ETHIOPIA, burdened by fighting between government troops and rebels intent on toppling President Mengistu Haile Mariam, could be on the brink of another devastating famine, international relief officials say. Drought has destroyed 85 percent of the harvest in Eritrea province and 50 percent in Tigr'e province, presaging hunger on the scale of the famine of 1984, say foreign aid workers.
But critics of Mr. Mengistu's regime lay much of the blame for failures in food production on the Ethiopian leader's steps toward creating a centralized, Marxist-oriented economy.
The few incentives offered to the agricultural sector are reserved for state farms (created to feed the 300,000-strong Army and the large towns) and for the peasant cooperative societies. After making detailed studies, international aid agencies report that both state farms and cooperatives are inefficient.
In published statements, the government has said that collectivization programs are the key to controlling rural areas. State farms and cooperatives have priority in obtaining fertilizer and improved seeds, both of which are in short supply.
Individual farmers, who form the backbone of the agricultural sector, face significant disincentives to increasing production. Surpluses must be sold to the state, although there has been a slight relaxation of this requirement, allowing private traders to buy grain.
Some international donors have disassociated themselves from the agricultural sector, because of the Mengistu government's agricultural policies. Last June, Sweden, whose agricultural extension support has dramatically increased yields in some areas of Ethiopia, withdrew agricultural aid. Even the Soviet Union, Ethiopia's closest superpower ally, has urged Mengistu to ease up on centralizing agriculture.
``The per capita agricultural production has been declining for the past 20 years,'' says a Western relief official. ``For the last decade, it has dropped dramatically. On average, there is 20 percent less food per person now than there was 10 years ago. People are eating less. There are millions and millions living very close to the edge of starvation.''
Ironically, some areas of Ethiopia produce surplus crops, but the military conflict with Eritrea and Tigr'e provinces means that this food is not redistributed.
In Eritrea, nearly half of the 3 million population will need relief supplies of food. The province has been the scene of heavy government fighting against the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which has been waging a secessionist war for more than a quarter of a century. Western donors hope that they will be able to truck supplies from the Eritrean port of Massawa to afflicted areas.
The prospects for Tigr'e province are less sanguine. Already 1.5 million people are seriously hurt by the crop failure, according to officials of the rebel Tigrean People's Liberation Front. The figure could rise to 2.5 million, they said.
The province has been under the control of the rebels since February, making it inaccessible to trucks based in Ethiopia. In the last famine, relief agencies leapfrogged fighting in the province by airlifting supplies to Mekelle, the capital of Tigr'e. This is no longer possible, because Mekelle is under rebel control.
Although Western donors have been aware for some time of the possibility of famine, protocol requires that they not send assistance until an official appeal is issued by the government.
On Oct. 28, the Ethiopian government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the body responsible for monitoring the distribution of food relief in stricken areas, launched an appeal to international donors for 330,000 tons of emergency food.
In its appeal, the government said relief supplies would be earmarked for ``areas of tranquility.''