Resettlement drive presses on through scathing criticism

Despite a barrage of criticism aimed at its controversial ``resettlement'' program, the Ethiopian government plans to continue moving thousands of people from eroded northern highlands to the more fertile southwest. The government's ``resettlement'' and ``villagization'' programs are moving farmers from scattered rural huts into more accessible - and regimented - sites throughout the country.

In recent weeks, the Ethiopian Herald, the mouthpiece of the Addis Ababa government, has been praising the programs as ways to ``free the country from the stranglehold of poverty and backwardness'' and ``make the peasant masses productive pillars of society.''

300,000 to be resettled

The comments accompanied announcement by the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam that it would resume the resettlement program that during the last two years stirred controversy among relief agencies and Western government officials. Ethiopia plans to move between 200,000 and 300,000 people from the north to existing resettlement sites this year. Still smarting from scathing criticism they received in the Western media when they moved 600,000 people during the 1983-85 famine, government officials insist that this time they won't make the same mistakes.

The French relief agency M'edicins sans Fronti`eres (Doctors Without Borders or MSF) charges that those mistakes include forcing people at gunpoint into lorries and planes heading south; many were too weakened by hunger and illness to finish the trip alive. MSF charges that over 100,000 people died or were killed outright, though relief workers in Ethiopia who were there at the time say that this figure is much too high.

Whatever the figure, the fact is that thousands of people died needlessly because of what the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) calls actions of ``overzealous local officials.'' Those officials, RRC sources say, used force to meet assigned quotas and win favor with the ruling party. They are now under strict orders to only move people who want to go. This puts the RRC in the tough position of having to drum up 200,000 or more volunteer resettlers before the planting season begins next month.

This is doubly difficult now, since last year's harvests in the north were relatively good. Many farmers there say that they won't even consider moving unless another famine hits.

Not whether, but how

Despite Western criticisms, almost everyone in Addis Ababa - from Western aid workers and diplomats to Ethiopian civil servants - says resettlement can be an effective step in a larger program to rehabilitate the ravaged highlands. It's not a question of whether it should be done, but of how.

For future resettlement to be effective, they say, it must be done voluntarily, with proper social and agricultural services and farming equipment in place before people move. To that end, the Ethiopian government reportedly plans to earmark $1.2 billion to be spent over the next five years to make resettlement sites self-sufficient and livable.

But few Western observers have anything good to say about Ethiopia's villagization program. An Addis Ababa-based Western economist calls it ``a real time bomb in Ethiopian planning.'' An Ethiopian forester says its a ``node of desertification'' - worsening the already dire deforestation crisis. A Western diplomat, who says he has seen millions of people forced to tear down old houses in the countryside to move to spartan, cramped villagization sites miles from their fields, says, ``I don't see the point.''

The point, says the government, is to provide better social services to Ethiopia's rural population. Party officials promise people easy access to clean water, schools, clinics - even electricity. But most of the ``villagized'' people have arrived only to find none of the promises have been kept.

The reason is simple. Although the Ethiopian government plans to ``villagize'' 30 million to 35 million people by 1991, it has allocated little or no money to the program. One RRC official says they are largely expecting aid agencies to donate needed social services. But most aid agencies are steering clear; they fear a drop in donations if they fund what they see as a political hot potato.

The main reason for wariness is that many Westerners and even Ethiopian observers see the government's real reason behind villagization as a desire for firmer control over rural populations. Villagized people are required to attend frequent political meetings to hear the latest government ``agitation.'' Farmers can be closely watched to ensure that they accurately report their harvests - enabling the government to buy more grain at its artificially low prices. And the concentration of people in villages makes it easier for the authorities to raise conscripts for the Army, which is Africa's largest (300,000 people) and which receives about 80 percent of Ethiopia's budget.

Critics charge that villagization is a step toward the government's long-term goal of collectivization. But the program's results have, so far, not proved that this is the case. While about 9,000 new villages have been built over the past two years, only about 2,000 new producers' cooperatives were formed.

The most alarming aspect of villagization is the speed at which it's being carried out. Six million people have been villagized - 10 times more than were resettled. Three to four million more will be moved this year.

This fierce pace has compounded problems inherent in villagization. A senior UN official estimates that this year's harvest will decrease by 30 percent because of the program. This results from the time lost in having to tear down old houses and build new ones and to hike every day to and from fields that can be as many as six or seven miles away from the villages.

Villagization has also been accused of destroying Ethiopia's cultural diversity - which includes dozens of tribes and some 80 languages or dialects - by forcing everyone into uniform villages with little regard for individual circumstances. This frays the very fabric of society - a fabric woven through strong family and tribal ties, not through villages, say critics.

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