By Coco McCabe | Oxfam UK
In August 2009, I found myself sitting on the damp earth of Dida Liben, a once-prosperous pastureland in southern Ethiopia where both wild and domestic animals thrived. Today, it’s mostly hard-packed dirt, pocked with patches of stubby grass and thorny bushes — except where I was perched with a small gathering of local elders.
Around us, the grass had grown tall and thick, the result of an Oxfam-supported conservation effort that had set aside 275 acres of pasture and fenced it off with a bramble enclosure to give the land time to recover. And it had, gloriously, prompting the elders to luxuriate in the feel of the grass all around them, as they had when they were children. Even some of the wildlife was coming back including antelopes, rabbits and boars.
But a tinge of fear colored their reminiscences. What if someone were to see how good all of this had become and decide to take it away? That was the first thing Kotola Buyale, wrapped up in a tight red shawl, wanted to talk about as we sank into the tall grasses to get out of the wind. What if?
Shopping abroad for places to plant
The elder’s words came back to me like an omen when I read a story in the New York Times about how rich countries with limited land suitable for farming are now shopping abroad for places to plant so they can feed their people. And guess where they’re looking? Ethiopia, where hunger regularly stalks almost eight million people. The story reported that the country’s ministry of agriculture has tagged more than seven million acres as virgin land and plans to lease half of it, very soon, to foreign investors for just 50 cents an acre per year. It’s part of a trend now sweeping the globe. In May 2009, the Economist reported that in the last three years foreigners had secured deals or engaged in talks on between 15 million and 20 million hectares of farm land in developing countries.
Surely Ethiopia, one of the poorest places in the world — it’s 171st on a United Nation’s index of 182 countries that measures national wellbeing — could benefit from some robust foreign investment. But it must be the kind that helps the government meet its responsibility to ensure people have enough to eat. Is 50 cents an acre that kind of a deal? And for people who must certainly be living on those millions of acres, will there be long-term benefits they can count on from these investments? The government, like any government in this situation, should insist on it.
The pressure is on
The pressure is on. And Ethiopians feel it, even as they scramble to find ways to feed themselves. It’s hard not to admire the drive and entrepreneurial spirit of a man like Huka Balambal, a herder in southern Ethiopia who knew he needed to find a different way to provide for his family when repeated droughts shriveled the pasture on which his livestock depended. First, he taught himself to farm. Then, he devised an entire irrigation system for his small plot near the Dawa River. Now, harvests of corn and onions have eased his situation considerably.
That kind of determination can help feed a nation — if the government ensures people have the resources and support they need.