Beyond Famine

Famine in Eritrea may be a threat of the past thanks to the newly independent nation's land reform and rural development policies

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 42
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

In the spring of 1994, US and U.N. agencies warned that the newly independent country of Eritrea faced the imminent prospect of renewed famine. Six months later, officials in the Eritrean capital announced that the country had had its best harvest in years. They also suggested that this drought- and war-ravaged land may never again experience the widespread starvation of a decade ago, which claimed an estimated one million lives here and in neighboring Ethiopia.

An effective famine-early-warning-system, prompt donor response, efficient aid distribution at the local level, and generous summer rains helped to avert a hunger crisis in Eritrea last year. But it was the accumulated impact of a three-year agricultural rehabilitation and development program – what Agriculture Minister Dr. Tesfai Ghermazien calls the "Greening of Eritrea" – that made the difference between bare survival and bounty. And now it looks like Eritrean success could extend well beyond staving off famine. With the goal of achieving agricultural self-sufficiency, the government is moving to rebuild the country: renovating the economy, rebuilding its ruined infrastructure, encouraging a return to small-scale farming, and instituting sweeping land reform that for the first time guarantees women equal access to land. Instead of depending on foreign aid to underwrite this strategy, the Eritreans are turning to their own labor power.

Breaking Dependence

Severe drought in 1993 – the sixth year the rains failed here since the 1984-85 catastrophe – caused relief officials to fear a disaster throughout the famine-prone Horn of Africa. However food aid was adequate to forestall a crisis in Eritrea, and though the rains were late, the 1994 grain crop came in at the highest level in more than a decade.

Development experts now predict that if Eritrea stays on course, it could achieve food security within five to 10 years. "The danger of hunger in Eritrea is very minimal now, and there is every reason to be hopeful for the future," says Dr. Nerayo Teklemichael, the director of the Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.

At almost $40 million, the Eritrea aid program was Washington’s highest in Africa last year on a per capita basis. But Eritrean officials do not want this distinction to last indefinitely. "Emergency food is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it saves lives; on the other, it makes people dependent," warns Dr. Nerayo. "We are nearing a very crucial moment in our history, when we will say, ‘thank you very much, we are on our own’."

"We have been left with a very shattered economy, and that has compounded the dependence that we have. The time everyone in this country will feel relieved will be when we are not asking anyone to give us any help," says Eritrea’s new president, Isaias Afwerki. "We would like to reach a stage where we can talk as equals to anyone, without asking for assistance or relief."

One of the poorest countries in the world, Eritrea only recently emerged from a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, which forcibly annexed the former Italian colony in 1962. The war – Africa’s longest running armed conflict – left Eritrea impoverished and environmentally devastated. At the end of the fighting in 1991, fully 85 percent of its 2.8 million people were receiving food aid.

Few observers expected the country to feed itself in the foreseeable future. Persistent drought through the 1980s had reduced over-all food production by 40 percent. Livestock herds were down by as much as 70 percent, and the country had lost 80 percent of its forest cover. In 1993, the year Eritrea formally separated from Ethiopia after a UN-monitored referendum, the new country’s per capita annual income was estimated at only $70-$150. Life expectancy was 46 years.

Meanwhile, Eritrea’s aging infrastructure – dating from the period of Italian rule earlier this century – lay in ruins. Water systems in the major towns leaked up to 60 percent of their load into the ground; roads were often impassable; port facilities in Massawa, the country’s main outlet to the Red Sea, were badly damaged by heavy bombing in the last years of the war; and the rail system was unusable, its iron rails torn up to make bunkers. What remained of the country’s light industry had not been maintained or modernized in a quarter century, and urban unemployment exceeded 30 percent.

The People Resource

From the outset, Eritrea’s new government embarked on a crash program of economic reconstruction. The main initial thrust was on the rehabilitation of peasant agriculture. The main resource for this program was the Eritrean people.

Units of the liberation army were dispatched to the countryside to repair roads, build small dams and catchment basins, terrace the badly eroded hillsides and plant tree seedlings. They were soon joined by villagers on food-for-work programs, set up to avoid chronic dependence on the emergency relief that fed most of the rural and urban population. When the regular army was cut to half its original size later that year, the rural reconstruction campaign swelled by 40,000 young men and women in Eritrea’s new National Service, which requires everyone over the age of 18 to undergo six months of military training and another year of community service.

Last year, 2,100 hectares of cropland were terraced, millions of tree seedlings planted, and over 1,000 tons of seed were distributed to peasant farmers, together with 7,500 sets of tools and 2,000 draft animals.

Officials estimate that the country loses 10 billion cubic meters of water each year to run-off that ends up in the Red Sea, taking tens of thousands of tons of valuable top soil with it. To combat this loss and to supply ample irrigation, 11 micro-dams and 10 new ponds were built and 34 wells dug last year. "Starting in 1995, we hope to triple dam construction to 25 per year," says Dr. Tesfai.

Labor-driven Development

The recently launched National Service program is intended in part to help make up for the country’s lack of development capital. It also shifts the defense burden from a standing army, which is now scaling back to one fourth its war-time size, to a citizen reserve force, which has the effect, too, of sharply reducing the country’s defense budget. President Isaias terms the project the cornerstone of a "labor-intensive, nation-building strategy."

Its greatest impact, however, is likely to be on Eritrean women, who are traditionally married off at puberty under a system of arranged marriages negotiated at birth and then prevented from social interaction outside the family except with the husband’s permission. The new government has sought to ban child marriages, dowry payments, and the widely practiced form of genital mutilation known as "female circumcision." However, officials say that placing all Eritrean women in the atmosphere of gender equality found in the armed forces and the construction brigades will profoundly alter traditional practices in ways that legislation could not.

A new law that gives women the right to own residential and agricultural land provides a powerful economic basis for these status changes. Previously, land was held by communities and periodically rotated among male members. Single, divorced, or widowed women, lacking access to land in this overwhelmingly agrarian society, were forced to live with their parents or migrate to the cities, where many turned to prostitution.

The sweeping reform, which by next year will place all land under state control and then allocate use-rights to all Eritreans, is also intended to open the country to agricultural development, according to Alemseghed Tesfai, who heads the commission that drafted the land reform proclamation. Traditional tenure systems vesting control in communities, often at odds with neighboring villages, discouraged investments in the land or in cooperative ventures, says Tesfai. Provisions allowing family members to inherit the value of land improvements provide incentives usually associated with privatization without risking a wholesale movement off the land that could result from unregulated land sales.

The Eritrean government is also providing agricultural inputs to demobilized soldiers and returning refugees to promote cooperative projects in which individuals pool resources but enjoy the full return from lands designated as theirs. Livestock herds are being restocked, and plans are being laid to resuscitate the fishing industry, which collapsed during the war years.

To make investment in agriculture more attractive and to forestall an exodus into crowded urban centers, there is a major push to build new infrastructure – roads, schools, clinics, and telecommunications – throughout the remote, less developed areas of the country.

Winning Through Self-Reliance

While the Eritreans continue to seek foreign aid and investment, they are increasingly wary of the impact of donor agencies in shaping their development, and they recently tabled a law that closely regulates their role. Donor agencies are limited to supporting projects and programs that fall within the country’s national and regional development plans, according to the new regulations, and also are restricted from paying Eritrean staff higher than prevailing in-country rates, so as to prevent them from draining skilled people from government service and private-sector activity.

"The basic lesson from our independence struggle is that we were able to win the war on a very self-reliant basis. This is a very important lesson for the future as well," says Yemane Gebreab, who heads the political section of the newly formed People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Eritrea’s only recognized political formation during the transition to civilian rule, scheduled for 1997.

"African peoples, African societies, have to find solutions to the problems they face," says the former Deputy Foreign Minister, who resigned his government post to work for the PFDJ, a mass movement launched in February after the liberation front that won the independence war was formally dissolved. "If we don’t do that, and if we just rely on outside assistance, no matter how long it’s given and no matter how much it is, it cannot solve our problem."

Dan Connell is the founder of the alternative development agency Grassroots International and the author of Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution (Red Sea Press, 11 Princess Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648). He is currently writing a book on social and political movements in Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine, and Nicaragua with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. You can contact Grassroots International at 48 Grove Street, Somerville, MA 02144 tel. 617/628-1664 fax 628-4737 e-mail:

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