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The Politics of Famine in Ethiopia

Last October, Americans became aware of the tragedy taking place in Ethiopia and responded with the largest outpouring of humanitarian assistance in memory. Relief agencies attempted to supply food and assistance to famine victims as quickly as possible; everyone assumed that the famine was the result of a drought - a "natural" disaster. Soon, however, because of difficulties in getting food to many famine victims, agencies began to question whether this famine was totally nature-made. The results of Cultural Survival's research in early 1985, the first systematic research on the causes of famine in Ethiopia, however, confirms that famine is not merely a result of the lack of rainfall. Moreover, programs implemented by the Ethiopian government assure that famine will continue in regions for another year and will spread to additional areas which have had abundant rainfall.

Cultural Survival conducted a survey with 250 famine victims living in the Sudan. Some had entered eastern Sudan directly from their homes in Tigre, the area most severely affected by famine. Others had been forcibly resettled in the south by the government and later fled as refugees to the Sudan. A third group of refugees had fled when their homes in the southwest were taken by the government for its resettlement program.

Causes of Famine in the North

Interviews conducted with randomly selected famine victims from Tigre in eastern Sudan indicate that insects, drought and Ethiopian military policies were the three leading causes of declines in agricultural production. Most of those interviewed stated that army worms were the main reason for crop failure.

Army worms can destroy a crop overnight, but the long-term stripping of the region's productive assets by the Ethiopian military was no less debilitating. Ninety-five percent of the famine victims who fled to the Sudan before the end of 1984 reported that in their villages the Ethiopian army had burned crops in the fields and grain they had harvested. The army, they said, never stole the grain, it simply destroyed it.

More than one quarter of those interviewed reported that the army had stolen their farm equipment - ploughs, seed bags, leather straps and tools. When asked about the relationship of the activities of the army to agricultural production, one man recalled that in 1984, soldiers had come to his village, chopped up two ploughs, made a fire and then cooked an ox they had taken from a neighbor.

Even though virtually all of the Tigrean refugees in Sudan are from liberated areas, the army is able to penetrate most of these regions, destroy property and exact tribute. A third of those interviewed had been forced to pay taxes and make contributions to the government.

Government feeding centers in the north, famine victims claim, are used as bait, to control people and make them dependent on food handouts. The ultimate goal of the government, they insist, is to use food to convert the agricultural production system in the north from one based on individual peasant producers to one based on state, collectivized farming.

The Resettlement Program

The cornerstone of the government's program to alleviate the famine is its "voluntary" resettlement program which is intended to move famine victims from overpopulated, infertile areas in the north to fertile, "unsettled" areas in the south.

Yet not one person interviewed who had fled the resettlement areas had gone there voluntarily. While initially there were some volunteers, they were a minority and many of them reportedly regretted their decision even before the move had been completed.

The majority of those interviewed who had fled the resettlement camps claimed that they had not personally been hard hit by the famine. On average, those from Tigre who were interviewed claimed that they had produced 80% of their subsistence, cereal needs in 1984. In addition, on average, these "famine" victims had had more than 22 head of livestock at the time of their resettlement. One man said he was taken by the army while he was selling mangoes he had grown on his irrigated farm; another claimed to have been taken from his farm while he was threshing grain.

Everyone insisted that they had been separated from members of their family by the move. Men were taken without their families, pregnant women without their husbands and mothers without their young babies.

The trip to the south was grueling. Water and food were distributed only once a day if at all. Vehicles were packed and many people died en route. The seats of the airplanes were removed so that 350-400 people could make the trip; people were prodded with sticks so that more could be loaded. Children had to be held above adults' heads during takeoff and landing to avoid being crushed.

Contrary to the government's written descriptions of the camps, individuals were not given their own land to cultivate. The camps, according to the refugees, are organized to produce communally.

The agency responsible for the resettlement program, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), has not budgeted any money for the resettlement of the 300,000 people already moved or the 1.2 million people to be moved before the end of the year. To date, the financing for the move has come from three sources. The Soviet Union has provided transport, the residents of the "uninhabited" areas of resettlement have been forced to provide assistance for their new neighbors, and the international community is providing humanitarian assistance to feed the colonists.

The Creation of Famine in the South

For the Oromo, the largest ethnic group living in the southwest, resettlement is the final blow to a population whose ability to produce has steadily deteriorated over the past decade as a direct result of government policies. As a result of land reform, the Oromo have lost the lands they traditionally cultivated. The crops they now produce on communal plots are destined for urban markets. Their taxes double each year and they are required to make even larger voluntary contributions in cash or in kind to a number of government programs. They are required to attend political meetings or literacy classes when they should be planting or harvesting. If they miss meetings or fail to pay taxes or voluntary contributions they are put in jail.

During the peak of the agricultural cycle, they must spend as many as four to five days per week farming collective plots. Their own food comes from what they can grow on their small private plots with the two or three days they have free each week. If, as a result of communal labor requirements, attendance at required meetings or being in jail, production on their individual plots is low, they can lose the land for not using it effectively. Over the past five years, production has declined by more than two-thirds while taxes more than doubled.

The program to resettle people from Tigre, Wollo and most recently Eritrea was introduced into this context. In 1984 government officials selected prize coffee regions and well watered, fertile lands to be allocated to settlers from the north. Local residents were told to move in with relatives, clear new lands or leave the area.

Oromo residents from the resettlement areas reported that they have been required to give assistance to the colonists. They have, they insist, been forced to pay three years of taxes in advance as well as three years of fees in organizations for which membership is mandatory. Because the RRC has no money to provide even the most basic necessities for the colonists, Oromo have been required to provide houses, pots and pans, chairs, tables, tools and oxen. Oromo were often forced to sell any assets, including their remaining oxen or the seeds needed to plant next year's crops, in order to meet the demands of the government.

Oromo refugees report that there is no longer any food in the resettlement areas of the southwest. The government, they say, has created a famine where only last year rainfall and harvests were abundant.

Politics and Famine Assistance

The evidence suggests that the Ethiopian government played a significant role in the creation, maintenance and expansion of the present famine. The famine is being used by the government to undermine the traditional agricultural production systems in the north and the southwest, thereby destroying the social cohesion of ethnic groups in both areas. The dependence on the state that the government is attempting to create is only possible so long as international food assistance continues to be made available.

Assistance to the Ethiopian government has, as a result of the factors which led to the famine, a wide range of political implications. Yet, in the Horn, humanitarian agencies have been reluctant to examine the causes of the famine. As a result, they do not know whether their programs alleviate or exacerbate the conditions that produce hunger in the region. In light of the new information on the causes of famine in Ethiopia, however, agencies working through the government should insist upon access to the affected areas, and the right to collect the information required to assess the impact of their assistance.

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