Saturday, February 4, 2012

Farmers have too little land and food in crowded Ethiopia - Winnipeg Free Press

And when it comes to finding a different perspective on rural and agricultural affairs, a place such as Ethiopia is the polar opposite to what we know in Canada.

Unlike Canada, considered one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with about 80 per cent of its population living in cities and towns, Ethiopia's urban-rural breakdown is almost exactly the reverse.

It is a distinctly rural country with agriculture making up nearly half of its GDP and 80 per cent of its exports.

It's one thing to know the population numbers; it's quite another to grasp the magnitude of so many people attempting to survive on limited resources.

There is no such thing as "putting the pedal to the metal" -- at least not in the more densely populated regions -- when you hit the wide-open spaces in a country of 80 million people inhabiting an area about twice the size of Texas. There are simply too many pedestrians and livestock sharing the roads.

The Ethiopia most of us know is graphic images put there by media coverage of starvation due to famine. But those images are now more than two decades old.

This country has certainly experienced drought since then, and malnourishment is a constant threat among the subsistence farmers that make up most of the country's population. But there has been a concerted effort on the part of government and international non-government aid agencies, including partners of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) to intervene before these conditions become a disaster.

About a day's drive southwest of Addis Ababa, we enter a district that is known in food-aid circles as the Green Famine Belt. While not lush, there is green growth in the fields and hillsides, forested hillsides and water running in the streams.

Green isn't a colour usually associated with famine.

Yet many of these families are less than a month or two away from not having enough to eat at any given time, a factor of their grinding poverty, the region's high population density and an increasingly variable climate.

Although people can have long-term tenure in Ethiopia, and land can be passed from generation to generation, they don't own their land outright, so it cannot be bought and sold. As families grow, their land parcels shrink and their capacity to acquire more through leasing is limited.

Many of the farmers we've met over the past several days farm a hectare or less of land. Even in a good year, they are barely producing enough maize, sweet potato and haricot beans to feed their families, much less have leftovers to sell for cash.

It's reminiscent, although on a different scale, of the pressures that caused an exodus of Prairie farmers from the land over the past several decades. That exodus allowed remaining farmers to grow their operations to a more economic scale.

In Ethiopia's case, the only way farms can grow is smaller.

The situation is made worse by the weird weather the region has been experiencing. Some call it climate change, but whatever the cause, the rains on which people depend for growing food have become increasingly unpredictable, sometimes coming too early, too late or not at all. It's wreaking havoc with food security.

It's why for several years the Canadian Foodgrains Bank has been involved in the region through its Canadian partners, in this case World Relief Canada and Evangelical Missionary Church, and two locally based branches of the Kale Hewyet Church -- a spiritual organization that has played a key role in offering agricultural and rural extension services.

Through cash-for-work and food-for-work projects, the families most at risk of running out of food are able to receive support while working on projects that benefit their community. These projects tend to be oriented toward erosion control, reforestation, road maintenance or micro-irrigation projects.

Support from either government or non-government agencies can help tide people over, but no one is fooled -- least of all the project recipients -- into thinking it is a long-term solution to the growing problem of landlessness and an exhausted resource base.

There is no one solution. The search is on for ways to achieve higher levels of productivity, make it possible for these farmers to acquire more land and develop alternative sources of income.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator and is travelling in Ethiopia with on a tour organized by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 $sourceSection0

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