Resistance forces Ethiopia to cut back mass relocations. Critics voice greatest concern about methods, not aims, of programs to resettle peasants

Moving people is high on the Ethiopian government's list of priorities. But, for now, it will have to forgo reinstating its resettlement program because it cannot find enough people to ``volunteer'' for relocation, say officials of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

Scathing criticism from Western donor agencies, particularly about evidence that villagers were being forcefully relocated, apparently played a role in the temporary suspension of the program in early 1986, and in the RRC's new policy that resettlement be carried out only on a voluntary basis. But the government's ``villagization'' program, another relocation program that has been criticized by Western agencies, is forging ahead.

For the past few months, the government newspaper has been praising both relocation programs as ways to ``free the country from the stranglehold of poverty and backwardness'' and ``make the peasant masses productive pillars of society.'' And it had scheduled to resume the resettlement program, under which it planned to resettle 200,000 to 300,000, this month.

The resettlement program moves Ethiopians from the northern highland regions that have been ravaged by drought, deforestation, and poor farming methods to more fertile areas to the south and south west. Villagization gathers peasants, who are often widely scattered, into tight knit villages where the government says it can provide them with better agricultural, education, health, and other social services.

The programs overlap in that almost all resettlement sites are built in a ``villagized'' structure.

But Western and Ethiopian critics contend that the real purpose of the resettlement program is to destroy rebel strongholds in Eritrea and Tigre. Critics also contend that villagization is really designed to move the rural areas toward ``collectivization. Most of the resettled persons, however, have come from regions other than Eritrea and Tigre, and it appears that villagization is not necessarily a recipe for centralization.

Controversy surrounds both programs

Along with a number of other agencies, the French relief agency M'edecins sans Fronti`eres (Doctors Without Borders) says that in the villagization effort people were forced at gunpoint into trucks and planes heading south. Some of them were too weak from hunger and illness to survive the trip. The French agency says that more than 100,000 people died or were killed outright. But other relief workers in Ethiopia, who were there at the time, say that this figure is much too high.

The point remains, however, that thousands of people did die because of what the government's Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) calls actions of ``overzealous local officials.''

Those officials, RRC sources say, used force to meet their assigned quotas and win favor with the ruling party. They have since been given strict orders that people are only to be moved if they want to go. This put the RRC into the tough position of having to drum up 200,000 or more volunteer resettlers before the planting season which began this month - a goal it could not meet.

Last year's harvests in the north were relatively good. Many farmers there say they won't even consider moving unless another famine hits the area. And RRC officials say that they will probably have to wait for another drought before they can restart the resettlement program. Aid officials say another drought could happen within three to four years.

Almost everyone in the capital city of Addis Ababa - from Western aid workers and diplomats to Ethiopian civil servants - says that resettlement can be an effective step in a much larger program to rehabilitate Ethiopia's ravaged and eroded highlands. Analysts say it is not a question of whether it should be done, but of how.

Little Western enthusiasm for villagization

For resettlement to be effective, aid officials and Ethiopian civil servants say, it must be done voluntarily, with proper social services and agricultural services and equipment in place before people move. Toward that end, the Ethiopian government reportedly plans to earmark $1.2 billion to be spent over the next five years.

Although most Western observers can support some form of resettlement, few have anything good to say about Ethiopia's villagization program. An Ethiopian forester says the program worsens the already dire deforestation crisis. It can intensify cropping in certain areas and disrupt normal planting. A Western diplomat says he has seen millions of people forced to tear down their old, countryside houses to move to spartan, cramped sites miles from their fields. ``I don't see the point,'' he says.

The official point, according to the Ethiopian government, is to provide better social services - water, schools, electricity, and health clinics - to rural populations. In exchange, the peasants bear the expense and responsibility of building a hut in the new village. So far, however, most of them have arrived only to find few or none of the services available.

Although the Ethiopian government plans to ``villagize'' 30 to 35 million people by 1991, it has allocated almost no money to the plan. One RRC official says the government is largely expecting foreign aid agencies to donate the needed services. But most agencies are steering clear, for now, because they fear a drop in donations if they fund what is seen as a political hot potato.

Government's aims political?

Many Western and Ethiopian observers see the real reason behind villagization as the government's desire for firmer control over the rural population. Villagized people are required to attend frequent political meetings to hear the latest government ``agitation.'' Farmers can be more closely watched to ensure that they accurately report their harvests - enabling the government to buy more grain at its artificially low prices. And the villages allow better access to potential conscripts for the Army.

Critics also say villagization is a blatant step toward the government's long-term goal of collectivization. But results, so far, indicate that villagization does not necessarily result in cooperatives. Although about 9,000 new villages have been built over the past two years, only about 2,000 new cooperatives have been formed.

Villagization barrels ahead

The most alarming dimension of villagization, observers on the scene say, is the speed with which it is being carried out. Six million people have already been villagized - 10 times more than were resettled. Three to four million more people will be moved this year. Even if sufficient funds for services were allocated, it would take years to catch up with newly created demands.

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 time spent in tearing down old houses and building new ones and hiking every day to and from fields that are in some cases six or seven miles away from the villages. Some farmers reportedly circumvent this journey by using their villagized huts as summer cottages of sorts - staying in their fields and returning to the village only when a party official comes for an inspection.

As with resettlement, some force has been used to move the villagization process along. In some pockets, local officials have dealt with resisters by burning or tearing down their houses. And, as with resettlement, few Western observers in Addis argue so much with the theory of villagization as with how it is achieved.

Although the government seems to have slowed and better planned its approach to resettlement, villagization careens along at a largely unmanaged, frenzied pace. The result is that even some Ethiopian civil servants involved in the program consider its prospects bleak.

``You can't follow a Marxist cookbook in a third-world country like Ethiopia,'' an RRC official protested. ``If villagization works here - as an exception - I'll be relieved. If it fails, I won't be in the least bit surprised.''

The writer recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia to investigate conditions in the rural areas.

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