promises land with little promise
Monday, May 31, 2004
WOLLIN BULA, Ethiopia When Ethiopia's
government decided last year to relocate 2 million struggling farmers and save
them from the country's cycle of starvation, the desperate villagers here signed
up as pioneers in the effort. As they climbed aboard a truck headed for more
fertile land, they sang and danced in celebration.
Today all 47 from this lakeside village who went have given up their new plots.
All have returned home except a pregnant woman, who died on the way back. Now
they are lamenting their fate.
"I stayed two weeks there, but it was like years for me," Temiru Gemechu said of
the land where the government moved him and the other villagers, along with
300,000 others, in the lowlands of the Oromia region, near the border with
Sudan. He and others who rejected their new plots complained of everything from
malarial mosquitoes to too little drinking water.
government is struggling to salvage the $217 million plan, which has dashed the
dreams and endangered the lives of many of those it was intended to assist. The
United Nations and donor governments were skeptical from the start but are now
being asked to help save tens of thousands of settlers who have been stalked by
hunger and disease even in their new homes, or who have abandoned those homes to
return to their land, worse off than before.
The problems the government has encountered underline the tremendous
has faced in trying to solve a lingering food crisis that is worse some years
than others but never goes away.
Agreement is widespread that Ethiopia's farmers are too concentrated on tiny
plots that even in the best of times barely produce enough for them to eat. When
the rains do not fall, a regular situation here, a result is mass starvation.
Last year, 13 million people were at risk of dying of starvation. This year, the
rains were better, and the number of people at risk has dropped to a still
alarming 7 million.
In this situation, desperate farmers have been migrating on their own within
Ethiopia for decades in search of more fertile land. The government says such
unorganized movement has caused more problems than it has solved.
So the government came up with a plan to move 2.2 million people, in three to
five years, generally from crowded highlands to rainier lowlands. The idea makes
some sense, but critics are questioning how it is being carried out.
Dessalegn Rahmato, director of a local research institute, Forum for Social
Studies, said the extensive government plan was proceeding too quickly and with
too little planning for so ambitious a project, repeating the calamitous
mistakes of previous resettlement programs.
woes have no one answer. Economic development is considered the key to improving
the lives of poor Ethiopians. Improved farming methods also are important, and
the country's rapid population growth is causing more congestion.
To act, the government has begun rolling out trucks and buses, and loading them
with willing farmers.
Most of the farmers relocated so far in the latest effort were moved to land
within Oromia, an area hard hit by previous droughts but with pockets of
relative prosperity. But things have not gone well.
The United Nations was recently forced to start a relief effort in the region to
prevent those who had moved there from starving in their new homes.
The World Food Program has begun food deliveries to the settlers in Oromia,
supplementing government rations. Unicef is distributing medicine and mosquito
"There could have been significant levels of mortality and morbidity, and we may
still have that," said Paul Hebert, who leads the UN Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia.
Already, some settlers have died. Thirty children were reported dead in one area
of Oromia, and Doctors Without Borders has found 40 cases of kala azar, a rare
and potentially fatal disease caused by the sand fly, in two resettlement sites
in North Gonder.
In other resettlement areas, people are staying put, but they are in such dire
shape that aid workers are providing emergency assistance to keep them alive.
It is in areas where regional authorities have moved more slowly and
methodically, as in the northern Tigray region, that the settlers seem to be
taking root. But there thousands of people have been relocated instead of
hundreds of thousands.
When it comes to government-organized resettlement, Ethiopia has an ominous
history. In the mid-1980s, the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam
forced 600,000 people to leave their land. Some 33,000 of those settlers lost
their lives to disease, hunger and exhaustion, and thousands of families were
The effects of past resettlements can still be felt in many Ethiopian
communities. Ethnic conflicts between indigenous populations and settlers moved
onto their land continue, most notably in the tense Gambella region, in the
is a one-party state, and the current government is addressing the food crisis
directly, but in a way that allows it to remain in charge of food distribution.
It has also tempered the resettlement. No one is coerced to relocate, unlike in
Instead, the government likens the current campaign to the western migration of
American settlers in the 19th century.
To limit strife among Ethiopia's dozens of ethnicities, the government is
relocating settlers within the same region, although the distances are still
The government made plans to feed the newly arrived settlers for eight months to
help them start their new lives. Credit is available to help settlers buy oxen
for plowing and farm tools. The biggest lure, the government says, is that
settlers get nearly two hectares, or five acres, of land, which is as much as
four times the size of the plots some of them are leaving behind.
Government officials call the problems that the mass relocation has encountered
hiccups that should not derail the effort. "People are voting with their feet,"
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a recent interview with Reuters, citing the
large number of people who have opted to resettle.
In an assessment conducted last year by the World Bank, settlers from one town
complained that the authorities had misled them.
"Settlers from Arsi were told not to carry any household utensils, hand tools or
even clothing," the World Bank said. "They were promised that these would be
supplied to them at their destinations, along with keys to their new houses. Tap
water, health and school facilities were also promised to the new settlers. None
of this was true, and many settlers we spoke to felt deceived."
With such complaints, it is becoming difficult in some areas for the government
to find new recruits.
Some parts of the country are resettling only the men, leaving their wives and
children behind until the new land is cultivated. Aid organizations are
advocating that approach because it is the women and children whose health is
suffering the most. But aid workers also worry that Ethiopia's AIDS problem will
grow if men are sent away from their families for a year.
Temiru's wife did not want him to go. She sobbed as the truck left.
When he returned two weeks later, she hugged him and they agreed to stay put. "I
don't have much land here," he said. "But I'm going to work this land, and pray