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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 March, 2005, 09:39 GMT
Ethiopians move for food security

By Adam Mynott
BBC East Africa correspondent

Ethiopians ploughing land by hand
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi says resettlement is the only option
Life on the Ethiopian highlands in Tigray province is nasty, brutish and short.

Some 95% of people live on the land, eking out a living on thin, rocky soil that has been over-farmed and yields barely a subsistence existence.

The same is true of other highland areas of Ethiopia, on the central mountainous plateau.

Life expectancy is just 40 years. Even in relatively good times, when rainfall climbs above average, between five and seven million people need food aid to avoid starvation.

Against this background, the Ethiopian government has decided to move 2.2 million people off these barren, arid lands to more fertile lowland areas.

Resettlement has a dubious history in Ethiopia. Under the Derg, the military junta which deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, tens of thousands of people were forcibly moved. Many died and many fled the country.

But the government of Meles Zenawi, some of whose members fought to topple the Derg in 1991, see resettlement as one vital component in efforts to give Ethiopia food security.

Hadguy Mirutz
Hadguy Mirutz travelled hundreds of miles for a fertile plot of land
Hadguy Mirutz has decided to abandon his plot of dusty land near Mekele in Tigray. He has volunteered to move hundreds of miles to a new home where he has been told he will get two hectares of rich, fertile soil. He is leaving his wife and four children behind, but they hope to join him in a year.

"I am very excited and very optimistic," says Mr Mirutz as he clambered aboard a bus, one of convoy of 16 taking a thousand people off to a new start. "I know people who have been on a similar programme - relatives and friends who left last year - and they told me the land is fertile. I believe them."

Donor concerns

But many in the donor community in Ethiopia are very sceptical about the resettlement programme. They see it as ill-planned, poorly executed and fraught with difficulties.

Many of the resettlement areas have serious health problems. Malaria is rife, and in some places in the first two years of the programme livestock mortality has been high. There are also claims that pressure is being applied on farmers to resettle.

One aid agency worker, who asked not to be named, said some farmers have been told they will only get food relief if they move.

Despite appeals from the Ethiopian government, international donors have refused to directly contribute to the resettlement policy. However, few are prepared to air their concerns in any but the mildest terms.

This is a programme that the Ethiopian government is committed to and public, critical statements have got members of some donor agencies and NGOs into hot water.

Resettlement convoy
The resettlement convoy leaving Mekele
Prime Minister Zenawi says there is no time to wait. People's lives are at stake and unless action is taken the problems of food insecurity will become more severe. He is a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.

At the most recent meeting in London, Mr Zenawi told the commission that the government had no option. "We could either see our people die or do something about it," he said. "Our partners have the option of waiting and seeing before they jump, and I hope they jump now that they've see that whatever difficulties we have in implementation, it is a workable programme and it works very well."


After three days rattling along in the bus, Mr Mirutz has arrived at his new home. He is greeted by some friends from his village who moved a year ago. He is encouraged to hear that their first 12 months have been relatively successful.

Yields from the land near Humera close to the border with Sudan and Eritrea are high. There is a clinic in the village and the handful who contracted malaria have been quickly treated and cured.

He is taken to his plot of two hectares. It is huge compared with the land he left behind near Mekele. He crumbles the rich, black earth in his fingers. "This is virgin soil - ready for farming. I am overwhelmed to be here."


Hadguy Mirutz was overwhelmed by his new, fertile plot of land
Tigray has been described as the "Rolls Royce" of resettlement programmes. In Oromiya, Amhara and other provinces, there are problems. There is inadequate land (many farmers don't get anywhere near two hectares). Access to water is difficult and the roads in some places are very poor.

The Commission for Africa, whose report will be published on 11 March, 2005, has the lofty and laudable ambition of trying to find new ways of addressing the continent's multiplicity of problems. Mr Blair said it will be "brutally frank about the reality". But, he also said he hoped it would be "idealistic about what can be done if the will is there".

The will is there in Ethiopia to tackle its chronic food shortages. Resettlement in Ethiopia is an African solution which is not endorsed by the donors. This highlights one of the dilemmas facing the commission: finding the rights answers to Africa's difficulties, while at the same time empowering African countries to help themselves.

Adam Mynott's film was broadcast by Newsnight on 3 March, 2005.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the link on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

Ethiopians 'rely on food imports'
03 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Ethiopia
13 Feb 04 |  Country profiles


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