Resettling Ethiopia's hungry farmers. Government targets 1.5 million for controversial program

Balaynesh Getahun stokes the wood fire, then pours a smooth, white batter on her clay skillet. One of her chickens squawks noisily from a perch nearby. A pile of corn lies on a mat inside her hut in this tree-shaded village. In a controversial program three years ago, in the middle of Ethiopia's 1984-85 famine, Mrs. Getahun and her family were among some 600,000 people moved quickly from drought areas in the north and central highlands to more fertile regions in the south and west.

Now Ethiopia's government is launching another, larger, round of resettlement - 1.5 million people, at the rate of 60,000 families a year. In several regions of Ethiopia, more than 6 million people have run out of food as a result of another drought. The soil on their dry farmlands is worn out from decades of severe erosion - caused by drought, overcultivation of fields and hillsides, and the felling of too many trees.

The latest initiative is spurring many questions and some more criticism about the whole resettlement program. Critics recall the charges and condemnations made last time by Western officials, relief groups working in Ethiopia, and even high-level Ethiopian officials (after defecting): People were forced to move; the relocation took place at the height of the 1984-85 famine, seriously interrupting relief efforts; families were split up; and sites were poorly prepared to receive the settlers. Many thousands were said to have died as a result of the harsh and untimely manner in which the program was carried out.

There was also condemnation of the program by development experts, such as Jason Clay of US-based Cultural Survival, for what were seen as ``military objectives'' of the program. He contends it was a way of removing from the Tigre region young Muslim Oromos who might be recruited by the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is at war with the Ethiopian government. But other analysts and Ethiopian officials point out the number of settlers drawn from Tigre is quite small compared to the number drawn from other regions. And no settlers are being drawn from Eritrea, which is also at war with the government.

Ethiopian officials are now going out of their way to say that only people who can no longer feed themselves and volunteer to be relocated - like Mrs. Getahun and her family three years ago - will be moved. And, they say that they are preparing settlement sites better.

There has long been fairly widespread endorsement by international experts on Ethiopia of the need for resettlement to ease the pressures that are destroying land, especially in the north.

``You can criticize resettlement from 25 points of view,'' says the Rev. Jack Finucane, director of Concern, an Irish relief and development organization which assists two settlements, Jarso and Cato, both in the southwest. ``There aren't any easy options'' for helping people living on devastated highlands farms, he says. ``Resettlement is an option - let's make the best of it we can.''

But there are lingering concerns among foreign officials and relief officials here that the ``targets'' the government has set for resettlement will be interpreted by over-zealous officials as ``quotas'' that must be met, even if by force.

As resettlement begins anew, these experts are raising basic questions about its implementation: How many people have to move for there to be significant progress toward renewing the land? Will settlers become self-sufficient in food? What is being done to keep the resettlement sites from eventually resembling the devastated highlands? Will local residents be pushed off their land by settlers, or will they benefit from the program?

Organized resettlement can move only a fraction of the numbers needed to make much demographic impact, according to a 1986 report on Ethiopia by the UN Development Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

``Up to 7 million need to be moved over the long term,'' says Ingo Loerbroks, the FAO's representative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. But he doubts that even the target of 60,000-families a year will be met. ``The government,'' he says, ``has learned its lesson'' about proceeding too quickly. Spontaneous migration alone can result in more substantial numbers moving, the UN report says, adding that such migration depends on word getting out that those who relocated are living better than they used to. ``Settlement projects,'' it says, ``are perhaps the most complex and difficult of any type of project involved in social and economic development programs.''

Because Jarso settlement was founded about three years ago, it provides some insights into how resettlement affects people - and land.

Jarso is a cluster of eight villages, with about 14,000 residents. There are a few small stores. There is no doctor, but there are four nurses and three clinics. An immunization program and literacy classes have begun, but not family planning, according to Irish volunteers of Concern.

``No force or coercion at all'' is used in Jarso, says a local communist party official. But in some settlements, anyone caught trying to leave by one of the village guards is given a week of hard labor, says a source familiar with the process.

At least one armed village guard was seen at Jarso. But, the source adds, it is easy to elude them, and some do to go back home or to another country. Some who fled home, later returned after seeing drought conditions in the north, the source and Ethiopian officials say.

Mrs. Getahun, who lives in one of Jarso's villages, explains why she, her husband, and two of their three children came here. ``We were starving. Because of the shortage of rain, we separated from our families, our children, and came to this place.'' They left one daughter behind to stay with a grandfather.

Resettlement has been criticized for breaking up families as the result of sudden government roundups of people in the north. But many families became separated by choice, says Alula Pankhurst, a British academic researcher studying resettlements and living at Cato settlement.

There are no overall figures on whether settlements are becoming self-sufficient in food. So far, the farms at Jarso do not produce enough food for the settlers. The government provides food aid to make up the difference. Several villages at Cato have become self-sufficient in food, however, and the others there are producing about half their food needs, with the percentage growing each year, says Mr. Pankhurst.

There is some concern among relief officials that the settlements are not growing a variety of foods sufficient to meet protein requirements. And foreign diplomatic, financial, and relief officials say settlement farms are inefficient because they are farmed collectively.

The impact that the program is having on the environment in the newly settled areas is of great concern. Little or no land-use planning has been completed for the sites, development experts say. The same patterns of land use that led to devastation in the highlands are being repeated in settlement areas. Some reforestation efforts have begun. Many more are needed.

``We're afraid they'll deplete the whole place in seven or eight years.''

Before the settlers arrived, much of the land in the resettlement sites was farmed very little or not at all by the Oromos and others living there, according to Pankhurst. And there were reports that there was friction in some sites between residents and settlers - whose cultures are very different.

Tens of thousands of original residents have been ``uprooted,'' says Clay, whose research was done through interviews with Ethiopians who had fled settlements into surrounding countries. Oromos, among others, were forced onto marginal lands and obliged to pay some of the costs of the new settlements, he was told.

Pankhurst, who has lived in Cato settlement for more than a year and speaks Oromo, says some Oromo were pushed off their coffee fields, but the number displaced from their lands was small.

``By and large the Oromo farmers in the area see a lot of benefits'' from settlements. He says they buy grains cheap from the settlers and sell livestock to them at high prices. And, if the government does properly prepare the site, there are new facilities for all.

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