Ethiopia faces a new food crisis – By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 5th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

AJEE, ETHIOPIA — They call it the green hunger.

Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain. Goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses — but the children are still dying. (more…)

AJEE, ETHIOPIA — They call it the green hunger.

Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain. Goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses — but the children are still dying.
“It’s strange to see hunger when everything is so green,” said Wariso Shete, 26, a southern Ethiopia farmer who recently buried his 3-year-old son. “But there is no food. The boy just starved.”

Once again, images of emaciated children are emerging from this Horn of Africa nation, rekindling memories of the 1984 famine that killed nearly 1 million people. This time Ethiopia has been grappling with a double whammy: drought in its traditional breadbasket and a global food crisis that has pushed prices sky high.

Although recent rains and an influx of humanitarian aid have experts cautiously predicting the crisis might be stabilizing in parts of the country, nearly 10 million people will need emergency aid to survive until the harvest in September.

Green hungers are just one oddity of Ethiopia’s long struggle to feed itself. The country, considered the water tower of East Africa because its highlands are the primary source of the Nile, suffers chronic drought. It is Africa’s second-largest corn producer, but requires hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid every year.

An exploding population is one cause. Others point to a socialist-leaning government that’s been slow to embrace market-based policies. And everyone agrees that international donors spend too little — less than 5% of all aid — on long-term development, such as irrigation.

In an interview, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi emphasized that the current crisis masks dramatic progress.

“This emergency is occurring in an environment of spectacular success in agriculture,” he said. “The vast majority of farmers have never had it so good.”

Agriculture production is growing by 10% a year, he said, and as recently as 2006, Ethiopia grew so much corn that it exported surplus to Sudan.

National pride might explain why the government initially seemed to downplay the drought, accusing the United Nations of exaggerating the number of malnourished children. Meles’ exasperation with those who portray Ethiopia as desperate and needy was evident.

“I’m telling those people to go to hell,” he said. “Ethiopians are not hapless. They are not helpless. We are making a real dent in poverty.”

One of the biggest problems is population growth. Ethiopia, with an estimated 80 million people, has doubled in size since the mid-1980s.

Simply put, the nation, in which 85% of people toil as small farmers, has reached a point where it can’t easily grow enough food to meet its needs. Although agricultural production has increased overall, it has declined per capita, according to the World Bank.

Even in a year without drought or crisis, one in 10 people rely on international food aid to survive. More than 400 children die every day from malnutrition. Ethiopia is one of the few African nations with its own factory for Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based paste used to remedy acute malnutrition.

“We have not moved far enough away from the poverty line for us to have enough cushion,” Meles said. “One unexpected weather event can push us over the precipice.”

Some praise Ethiopia’s government for its anti-poverty campaigns, which have reduced child mortality by 40%. New roads have fostered nationwide trade, helping stabilize agricultural markets. The government allocates about 17% of its budget to agricultural development, nearly three times as much as its neighbors.

But Ethiopia’s state-dominated economy is also blamed for the persistent food shortages. The government controls all major industries, and there is no private ownership of land.

Under pressure from Western donors, Meles, a onetime Marxist who preaches the free market, has opened the window to private enterprise, notably allowing private flower farms to export to Europe.

“They talk about free market, but you don’t see it,” said economist Befekadu Degefe, a government critic. “They see the private sector as a threat, as competition, so they try to eliminate it.”

In the agricultural sector, the government controls the distribution of fertilizer and, to a lesser extent, seeds; it sometimes restricts sales, as with a current export ban on cereals; and though farmers are free to grow what they want, 20,000 agricultural advisors keep close tabs, also functioning as tax collectors. “The government hand is still a little too heavy,” said Glenn Anders, USAID’s mission director in Ethiopia.

One of the government’s successes is the Safety Net, a welfare-for-work program in which more than 7 million chronically needy farmers receive cash or food in exchange for labor on new roads, mountain terraces or other public infrastructure. The proactive approach is cheaper than emergency aid, donors say.

“If the Safety Net were not there, this current crisis would have been much worse than it is,” said Viviane Van Steirteghem of UNICEF.

Ethiopia’s emergency food reserve was once seen as a model for the region. With a capacity of 400,000 metric tons of grains, the reserve could have handled the drought. But stocks dwindled over the last two years as the government released grains to ease inflation, now 40% annually.

Ethiopia’s mix of socialism and capitalism doesn’t always work, experts say.

In the 1990s, the government gave fertilizer and seeds to southern farmers, yielding a regional bumper crop. But without functioning, free markets, farmers couldn’t sell their surplus, so prices collapsed by 50% in the area.

“You can’t rely on the government,” said Telenti Kwati, 60, a farmer south of the capital, Addis Ababa. “Sometimes they give you something, then the next year they don’t.”

But farmer Mohammed Kedir, 23, dreams of the day when he can own a plot of land. Though the law allows farmers to pass the land they work to their children, Kedir said local officials nearly seized his family plot after his father’s death.

If he owned the land, he said, he might experiment with more-profitable crops.

“But if the government can take my land at any time,” he said, “what’s the point of trying so hard?”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

  1. KURI
    | #1

    Two Questions of Interest:

    1. I see no stravation in Tigrai as it usually did. I guess they passed the famine because they are in the GOLDEN ERA under their dear son. Meles ones said ‘ I am glad to be born amongst you”.

    2. Meles does concentrate on the progress of his native place. I guess the reason why he said. I quote “This emergency is occurring in an environment of spectacular success in agriculture,” he said. “The vast majority of farmers have never had it so good.”.
    Meles, the agricultural economist, only uttered this remark because he sees it from the angle and perspective of Tigrai development. Now the Tekeze Dam is coming to water the land they annexed from Gondar and undoubtedly flourish as others languish.

    3. We are seeing the famine looming at a time when the King of the Land is saying agriculture is progressing. Whom shall we believe. Satan in the Bible is called ” The father of all lies”. How about of Meles. Is he an Emp or what we call a replica of the Devil. I guess if Satan is to be asked I guess he will say he is not as good as lying as Meles. Meles is more fabric and by far superb than the devil of all devils.
    4. Socialism and land tenure system is a cancer in Ethiopia. Meles knows this from the heart of his hearts. It has been 36 years now and these in power do not listen what the farmer tells them or do not seem to visualize the output of socialism. Land to the Tiller means give the land to the Tiller and let him till it or use it to the extent of selling/transfering it. That is ownership. owernship is security and incentivize the Tiller. Whereas Woyanne copies from the Derg and controls the land because it wants to control the farmer ideologically and politically. This is Albanian Communism. The Author of this ideologue, the country of Albania, has withered it away and joined the free market and has become a member of the European Community. Look where Albania is now. Meles the wise man is upkeeping the dirt of Albania.

    Much can be said on this Famine and the cause is always man-made. To think and talk about it really sickens me. We are losing a lot of innocent children dying in hunger because of the arrogancy and work of Meles. The die hard will face justice. The days will come when his sect dines and the other languishes

  2. SAMSON _BARIA
    | #2

    KURI
    PPL LIKE YOU SHULD BE KILLD AND PUT YOU IN HELL AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. WHAT THE FUCK IS YOU PROBLAME WITH THE HARD WORKER PPL OF TIGRAY???
    OUR PPL CHANGE THE WAY OF THERE LIFE BY WORCKING HARD. NOT LIKE YOU BLACK ASS WOYTING WALFARE IN THE WESTERN COUNTRY. DEDEB IGNORANT AND YET YOU TRYING TO BE EDUCATED MAN KKK SHAME ON YOU FAT ASS. NOW GET OUT OF MY FACE
    DENGAY RAS YEDERG BUCHULA. GO AND CHANGE YOUR LIFE FIRST LOOSER. GET A WOMEN TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE AND RESPEACT YOUR WOMEN TO BE LOVED.
    POLETICS IS NOT FOR YOU YENEA KOROKENDA RASS.

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