The Green Famine of Southern Ethiopia: Myth or Real? – Tegga Lendado, PhD.

February 26th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

This article is dedicated to the victims of the recent drought, disease, malnutrition, famine, and others who are facing premature death in Southern Ethiopia. The purpose is to induce rational, religious and humanitarian response with its readers. From the outset, I beg that it should not be construed as a sectarian or political motivation. My intention is to inform readers to pray intelligently, donors to give responsibly and the government to engage pro-actively. It short, it is a call for environmental justice. Let it be clear that I am presenting these brute but humble thoughts as a concerned moral agent, simple-minded thinker and an international development professional as well as an environmental advocate. The article is based on brief observations and discussions with concerned individuals to whom I am grateful.

Southwestern Ethiopia used to boast of its green vegetation. Just over a century ago, 40% of the land was covered by forest. When Emperor Haile Sellasie reigned in 1930, the forest had dwindled to 10%. By the time he was deposed in 1974, it had reduced to 4%. With advent of Dirgue’s public ownership policy of the rural land, the peasants recklessly abused state forests. In 1978, the estimated amount of the forested land mass was only 3%. The current estimate is only 2%.

With desertification effect of the Sahara Desert, commonly called the Sahel and other major factors such as deforestation, Ethiopia’s climate has changed to more arid and hotter, only varied by the higher altitudes and the Danakil depression served by the monsoon wind and precipitation. The moisture content of the hot air of the bright and scorching sunlight is so thin that an elderly person may experience shortness of breath in the highlands. The heat wave may seem unbearable in the lowlands as well. The eco-system has been adversely affected due to continuous neglect and abuse of forest conservation, development and management. Apart from the recent millennium tree-panting effort, apparently there have not been any major forestry development projects in the last two decades in the region. Contrarily, hundreds of acres have been arbitrarily cleared for farming in Gamo and Kaffa. Wild fires in Bale and Arsi Zones had irreplaceably damaged sizeable natural forests in recent years.

There are also other factors that contribute to un-productivity of the farmland including over-population, over-grazing, soil degradation due to erosion and over-utilization, wild wind, improper application of commercial fertilizers, lack of land use policy such as propagating and maintaining traditional peasantry as a way of life for the rural population, in lieu of modern and mechanized farming, urbanization and industrialization. Peasantry, with its primitive means of production such as hand tools and animal traction does not permit the weak peasant to produce more than s/he or the family consumes. Except in Gamo area, terracing and irrigation are hardly known in the region. For years people have depended only on seasonal rain alone. With all these shortcomings, it is simply absurd and unethical to expect the undernourished poor peasant to produce surplus. Communal labor-intensive cultivation like the debo system used to be very effective in the past when land was plenty and powerful oxen were readily available. But now family holdings have diminished and the number of oxen per household is 0.45, according to my small short-lived sampling for estimates in Wolayita, Sidama and Kembata areas a few months ago.

Thus, recurrent drought and famine are attributed to such phenomenon as deforestation, topsoil depletion, excessive grazing, etc. Scanty and erratic rainfall is also to blame. Fast growing vegetation can mislead a tourist’s eye but not so with a native observer. Bushes may bud and the grass may grow for a short while and everything around the peasant’s garden may look green. The peasant may plant traditional crops only to harvest unripe and inconsumable products. Such was the case in Southern Ethiopia when I had visited Wolayita and Kambata in early 1992. The land was lash grassy and the plants on the fields were strikingly green. The soil was moist and muddy. But the peasants were skinny and weak. The kids had bulgy belly and blurring eyes denoting signs of malnutrition or undernourishment. One could be misled to conclude that those peasants were lazy and unproductive.

In the 1970s, the student-led revolution had “land for the tiller” as a motto. I never advocated for it then and would never do now. For the most part, the tiller was the poor peasant. Of course, I could agree on allotment of land to the few landless serfs who deserved the ownership of occupied by absentee owners. The government seems to be stuck with the communistic “land-for-the-tiller-revolution” even if communism had long proved unproductive in the era of mixed or so-called free-market economy. In Federal Democratic Ethiopia, all land is public property such that all peasants may occupy, but not own it. Peasants possess only primitive and rudimentary means of production. The little holding of the peasants are shared with their adult children through the years such that little is left to produce any thing substantial. This vicious circle is conspicuous in densely populated areas like Guraguae, Kembata, Wolayita, Timbaro, etc. Amazing techniques of mountain tilling is observed in Kembata alone. What admirable and courageous peasantry! But, we must note that the people are in the brink of famine and disease prone. Can someone “bail out” these populations before they totally collapse In light of the multifaceted chronic and recurrent problems, what should be done?

Famine is the worst form suffering leading to slow death. A couple of shoeshine boys told me, “We prefer to go to the warfront rather than dying the slow death here”. Traditionally, southern Ethiopians produced surplus food. They were content with their life and did not opt for nomadic or migrant life. Other people come from elsewhere and settle among them enjoying the kind hospitality. Interestingly, the new comers excel their hosts bringing freshness and vitality but sharing the little resource the hosts have. Such social intercourse was being promoted in the south to the extent that, whenever and wherever there was famine in other parts of the county, subsequent governments used to resettle the affected populations in regions such as Gamo, Keffa, Wolayita, Bale Arsi, Gofa, etc. This created some pressure on the peasants as the new comers scrambled for the scarce resources. Thus, famine became another misery the people had to share. In reality, the outcome of socialist Ethiopia (1974-1991) was simply a shared life of poverty and all the curses attached to it.

In Halaba, and Northeastern Hadiya areas, along the Shashemanae-Soddo Highway, the landslide is scary. Apart from the erosion of the topsoil, the ground cracks leaving crevices of about 2-3 meters wide, 4 meters deep and hundreds of meters long. The same phenomenon is observed near Lake Abaya and other Rift Valley depressions. A thorough integrated study may be needed to alleviate the condition.

Let us not forget blaming apathy and ignorance in our brief analysis of the green famine. Drought-resistant tuber crops such as enset, boyna, boye, sweet potatoes, cassava, etc., are not popular in some part of the south. Recently, I visited a farm in Tikur Wuha area of Awassa town. I spotted three species of sweet potatoes. I asked a female Guragae farmer where she got them. She told me her husband brought them from Wolayita Zone. She introduced them for the first time to her neighbors. Soon many peasants started planting that species of sweet potatoes in Sidama district.

Generally, Ethiopians do not consume much tuba crops, fruits and vegetable except for the people of the enset culture. Some vegetables take little time to grow and less effort to cultivate; yet, multitudes of peasant do not seem to know that. So, a concerted dietary education needs to be offered to the public to diversify consumption habits.

Peasantry and farming are two similar careers of rural life. A peasant is a small holder who produces for his/her family’s subsistence. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food for commercial consumption in large quantity and better quality. Apparently, we do not have peasants in USA. Here, only less than 4% of the population is engaged in commercial/industrial farming. These farmers are the ones that produce surplus for the local and international markets. They use machineries and implements, skilled labor, improved variety of seeds, scientifically and technologically advanced mechanisms, techniques and systems of input and output. Farmers own or lease a large piece of land for commercial and industrial farming employing sophisticated machinery and equipment. Ethiopian peasants do not merit the name “farmers” because they do not have all those qualities the name is attached with. However, all the rural population in Ethiopia, 85% has traditionally been called “farmer”. In the last four decades, Ethiopian peasants have been unable to feed themselves, let alone producing surplus for urban consumption.

Cash crops such as sisal, sugar cane, cotton, coffee, flower, tea, nuts, eucalyptus, tea, etc., have discouraged the production of staple foods. Some staple products such as teff, sorgham, barley, and corn are now becoming cash crops that the peasant may not afford to use for his family’s consumption. During Janhoy’s time the hundreds of acres of land along the Shashemane Awassa High Way was allotted to sisal production. Wonji and Matahara sugar plantations have occupied massive land. Dergue cleared Bebeka area in Kaffa for coffee and tea plantation. The current government introduced flower production en masse to attract foreign investment. Apart from competing and interfering with cereal production it has yielded millions of foreign currency income. However, given the fact that it may lead to soil degradation, which leads to low productivity, it might be advisable to moderate or alternate such production. Besides, would it not be wise for Ethiopia to be food self-sufficient before venturing to flower production in this persistently sluggish global economy?

Cited Problems and Pro-active Solutions

1. Environmental Justice: Climatic change associated with global warming (due to industrial pollution) and poverty (due mainly to resource misappropriation, unscrupulous exploitation, mismanagement or corruption seem to be major global problems, necessitating global attention) mineral depletion, forest decimation, wildlife exploitation, soil and water resource degradation, etc., (need regional planning). Nations that are victims of global pollution should be recompensed for the loss of life. On the contrary, nations that do not pollute the environment should be rewarded, if globalization is to be real and fair. Western industrial nations and other emerging economic powers including China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Australia, New, Zealand, etc., should eliminate or radically reduce pollutant technologies for the welfare of the “global village”.

2. Population Explosion: Cultural and moral education/legislation to check irresponsible and immoral childbearing and rearing; health care and life-skills education, motivational education, etc. For example, it is immoral to produce children only to pass the responsibility to adoptive parents, agencies or public institutions. Forced under-age marriage, uncontrolled libido (distribution of plastics to kids as a way of HIV prevention and prostitution as a cope-out way of life, etc.).

3. Land Policy: The peasant should not be held hostage of his/her small unproductive land. Capable peasants should be allowed to purchase properties, develop their holding, sell and resell their land so that there is transfer or exchange of wealth. Most monetary systems such as insurances and banks base land as real asset. Peasantry should be replaced by industrial urbanization so that proper land use planning could be executed. Land for food production, cattle grazing, industrial site, forestry and wildlife reserve and development, etc. should be allocated for voluntary tillers.

4. Mode and Means of Production: Peasantry and farming should be clearly distinguished so that proper attention should be given to the rural communities such as subsidized communal farming, industrial development, cottage industrial development and structured private production of cash crops and staple foods.

5. Paradigm Shift: As such, I do believe, agriculture should be industry-led, not the other way round, for Ethiopians to “starve-no-more”. Mass production and food preservation mechanisms such as refrigeration technology, food processing, proper food handling and delivery schemes, etc, would reduce famine and dispel the stigma of starvation from Ethiopia. For this to happen, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the minds of national and regional political leadership.

6. Kind of Production: Cash crops such as sisal, sugar cane, cotton, coffee, flower, tea, nuts, eucalyptus, etc., have discouraged the production of staple foods. Some staple products such as teff and corn are now becoming cash crops that peasant may not afford to use his family’s consumption. During Janhoy’s time the hundreds of acres of land along the Shashemane Awassa Highway were allotted to sisal production. Wonji and Matahara sugar plantations have occupied massive land. Dergue cleared the natural rain forest in Bebeka, Kaffa for coffee and tea plantation. The current government introduced flower production en masse in the heartland near Modjo to generate the much needed foreign currency. Unfortunately, all the three governments seem to have been driven by such short-term goals without giving due consideration to the vulnerability of the environment. The flower production is competing with cereal production despite the fact that it is yielding millions of foreign currency. It should be noted that soil degradation leading to low productivity might be caused by such cash crops besides de-incentivizing the poor peasant, thereby further reducing national food sufficiency. I suggest that food production take priority over cash crops in view of food security of the country.

7. The myth that southern Ethiopia is the breadbasket of Ethiopia should now be dispelled and proper attention should be given to the region’s relapsing food shortage due to unreliable rainfall. Proper regional planning should take into consideration utilizing the major rivers and lakes such as the Omo, Bilate, Abaya, etc.

8. Centralization of Industrial Sites: Many industries have been established in Addis Ababa and its vicinity in the last decades. The rural towns such as Arba Minch, Dilla and Soddo are over-populated with able-bodied and educated youngsters looking for employment. Light and heavy industries should be relocated and/or started in those rural towns in view of diversifying the economy and check undue urbanization.


For the sake shortening the article, let me quickly move on to my concluding remarks. We can endlessly blame the governors, the people, the facilitators, NGOs and the victims. Certainly, we have done that many times and for too long. The time has now come for the silent intelligentsia, the withdrawn Diaspora and the subdued professionals to take responsible actions and play practical roles according to the dictates of their hearts and minds. It is easy to be part of the problem by blaming others or staying aloof forever.

The Ethiopian Diaspora and other concerned entities can get involved with the local governments or non-governmental organizations (if there are any remaining in the country, owing to the perceived ordeal of the recent regulation) working in southern Ethiopia at the following levels.

Relief: Governmental, non-governmental, humanitarian, ecclesiastical, religious, non-religious, domestic or expatriate entities should collaborate in the effort of saving life. Individual donors should give whatever resource to avert famine, be it financial support, imperishable food, means of transportation, medicine, clothing, etc. Contacting persons or organizations engaged in the effort would reveal the need of the time.

Rehabilitation: Once the relief work is done, rehabilitating takes over. Without interrupting the relief effort, rehabilitating the victim can take place in light of extending to his/her short-term person-centered resettlement goals. This may involve recuperation of lost items, namely housing, health care, rationed food and other essentials, etc. to the point where the person can take care of himself/herself.

Development: If the person were rehabilitated well, he/she would want to think of his/her long-term goals. Thinking along with the person, one may provide him the necessary tools, implements, seeds and techniques. Specialized agencies may give micro-loans, etc to transform the sustenance of the victim. A benevolent giver may sponsor a family or a child through established humanitarian agencies engaged in the affected areas.

Tegga Lendado, PhD., a development consultant based in Atlanta, USA, is a former Director of Forestry for the Central Region, Ethiopia and worked as Forestry Engineer for the UNDP/FAO and others in Southern Africa. He can be reached at

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