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Looking for fertile land in a hungry country

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.

3 thoughts on “Looking for fertile land in a hungry country

  1. In Ethiopia, millions of people today suffer from the painful effects of poverty because their leaders do not follow these simple yet profound instructions that God recorded long ago in the Bible!
    This is an excerpt from an article titled ‘Lifting the Burden of Poverty’
    By Douglas S. Winnail from Tomorrows W

    …The Bible offers specific advice to leaders, because leaders have a tremendous effect on the people they lead. “A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor, but he who hates covetousness will prolong his days… When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan… The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked does not understand such knowledge” (Proverbs 28:16; 29:2, 7).

    …Every 50th year was a “jubilee” year (Leviticus 25:8–17). During the jubilee year, all land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners. This principle prevented the accumulation of land in the hands of a few rich people (see Isaiah 5:8). Today, without this principle in effect, millions and millions of people live as landless peasants dependent on the whims of affluent landowners. Professor Ronald Sider commented on the reasons behind the return of land during the jubilee year: “In an agricultural society, land is capital. Land was the basic means of producing wealth… In the beginning [when God set up the nation of Israel] the land had been divided more or less equally among the tribes and families (Numbers 26:52–56). Apparently God wanted that basic equality to continue. Hence His command to return all land to the original owners every fifty years. Private property was not abolished. But the means of producing wealth were to be equalized regularly” (Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider, p. 80). Sider continues: “Physical handicaps, death of a breadwinner or lack of natural ability may lead some people to become poorer than others. But God does not want such disadvantages to lead to greater and greater divergence of wealth and poverty. God therefore gave His people a law which would equalize land ownership every fifty years… the biblical concept of jubilee underlines the importance of institutionalized mechanisms and structures that promote justice” (ibid.). ..

    So! Where are you those who have been claiming that we are a father or a mother of spiritual life of poor and innocent Ethiopians? Do you really know what is going on in Ethiopia? Do you(the so called Priests, Pope, Imam or Emir and so on)really stand for your poor people? Go on public and say NO NO NO to Melese and his collaborators! This is YOUR JOB DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES! Nothing else! Cry Cry for your people before time is out of your hands?

  2. I can understand why foreigners ask questions like why land for sale when the indigenous are hungry? However, it is incomprehensible as to why Ethiopians would ask a question like this. This indicates a lack of understanding where the Country is today. This government is a sworn enemy of Ethiopia and Ethiopians working to destroy the nation and its people. The ONLY solution lies on collective fighting to get rid of this ethnic menace. Please for God sake; stop wasting time and energy when you know the response by the communist juntas. Instead get together and fight to liberate Ethiopia and Ethiopians once and for all.

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