and waved at the scrubland where he grows cotton and sesame seeds. "We hate the heat, and the malaria is killing us. But we can feed ourselves here."

To prove his point, he invited his visitors into his tiny but tidy mud hut and offered them injera, a pancake-like staple here. Abba Chané and others like him are the Ethiopian government's answer to the unending cycle of drought and famine that has made this Horn of Africa nation the poster-child case of Third World misery.

In the 1984-85 famine, during which about a million people perished, the country's population was 30 million. Today it is 70 million, and 5 million are chronically on the edge of starvation. Land was nationalized in the 1970s by the former socialist-leaning military regime and peasants like Abba Chané were given small plots.

Twenty years later, land in his highland home region is farmed to the bone and an exploding population has prompted its owners to subdivide it into small plots. Abba Chané left his degraded plot back in Wello for his seven children.

Fear of the famine

Last year, the number of Ethiopians facing famine ballooned to a staggering 14 million, rattling the government and Western donors who foot two-thirds of the country's $2.6-billion annual budget. The scare prompted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a silver-tongued policy wonk and darling of the World Bank and other foreign donors, to embark on a policy of resettlement that would have been unthinkable when he took power 13 years ago. He decided that, if millions of highland Ethiopians could not feed themselves year after year, his government would truck them to less-crowded, more-fertile land.

The plan, which would resettle 2.2 million people over five years, would be one of the largest voluntary movements of people in recent African history. So far, about 350,000 have been relocated.

But aid organizations warn that, in its rush to solve an embarrassing problem, the government is risking the lives of thousands of desperately poor peasants. Thousands could die from diseases and malnutrition, they warn, if Ethiopia does not scale back its plan.

That the current government has latched on to the resettlement scheme to solve the drought problem is a shock to many people familiar with this country's history.

The people who overthrew the previous military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam 20 years ago were ardent enemies of his similar resettlement plan. Those people - including Prime Minister Meles - are now policymakers.

"The fact they are resorting to resettlement when they were so opposed to it under Mengistu shows you how desperate the situation is," said Tamrat Gebre Giorgis, editor of Addis Fortune, a business weekly. "But they will tell you their resettlement plan is different."

Debating 'voluntary' plan

The key difference, according to government spokesman Bereket Simon, is that this program is voluntary, while Mengistu's plan forced peasants to move without their consent. Simon also said in an interview that people now are being moved within their own language and ethnic groupings to avoid the violence that flared during Mengistu's cross-regional resettlement.

But nongovernmental organizations question whether the resettlement is truly voluntary. They claim peasants are being lured by illusory promises of better schools, clinics and roads at their new homes.

One major way the government is turning on the screws is by preventing foreign aid organizations from distributing food in the drought-prone northern highlands, aid workers said. According to one aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, in one location the government had decided only 6,000 people of 23,000 who normally receive aid would be given food aid.

"They are saying to these people, 'If you don't want to move, you can stay and starve,'" the worker said. "All our staff are fairly traumatized. We've got the food in the pipeline but we can't give it out because the government won't let us. These are people living on the edge. It won't take too much to push them over."

The government says this type of dependency on foreign aid is exactly the system that it wants to break.

Simon, the minister of information and government spokesman, said that last year, when so many faced famine, was a turning point for his government.

"That was quite extraordinary and alarming," he said. "Four million faced starvation when we got here [11 years ago]. Last year, it was 14 million. Something had to be done." Simon belonged to a rebel movement born in the northern province of Tigre that drove Mengistu's regime from power in May 1991.

Since the early 1970s, the ragtag band that carried the banner of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front had evolved into a disciplined force that crushed Mengistu's army, then black Africa's largest. During the years in the bush, the TPLF was not only preparing militarily. The current prime minister, Meles was holed up in highlands caves in the 1970s and '80s, watching BBC documentaries on video, reading the great books and earning a master's degree by correspondence from London's Open University to prepare him for his future role.

The government's willingness to admit its agricultural policy needed some change "was a burst of rare honesty," said Michelle Phillips of the World Bank office in Addis Ababa, the capital. "They came to us and said we really need your help to get to the bottom of this. But they were going to do the resettlement, and put up their own money, whether we were on board or not."

Simon said that after the 2003 crisis was averted with massive foreign food aid, government officials had fanned out through the country to consult peasant associations on the resettlement idea. The response from the rural residents was a resounding no, Simon said. "Then we told them, 'Well, next time the rains fail we're not going to go around the world begging for you,' and they said, 'Yes, you must. It's the government's responsibility.'"

When drought arrived in the next planting season, thousands of farmers were ready to reconsider resettlement, Simon said. The plan, because of its checkered history under Mengistu, has received only lukewarm support from foreign donor agencies that are such big players here.

Lyle Bastin, deputy head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Addis Ababa, said foreign donors question the plan's price tag and worry that it might be a Band-aid solution. He said the country's population is growing by 2 million a year and resettlement may be futile. It is established fact that the richer a country, the lower its fertility rate. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has one of the fastest rates of population growth, ranking third in Africa behind Nigeria and Egypt. By 2020, its population is expected to rank 11th in the world. "Some liken it to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Bastin said. "Resettlement has been tried in many places in the world and rarely worked. So good luck, Ethiopia."

Just one part of the plan

The government says the resettlement plan is just one part of its multipronged approach to addressing chronic food shortages. It also has launched a welfare program called Safety Net, intended to provide basic sustenance to the poorest of the poor through a work-for-food program, Simon said.

Extensive road building intended to help move food and goods across the country is also under way. And efforts have begun to boost productivity of the land by using fertilizers, composting, better seeds and water conservation efforts, Simon said.

The people who now lead Ethiopia are described by foreigners with regular dealings with the government as some of the brightest and engaged administrators in Africa. The core group of leaders are former leftist university students who have now become adherents of free-trade policies and capitalism.

They carried their Kalashnikovs into the northern highlands and worked for nearly a decade to verbally persuade the peasants to become allies against the Mengistu regime.

Now, even as Meles and his coterie follow the lead of London and Washington, they still cling to their socialist roots, such as refusing to privatize land ownership. They say their policy has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with making sure city slickers don't dispossess rural people by flashing a few hundred dollars once farmers became landowners.

They say Ethiopian cities are not crowded with slum dwellers from the countryside because farmers are now afraid to leave their land for fear of losing it. The government says it supports urbanization but favors a slow process that gradually integrates affluent farmers into urban areas. Critics say the government uses its hold on land so it can squeeze peasants to vote for the TPLF-led ruling party.

Upcoming elections

The next elections are scheduled for May. While few question the government's intentions to tackle hunger, they question its methods. One Western academic called Meles "a conductor in front of musicians who can't play."

"The only ones who believe in him are the ferengis," he said, using the Amharic word for foreigners. "These guys are proto-Communists who think the solution for everything is a five-year-plan and a Great Leap Forward. It's on with the campaign and damn the consequences. You can't drive people like cattle."

While the debate rages, Abba Chané, the elderly farmer, gets on with his life. He is a hardy survivor and says he plans to stick it out with his new life. Of the 250 people who left his village in the highlands, 75 remain at their new homesteads. Most of the others returned home, while a handful died of malaria and other diseases, he said.

With a bumper harvest of cotton and sesame this planting season, Abba Chané hopes to earn enough cash to buy his own oxen for next season. One sign of his determination to stay is his new partner, a widow who has come to his side and spends her days picking cotton and fetching water.

"It was not easy leaving the church I helped build and the place where my parents raised me in a respected family," he said. "But who knows? Maybe we will build our own church here one day."

A humanitarian crisis

Insufficient rainfall over the past two decades has crippled crop production in Ethiopia and created a starvation crisis that potentially ranks among the world's worst ever.

What's happening

1. Ethiopia has two main rainy seasons annually, a light one from March to May and a heavier one from July to September.

2. Below-average light rain seasons have left the country unable to replenish water resources and crippled its livestock grazing lands.

3. In addition, sporadic heavy rain seasons have left crop production vulnerable; current estimates have production levels down by 15 percent nationally and significantly higher in isolated areas.

4. Ethiopia has been left to rely on international relief to to feed most of its 70 million people.

Great famines

How Ethiopia's current food crisis compares with some of the modern world's greatest famines.

COUNTRY 	YEARS 			CAUSES 				DEATHS *
Ethiopia	2002-present 	Drought, war with Eritrea 		14.0
China		1959-61 	Drought, crop failures 			30.0
Soviet Union	1932-33 	Collectivization of peasant land 	7.0
Soviet Union	1921 		Drought, political upheaval 		5.1
India		1943 		Crop failure, political decisions 	3.0
North Korea	1995-present 	Lack of food production 		3.0
Bangladesh	1974 		Flooding 				1.5
Ireland		1845-49 	Potato crop failure 			1.5
Biafra		1967-69 	Civil war 				1.0
Ethiopia	1984-85 	Drought, civil war 			1.0

*(In millions, estimated)
2003 government estimates of potential fatalities.
NOTE: Data represent estimates of deaths from malnutrition only, not including those from diseases or war.

One man's journey

Abba Chané, 63, is one of 2.2 million Ethiopians to be resettled as the government attempts to combat the effects of the country's deadly famine.

Ethiopia's regions

Wello
Tigray
Gonder
Gojam
Welega
Ilubabor
Kefa
Gamo Gofa
Sidamo
Bale
Harerge
Arsi
Shewa

SOURCES: BBC, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH, WWW.GLOBALSECURITY.ORG, WWW.OVERPOPULATION.COM NEWSDAY / ROD EYER


Copyright © 2004 Newsday, Inc.