The Golden Fields of Amhara-land

Ethiopian ShepherdThe fields stretch out across the horizon. An attenuated, high altitude light falls on the dark volcanic soils. The rusted hulks of dead war machines litter the roads. A shepherd boy smacks a goat into line, driving them all back into line. Baboons scamper across the highway. The main north-south artery between Addis Ababa and Axum is a dirt road. It is a more fecund land than I ever expected. But who could blame me for thinking otherwise? After all, in the 1980s Ethiopia was a famine crippled land.

But it is a fragile fecundity, dependent as much on the counter-Monsoon as India is. A full 60% of the water volume that flows into the Nile drains out of Ethiopia, as well. Significant portions of Ethiopia are very arid. The area north of Gonder on the road to Axum is semi-arid, but by the time I arrived in Axum it was all dust and sand with only a little, very sparse vegetation. Most of the Tigray region is like this, as well. The Awash Basin, a newly formed mass (new in geological terms) of sand, sulfur and dust, is being shorn from Africa to the East as the Red Sea and Arabia pull it away from the continent. And to the South of Addis? Well, I don’t know what the farm land is like there. I didn’t see it. Ethiopia is also densely populated. At least in Amharaland–that area in the center of the country which is dominated by the Amharan-speakers. It’s a land of small farms, lots of people and extreme poverty, as they eke out a meager existence farming tef, a crop grown only in Ethiopia used to make injera, that nasty, slightly sour and spongy bread the Ethiopians so love.

And now, into this mix of dire poverty and overpopulation comes the mega-farm. Ethiopia is now selling leasing it’s most precious resource: it’s land. And some people think this is just peachy:

many experts are cautiously hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed millions by industrializing agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where about 80 percent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields with oxen.

In this age where the US has become a net food importer anyone who believes that industrial agri-business is a good thing needs to have a long talk with Don Henry Ford, Jr. Industrial food production does increase yields, but at the cost of food quality and a serious decrease in the redundancy of food distribution. In a country like Ethiopia, which has suffered famine in the past, a lack of redundancy in distribution can be cataclysmic.

If this trend continues in Ethiopia the following will happen: many, many farmers will be driven off their land. After that they will swarm the cities. And when the crops fail, due to a poor Monsoon, one of two things will happen: the big agri-farms will suck as much water out of the lakes and the Nile drainage in Ethiopia and the Sudan and Egypt will suffer. Or, there will be famine in Ethiopia. Or both.

Leave a Reply