Ethiopia: Resettlement and Villagization

Posted: February 22, 2008 in History
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et02_02b1.jpgResettlement and Villagization

Cornfields surround a village in Ansokia Valley, 350 kilometers north of Addis Ababa.
Courtesy World VIsion (Bruce Brander)

Drought and famine have been frequent occurrences in Ethiopia. In fact, it was the imperial government’s attempt to hide the effects of the 1973-74 famine that aroused world indignation and eventually contributed to Haile Selassie I’s demise (see The Establishment of the Derg, ch. 1). Between 1984 and 1986, drought and famine again hit Ethiopia and may have claimed as many as 1 million lives and threatened nearly 8 million more (see The Politics of Drought and Famine, ch. 4). Even worse disaster was averted when the international community mounted a massive effort to airlift food and medical supplies to famine victims.

The government embarked on forced resettlement and villagization in the mid-1980s as part of a national program to combat drought, avert famine, and increase agricultural productivity. Resettlement, the regime’s long-term solution to the drought problem, involved the permanent relocation of about 1.5 million people from the drought-prone areas of the north to the south and southwest, where population was relatively sparse and so-called virgin, arable land was plentiful (see Government Rural Programs, ch. 3; The Politics of Resettlement, ch. 4).

Development specialists agreed on the need for resettlement of famine victims in Ethiopia, but once the process had begun, there was widespread criticism that resettlement was poorly planned and haphazardly executed and thus increased the number of famine deaths. Moreover, critics charged that the government forcibly relocated peasants, in the process breaking up thousands of families. Thousands also died of malaria and sleeping sickness because of poor sanitation and inadequate health care in newly settled areas. A Paris-based international doctors’ organization, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières), estimated that the forced resettlement and mass deportation of peasants for purposes of resettlement endangered the lives of 300,000 because of shortages of food, water, and medicine. Other international organizations accused the Ethiopian government of moving peasants to resettlement areas without adequate preparation of such basic items as housing, water, seeds, and tools. Because of widespread criticism, the Mengistu regime temporarily halted the resettlement program in mid-1986 after 600,000 people had been relocated, but the program resumed in November 1987.

Some sources voiced suspicion that the regime’s primary motive in resettlement was to depopulate the northern areas where it faced insurgencies. Resettlement, the argument went, would reduce the guerrillas’ base of support. But this argument did not take into account the strength of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (see The Tigrayan Movement, ch. 4; The Tigray, ch. 5). Another Western objection to the resettlement program related to the long-term government policy concerning peasant farms. Western countries, on whose support the resettlement program depended, did not want to sponsor a plan in which recruits labored for communist-style collectives and state farms.

The villagization program, the regime’s plan to transform rural society, started in earnest in January 1985 (see The Politics of Villagization, ch. 4). If completed, the program might have uprooted and relocated more than 30 million peasants over a nine-year period. The regime’s rationale for the program was that the existing arrangement of dispersed settlements made it difficult to provide social services and to use resources, especially land and water, efficiently. The relocation of the peasants into larger villages (with forty to 300 families, or 200 to 2,500 people) would give rural people better access to amenities such as agricultural extension services, schools, clinics, water, and electricity cooperative services and would strengthen local security and the capacity for self-defense. Improved economic and social services would promote more efficient use of land and other natural resources and would lead to increased agricultural production and a higher standard of living.

More specifically, the Ethiopian government perceived villagization as a way to hasten agricultural collectivization. Most peasant farming in Ethiopia was still based on a traditional smallholding system, which produced 90 percent of farm output, employed about 80 percent of the labor force, and accounted for 94 percent of cultivable land in 1985. State farms and cooperative farms were responsible for only 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of cultivated land.

By the end of 1988, more than 12 million people had been relocated in villages in twelve of the fourteen administrative regions. The exceptions were Eritrea and Tigray, where insurgents were waging war against the regime. In 1989 the total reached about 13 million people. Some regions implemented villagization more rapidly than others. In Harerge, where the program began in 1985, more than 90 percent of the population had been relocated to villages by early 1987, whereas in Gonder and Welo the program was just beginning. In Ilubabor more than 1 million peasants had been relocated to 2,106 villages between December 1985 and March 1989. Nomadic peoples and shifting cultivators were not affected by villagization.

The verdict on villagization was not favorable. Thousands of people fled to avoid villagization; others died or lived in deplorable conditions after being forcibly resettled. Moreover, the program’s impact on rural peasants and their social and economic well-being remained to be assessed. There were indications that in the short term, villagization may have further impoverished an already poor peasantry. The services that were supposed to be delivered in new villages, such as water, electricity, health care clinics, schools, transportation, and agricultural extension services, were not being provided because the government lacked the necessary resources. Villagers therefore resorted to improvised facilities or reverted to old ways of doing things. Villagization also reduced the productive capacity of the peasants by depriving them of the opportunity for independent organization and action. By increasing the distance peasants had to travel to work on their land and graze their cattle, villagization wasted time and effort. Denied immediate access to their fields, the peasants were also prevented from guarding their crops from birds and other wild animals.

In the long run, analysts believed that villagization would be counterproductive to a rational land use system and would be damaging ecologically. Concentrating people in a central area would, in time, intensify pressure on available water and grazing and lead to a decline in soil fertility and to a poorer peasantry. The ecological damage could be averted by the application of capital investment in infrastructure, such as irrigation and land-intensive agricultural technology and strict application of land rotation to avert overgrazing. But resources were unavailable for such agricultural investment.

The most bitter critics of villagization, such as Survival International, a London-based human rights organization, argued that the Mengistu regime’s noneconomic objective in villagization was control of the population. Larger villages would facilitate the regime’s control over the population, cut rebels off from peasant support, and discourage dissident movements. Indeed, some observers believed that the reason for starting villagization in Harerge and Bale was nothing less than to suppress support of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

After the government’s announcement of the new economic policy in March 1990, peasants were given the freedom to join or abandon cooperatives and to bring their produce to market. Hence, the Mengistu regime abandoned one of the strong rationales for villagization and, in effect, the whole program as well.

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