The greening of Eritrea: famine unlikely to recur

ERITREA may never again experience the widespread starvation of a decade ago that killed an estimated 1 million people here and in neighboring Ethiopia, officials say.

An effective famine early-warning system, prompt donor response, efficient aid distribution at the local level, and generous summer rains helped to avert a hunger crisis in Eritrea this year.

But Eritrean success could extend beyond staving off famine. With the goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, the government is moving in several directions to rebuild the country: renovating the economy, rebuilding ruined infrastructure, encouraging a return to small-scale farming, and instituting a land-reform program.

``The possibility of success in this country is better than any I've worked in because of the commitment, dedication, and sense of purpose of the people here,'' says George Jones, country director for the United States Agency for International Development in Eritrea. ``We feel very confident putting money into this country -

we know it's going to be used properly.''

Eritrea only recently emerged from its long war for independence from Ethiopia, which left it impoverished and environmentally devastated. At the end of the fighting, 85 percent of its 2.8 million people were receiving food aid. Few observers then expected the country to feed itself in the foreseeable future.

Persistent drought through the 1980s had reduced overall food production by 40 percent. Livestock herds were down by as much as 70 percent and the country had lost 80 percent of its forest cover.

Another severe drought in 1993 caused relief workers to fear a second disaster throughout the famine-prone Horn of Africa. However, food aid was adequate to forestall a crisis in Eritrea, and, though the rains were late, this year's grain crop came in at the highest level in more than a decade.

Development experts now predict that if Eritrea stays on course, it could achieve food security within 5 to 10 years. ``The danger of hunger in Eritrea is very minimal now,'' says Nerayo Teklemikael, the director of the Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (ERRA).

It was the accumulated impact of a three-year agricultural rehabilitation and development program - what Agriculture Minister Tesfai Ghermazien calls the ``Greening of Eritrea Campaign'' - that made the difference between bare survival and bounty.

From the outset, Eritrea's new government embarked on a crash program of economic reconstruction, with the objective of food security. The initial thrust was on the rehabilitation of small-scale, peasant agriculture, rather than on the large, state-run schemes common in most third-world countries.

Units of the 95,000-person Liberation Army were dispatched to the countryside for various rebuilding projects. They were soon joined by villagers on food-for-work programs, set up to avoid chronic dependence on the emergency relief, according to officials.

This year, as the regular Army was cut to half its wartime size, the rural reconstruction campaign swelled by the 40,000 young men and women in Eritrea's new National Service, which requires everyone over the age of 18 to undergo six months of military training and another year of community service.

In 1993 alone, National Service members built 11 micro-dams and 10 new ponds, dug 34 wells, terraced 5,350 acres of cropland, and planted millions of tree seedlings, according to Dr. Tesfai, a US-trained agronomist who returned to Eritrea after the war. More than 1,000 tons of seed were also distributed to peasant farmers, together with 7,500 sets of tools, and 2,000 draft animals.

``Starting in 1995, we hope to triple dam construction to 25 per year,'' said Tesfai.

Eritrea has also begun a five-year, $250,000 cloud-seeding experiment in an effort to nudge nature into playing a more consistent role in the country's recovery. Though the annual rains were late last summer, they lasted into the autumn, leading officials here to speak cautiously about the apparent success of the project.

In the long term, however, the Eritreans plan a shift away from rain-fed agriculture to small- and large-scale irrigation schemes. ``This will make us certain to reach agricultural self-sufficiency,'' Tesfai says.

A new land-reform proclamation designed to facilitate this development declares all land the property of the state.

The law guarantees every Eritrean man and woman individual use-rights for residential and agricultural purposes, together with the right to inherit the value of all improvements to the land, while offering 99-year leases to domestic and foreign investors for large-scale, commercial farming.

The government is also providing incentives to demobilized soldiers and returning refugees to promote cooperative projects in which individuals pool resources but enjoy the full return from the land designated as theirs.

Meanwhile, livestock herds are being restocked, and plans are being laid to resuscitate the fishing industry.

To make investment in agriculture more attractive, and to forestall an exodus into crowded urban centers, there is a massive push to build new infrastructure - roads, schools, clinics, and telecommunications - throughout the remote, less-developed areas of the country.

In another step toward weaning the country away from outside help, Eritrea passed a law that limits foreign aid agencies here to supporting programs that fall within the country's national and regional development plans. ``We are nearing a very crucial moment in our history, when we will say: Thank you very much, we are on our own,'' says ERRA's Dr. Nerayo.

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