Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Root Causes and Solutions of Drought and Famine in Africa

By Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D.
July 2000

Ethiopian Review -- Ladies and Gentlemen, first and foremost, I would like to express my uttermost appreciation to all of you for giving me an apportunity to deliver a speech in such a distinguished institute as the World Bank. I am neither a banker nor an agronomist. I am simply a person who is bothered by the recurring drought and famine in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. This propelled me to look for an answer for the dilemma Africa is in presently, and to find out the causes and possible solutions of drought and famine.

Believe it or not, sixty years ago most of Africa was exceedingly lush green. It was so lush green that all kinds of animals such as lions, elephants, leopards, baboons and deer roamed about it freely without worrying an iota about food and water. Ethiopia was so green and so identified as the bread-basket of Africa that Mussolini of Italy was compelled to March in, realizing the staggering agricultural potential of that old African country.

As recently as thirty years ago, flying over Ethiopia, one could see how green Ethiopia was. If you fly now you will be disappointed immensely by the gray and dry scene you will see down on the ground particularly in the vicinity of Addis Abeba, and you will be left wondering how such a devastating change has taken place within a short span of time.

Presently a number of African countries including Tanzania, Kenya Somalia and Ethiopia are affected by a catastrophic drought and famine which threaten the lives of millions of their inhabitants. What is going on? What is really wrong with Africa? In this paper, I will attempt to address these fundamental questions, and also suggest what I think will be possible solutions. For, without examining the root causes of drought and famine, we won’t have the answers to the problems which recur and devastate the lives of millions of people .

Wrong agricultural policy and practice, natural catastrophe and civil-wars are the major causes of drought and famine in Africa. Let us take each at a time.

Up until the scramble for Africa during the latter part of the 19th Century, Africa was capable of feeding her people. Having developed sustainable agriculture for millions of years, they practiced farming techniques which suited their land and needs. Depending on the locations of their lands, depending on whether on a hill, a flat, relatively dry land or a river delta, they practiced terrace farming or alley cropping, and they grew a mixture of foods deliberately avoiding mono-culture. If one kind of plant didn’t make it for any reason in any season, they harvested the rest and survived with them. Some of the plants they used as medicine. Alley farming, and by the that I mean planting trees and crops in the form of allies, helped them to preserve and restore top soil, provided natural fertilizer, wood, food for cattle, and medicine for human beings. Natural fertilizers kept their food and soil organic and healthy. After using a plot of land for a year or two, they burned it and abandoned it for a few years giving it a chance to rejuvenate and regenerate itself. Fallow farming and rotational techniques as well as the planting of mixed vegetables, fruits and serials, guaranteed the richness of the top soil and the food of the inhabitants. Since the seeds and the soil had developed a mutually beneficial friendship tested by time immemorial, neither the indigenous seeds nor the rich soils of Africa were hurt by this sort of agricultural practice for thousands of yeas.

Unfortunately, things began to change after the introduction of corn and wheat to the soils of Africa. Realizing the fertility of Africa, Europeans introduced corn to Africa. Soon they realized that the rich tropical soil of Africa was by far better for the growth of corn than that of Europe. In fact, in due course, it transformed itself into a different breed of corn tastier than the European one. Both the Europeans and Africans liked the new product. Now Africans got used to it, became its dependent gradually and forgot to feed on their own natural nutrients. Most tragically, they stopped planting them. As a result, life-saving plants which grew with little or no rain in Africa were lost. The Europeans were able to export corn and wheat grown in the rich soils of Africa to Europe and the rest of the world and earn cash for it. But corn needed much more water and soil minerals than the indigenous African plants. Slowly, it started sucking in the water in the ground and minerals in the soil giving to both nothing in return. As a matter of fact, when African farmers had to import fertilizer from across the oceans later on, the price of growing and producing corn proved more than the price of its sale.

In addition to corn, the Europeans needed cash crops such as tobacco, cocoa, cotton and cashew nuts, to mention just a few. Now African farmers started focusing on such products they could not eat themselves neglecting the foods which would provide them with the right nutrition to withstand malnutrition and hunger. Moreover, they got a meager sum of money in return for their hard labor. This practice of mono-culture geared at benefiting the foreigners, in contrast with mixed farming for consumption, not only impoverished the African farmers, but it also impoverished the top, rich African soil. When only one kind of crop was grown on it over and over again, the land lost its minerals. Since dense trees, shrubs and grasses which protected the soils were cut down brutally to clear the land for mono-culture cash crops, the soils were exposed to horrendous and biting African winds and torrents of rain which eroded them at an alarming rate from year to year.

Mono-culture, or the growing of only one kind of crop on endless expanse of land, according to some agronomists, invited pests and diseases which were controlled naturally by the diverse plants which had their own unique immune system when African farmers practiced their old mixed farming techniques which have been proven for millions of years. The pests in turn invited chemical pesticides. Plantation farming also paved the way for weeds which otherwise would have been stopped from spreading by the various crops which used to grow in diversified farming fields. The weeds, on their part, brought about herbicides which have poisonous chemicals in them.

In the 1960s, when some African countries broke achieved their independence one was expecting them to improve this situation. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. The new leaders of Africa followed the same old, mono-culture. To pay their foreign debts and to obtain hard currency which they needed badly to spend on their own consumption goods, army, police, limousines and prestige buildings, they encouraged and even pushed their citizens to continue producing cash crops vigorously. The people of Kenya, for example, suffer from hunger and malnutrition. And yet, the Government uses the best part of the arable land for planting export flowers such as Carnations.

Ethiopia was not exceptional. Once corn was on the African continent, it didn’t take it long to spread to Ethiopia as well. The end-result is that, many Ethiopian farmers are now dependent on corn like their fellow Africans. Even though Ethiopia was not affected directly by the scramble for Africa, she was not that much different than the other African countries which surrounded her. Due to the commercial dictates of inter-continental trade, she had to flow with the current. She had to launch on mono-culture to be competitive with her national products at the world market. Despite the famine which has killed and once again threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of people, Ethiopia continues to export coffee and sesame seeds increasingly. The volume grows from year to year. If Ethiopia is so terribly poor and drought-stricken, how come it exports to Europe, Japan and the United States in increasing volume every year the best and the greenest coffee in the world? Had the Government made the same effort to encourage the farmers to grow the food they could eat themselves with the same enthusiasm as it did and does to push them to harvest cash crops, famine would have definitely been averted. Surely Ethiopia is not poor potentially as evidenced by her cash crops!

This hold true for Sudan and other African countries. The people of Sudan suffer from Hunger. However, using the both the blue Nile and the white Nile, Sudan grows cotton and groundnuts for export. Africa is not poor! Mismanagement and misplacement of priority are the problems.

To maximize production of the raw materials they needed themselves, Westerners introduced tractors, fertilizers and pesticides which they sold on credit at times. It was a big mistake on the part of African leaders to do as they were told by the so-called foreign expert advisers. Tractors and fertilizers, instead of helping, worsened the agricultural output. If Western farmers used tractors for mechanized farming, tractors developed in harmony with the technological progress of their countries. Since they were manufactured right there, their price was affordable to them. It was not hard to find spare parts and technicians to fix the machines whenever they broke. Their societies as a whole, have gone out of pre-industrial era in which horses and oxen were the means of farming. Africa was not. Africans depended much on animals and tools such the plough and the hoe for farming. Imported tractors were very expensive for them. Once they got the tractors, it was not easy to find all the drivers they needed to run them. Whenever they broke, even if they found technicians which were rare in the remotest parts of Africa, they lacked the parts to fix them. While waiting for the parts to arrive from Europe the farmers became idle and their planting seasons slipped away before their eyes. The tractors were rendered useless. A case in point is hundreds of tractors which Ethiopia bartered with coffee with the then East Germany. These tractors were abandoned to rust on some farms for the reason mentioned above when the Derg was in power. Since the farmers had sold or killed their oxen or other animals with which they used to plow their land to avert famine they had to dislocate themselves and flee to the cities to rescue their lives. When they were not so lucky to escape they died from famine.

In African and Asian countries where imported fertilizers and pesticides some of which are banned in Europe and the USA were used to boost agriculture for temporary gains, the top soils and the rivers were devastated due to the chemicals present in them. Chemical fertilizers, whose price is astronomical, indeed yield bumper harvests artificially for the first few years of their application even in arid deserts. Nevertheless, they, together with the pesticides, caused deterioration in the soil and pollution down under the earth thus also poisoning with their toxic the supply of drinking water. This, in some instances, has contributed to famine and severe illnesses.

Ethiopian farmers had tried their best to use mainly traditional, organic fertilizers such as dung and naturally decomposed and regenerated dirt up in the past until chemical fertilizer producing Western nations encouraged the Ethiopian governments to buy fertilizers for cash or receive the same in the form of loans. As we all know, this they did and still do to assist their own manufacturers by finding a market for their commodities. As a result, a huge amount of chemical fertilizers has been shipped to Ethiopia. The present Government of Ethiopia encourages farmers to use chemical fertilizers thinking it is good for them. At times, farmers who don’t have the money to buy the fertilizers are encouraged to buy them on credit. There are instances of unrest and disturbances caused by the farmers’ inability to pay back their debts. The people of Ethiopia being wise by their nature, it has not taken them long to realize the danger of chemical fertilizers. Many farmers are now against the use of imported fertilizers, and reverting to their old methods of enriching their soil to stop from further deterioration. The corporations, both private and Government owned ones, which have been benefiting a lot from the sale of fertilizers, however, have not refrained from pushing the peasants to buy and use fertilizers either for cash, or even on credit. A case in point is those poor, Southern peasants who were encouraged to buy fertilizers on credit despite their reluctance to do so. Because the fertilizers didn’t help them to improve their land and volume of their harvest, they were unable to pay their debts. As a result of the skirmish which occurred between these miserable peasants and Government forces, some people were hurt. Others were jailed.

Pesticides are no less damaging than fertilizers. In the first place, they are not affordable for the farmers of Africa. Most important of all, they cause thousands of illnesses and deaths in the so-called, “Third World”. The World Resource Institute reportedly estimates 400,000 illnesses and 10,000 pesticide related deaths every year. The pesticides which are aimed at eliminating insects, target human beings who are less pesticide immune than insects who adopt fast to such chemicals. They also contaminate and pollute the water which the people drink.

When man-made catastrophe and natural catastrophe ally together, the problem becomes double-fold. Like man-made catastrophe, natural catastrophe, is of course, a factor which should not be undermined. Though Africa has many rivers, lakes and waterfalls, her farmers depend predominantly on rain for agriculture. The fault lies in the indifference and incompetence of her leaders who would rather spend millions of dollars in tightening their hold to power and in waging wars against what they consider real and imagined dissidents and enemies, rather than improving the lives of their subjects. Some African leaders would rather import bottled water from Europe than build dams, water pipes and irrigation to enhance the development of agriculture. So, Africa’s vast natural resources are wasted. It is paradoxical that Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, which is the life-line of Egypt, should suffer from drought and famine! As the old Ethiopian proverb goes, “Yabayin Lij wuha temaw, ye ras lachin lij kemal belaw” meaning “Thirst scorches the child of the Nile, and the head lies afflict the child of the barber”. In countries where governments give priority to the well-being of their people like Israel, however, they have transformed deserts into fertile regions, which, not only feed their people, but even export the surplus to the rest of the world though one can not guarantee that this will continue forever, since the chemical fertilizers might ultimately destroy the top soil. The lesson we can learn from Israel is priority, and not the use of chemical fertilizers. It is a shame that a country like Ethiopia with so much water has to suffer from the pangs of recurring drought and famine, whereas countries with less water resource have never known neither hunger nor malnutrition.

The impoverished people of Africa are forced to cut down trees, in search of fire-wood. Once trees are felled down, nobody bothers to replace them. Moreover, since it takes quite a while to grow trees, deforestation becomes an acute problem which contributes to top soil erosion and lack of rain. These in turn lead to drought and famine. Eventually, once fertile regions turn into deserts which annihilate both humans and animals. Many civilizations have perished this way in the past. History and ecology attest to this.

Undeniably, wars and civil-wars are other man made causes of hunger in Africa. Think of the lives lost in the civil-wars and wars which have raged between the people of the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. Each time when a war breaks out anywhere, not only human lives are lost, but human and natural resources are destroyed. People who should be farming, people who should be fighting nature, instead fight each other and expose themselves to hunger. Funds which should be spent on nation building are wasted on arms. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been spending at least each a million Dollar a day to just feed their soldiers for the past two years. Had they used all their human and financial resources to combat drought and famine, the lives of their peoples would not have been at stake. It hurts when millions of people are dislocated because of war and hunger. I doubt whether Ethiopia has seen a whole year of peace for the last sixty years. So, when will she have time to combat the adversity of nature? So, how could she accumulate the wealth she needs to eradicate poverty and disease?

Feudalism hampered the development of agriculture before the Derg came to power. When the Derg seized power, “military communism”, which nationalized land, made agriculture worst. People hoped that the Government which assumed power after the Derg would improve the situation of rural and urban land ownership. The present Government has not done any better. It still continues the policy of the Derg. It is a communist at heart regretting the fact that communism collapsed when it just came to power after championing communism for more than a decade when it was waging guerrilla warfare against the Derg. It is the sole owner of land. Playing the role of the land lords, which the people of Ethiopia thought have gotten rid off, it leases lands at astronomical prices, limits land-holdings to the extent that the lands which farmers till are too insignificant to contribute anything to the food surplus of the nation. It kills the incentive of people who want to engage in essential commercial farming. And it impoverishes more the already impoverished peasants. Most of all, it becomes an indirect cause of hunger. The land lease policy of the current Government of Ethiopia, is indeed, a major factor which contributes to the worsening of famine in Ethiopia. Unless this policy is abolished altogether, agriculture and urban life will not get any better. The rationale of the Government for not privatizing land is that it fears the peasants would sell whatever land they are tilling on, to rich landowners and either become rural proletariat or migrate to the cities to become jobless beggars. This sort of attitude undermines the intelligence of the peasants. The Government’s argument is tantamount to saying that it knows better than the peasants what is good for them. The peasants are not that foolish to sell their land (their livelihood) and abandon the place of their birth, if they could do well on that land. Since Ethiopian peasants were never given neither in the past nor in the present, the fertile lands they needed badly to improve their livelihood, to think that they would sell those lands and head for the cities to be more impoverished is a sheer speculation on the part of the Government. On the contrary, it is when they are denied the land they need terribly that they are impoverished and migrate to the cities losing any hope. This has been evidenced by the thousands of peasants who ran away from the rural areas because of bad land lease and distribution policy and over-taxation to turn into beggars in cities like Addis Abeba and Nazareth. On the contrary, if land was privatized, at least some individuals would have the incentive and the energy to work hard and create jobs for those poor farmers and contribute to the surplus of the food of the nation preventing hunger and stopping the migration of peasants to the cities.

Speaking about Ethiopia, the Government of Ethiopia is duty-bound to enrich the nutritional habits of its citizens as well. The absence of proper nutritional education and diversification shorten the life-span of Ethiopians and add fuel to the flame of hunger. Ironically enough, when some Ethiopians say the price of food is soaring or there is shortage of food , mostly they have in mind Teff and meat. They don’t mean serials, vegetables and fruits which grow wild or which they can grow in their backyard to withstand hunger. Of course, by lack of meat, they are not thinking about sea-food or wild animals. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Ethiopians would rather die than eat prawns ,shrimps or crabs, which in the West only the wealthy could afford to eat! According to Reuters, a miracle took place in Southern Ethiopia in a region affected by drought and famine when out of the blue rained live and some dead fish from the sky, which could be likened to the dropping of Manna and bird meat from the sky to feed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. Obviously, the initial reaction of those religious hungry Ethiopians was not a pleasant one. They just ran away from it in shock. I wouldn’t be surprised if they let all those fish rot out in the open air instead of storing and eating them later. Unbalanced diet and non-diversified eating habits should not be overlooked while considering malnutrition and famine.

We pointed out the problem of drought and famine briefly, but we didn’t discuss the solutions. The solutions are simple. It should be clear from the outset that relief aid won’t solve the problem. From the donor governments point view, relief food, instead of relieving the famished people of Africa or Asia, actually relieves the farmers of the donor countries from the burden of storing unwanted surplus food for which they have no market. In stead of burning the excess of food or dumping it under the sea as it has often occurred in the past to control price, they would rather buy it from their own farmers and dump it on the victims of famine. On top of that, they are creating business for their shipping companies which will have an ideal opportunity to transport tons of food, thus boosting their profit. If that was not the case, the donors would have gone straight to the famine-stricken countries with the money handy and bought food on the spot saving the time that is wasted on sea and in the air for transportation. This way, they could have reached the victims quicker while they are still alive, and they could also have enriched the local merchants who always have some food in store for sale regardless of drought and famine. Though the intention of relief aid is good when one considers the common folks of the West who give generously their hard-earned money to help victims of famine, relief is nothing but relief. It is indeed good as far as alleviating temporary hunger, though most of the time it doesn’t reach the victims at all, or if does reach them, it is when it is already too late; and even though it could be used as a political instrument by inhuman politicians. In any case, it is not a long lasting solution. It might even be a problem than a solution since it makes the victims dependent than self-reliant. It breaks the pride and self-esteem of the victims. It leaves them at the mercy of others and reduces them to shameless beggars. So, a long-lasting solution should be found. Instead of giving a man a fish everyday, as the old saying goes, teach him how to fish, so that he could be self-reliant. Frankly, no foreign expert can teach much the indigenous peoples of Africa when it come to agriculture. On the contrary, the expert can learn a lot from them, since they have accumulated knowledge, seasoned and refined over the last few millions of years, until it was suppressed by colonialism. The solution is in reverting to the old ways of agriculture, to the time Africans farmed using drought resistant seeds, applying mixed and alley farming and practicing rotation system with organic fertilizers in exactly the same manner as they did in the days gone by farming enough to feed the mouths of her people first, and then exporting the surplus. To this end, the old seeds which used to germinate and grow with little or no rain even in the most arid parts of the world, those neglected, abandoned and forgotten seeds also known as “life-savers” should be found and identified. A case in point is Ye-eb, a plant which yields nuts growing in the arid desert of Ogaden, Ethiopia.

This plant can grow with less than six inches of rain. People in the area survived for hundreds of years eating the nuts of Ye-eb when food was scarce. Unfortunately due to civil-wars and social problems, dislocations, and focus on other crops which are absolute rain-dependent, this plant has been forgotten and is disappearing. Had this plant been taken care of and allowed to spread all over Ogaden instead of drought-sensitive crops such as corn and sorghum, these people to whom foreign relief has not yet reached due to inaccessibility of the region, would definitely feed on Ye-eb and avert death. Ye-eb is one of the many African plants which should be retrieved and planted abundantly in the future to fight famine.

Amaranth is most amazing African plant which has all the vital vitamins, protein and minerals one needs for one’s life. It grows without any rain; just with early morning moistures. Fortunately, people in some remote African areas still eat it during famine and drought and survive with it, whereas those who depended on corn and other plants which grow with the help of fertilizers and rain, die by thousands. By the way, Amaranth was the most common food in the Americas and it is still being enjoyed in Mexico as an indigenous food. One can find it in Illinois as well. Unfortunately, people in the US and Europe think it is only a garden flower which is just beautiful to look at.

A number of good individuals whose hearts burn with the passion to help the starving people of Africa have researched on indigenous African plants which grow in arid regions with little or no rain at all, and come up with a list of interesting crops. The person who dedicated his life most to find these crops and experiment how to improve and multiply them was a gentle man called Robert Rodale. He spent millions of dollars and many years to this end. In his book, SAVE THREE LIVES, he names these special crops and tells their incredible story. A few more of these life-saving crops which Africans should restore and grow more in stead of coffee, cotton, nuts and corns are the African Yam Bean, the Bambara Groundnut, the Desert Date, the Hausa Potato, the Hungry Rice, the Marama Bean, the Tamarind, and of course, Ethiopia’s staple food, Teff. If I was not bound by time, I would have liked to elaborate on the botanical property and nutritional value of all these incredible plants. For now, however, I guess this suffices. Nevertheless, I would like to state that instead of coffee, cocoa and cotton, if Africans were allowed and encouraged to grow these indigenous plants, feed on them and export the surplus, they can generate a huge amount of hard currency in a mutual and healthy manner thus converting these plants into cash crops. Experts tell us that there are at least 2,000 indigenous food plants lying unappreciated in scattered parts of Africa while millions of Africans are the brink of famine and death.

Legumes, those ancient African plants could be revived to play a vital role in fertilizing the crops naturally by releasing a tremendous amount of free nitrogen which will save the financial and ecological damage which chemical fertilizers cause. According to Robert Rodale, if rows of fast-growing leguminous trees are planted in line with alley-cropping system leaving some rooms for other crops to grow in between, the leguminous trees not only will generate free fertilizers, but will also prevent soil erosion and provide shade for those plants that are sensitive to excessive heat. Parallel to this, the leguminous trees could be cut five times a year and grow back right away to solve the problem of fire-wood and at the same time, resolving deforestation, which by itself causes drought and famine. Besides, the leaves of the leguminous trees will be an ideal source of food for animals. Growing leguminous trees in the form of alleys indeed serve diverse purposes.

How about tractors? Don’t we need them at all? Well, if tractors contribute to famine and hunger as they have done in the past, we don’t need them. It is better to farm with some animals or even with hand tools and avert famine and hunger, isn’t it? Non the less, if tractors or any farming machinery could be built right in Africa consistently, and African engineers and technicians will be available to guarantee the durability of these machines, we should go for them.

After I have said all this you might be wondering what the role of The World Bank is in all of this, and whether it can play any role at all in the future. It depends on your goal. If your goal is to help those who suffer from poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and I am sure you would like to do so, then you should deal with alternative private organizations which work on grass-root levels hand in hand with organizations and people and who need every assistance badly, advocating the return to the good old ways of African agriculture which have proven to be successful for millions of years. If such organizations don’t exist, encourage and promote their creation since you have the voice and the resources to do so. African farmers are honest and hard-working. If you help them to travel back on the old path of agriculture and ecological preservation, they will succeed immensely. Not only will they be able to feed themselves and solve the ecological equation, but they will also be able to market the drought-proof, indigenous African crops and their by-products, and pay you back your loans, which governments have failed to pay. I will be their guarantor!

Thank you for your attention.

(originally published on Addis Tribune)

Amaranth (photo courtesy: SciDev.Net)

Tamarind (photo courtesy: Sarasota Fruit & Nut Society)

Ye-eb or Yeheb (photo courtesy: komaluyo.com)

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