Ethiopian landscapes

Stevens, Douglas

ETHIOPIAN LANDSCAPES THE POLITICS OF WATERING A DESERT DOUGLAS STEVENS The doors of the airplane swing open to the famil iar smells of Addis Ababa: urine, spice, and eucalyptus smoke. I take...

...In the absence of village solidarity and initiative, what is the correct role for the government to play...
...If the hillsides were given to us to control, the animals would be back the next day and the ground would be bare in a week...
...In Nepal, the terracing was of an almost erotic beauty, a perfect fusion of man and mountainside...
...Whatever the sins of the ancien regime, it is difficult to muster much affection for the "revolutionaries" who have followed...
...The bill for six days is $51, and the place is just about worth it...
...Work plans for each area are developed through consultation with local peasants...
...most of the trees die...
...how much of this work will endure...
...people have stayed here before...
...I wonder the same about these vast projects we are seeing...
...Villages are choked with dust in the dry season and mud in the wet, and epidemics sweep freely through the crowds...
...when it strikes, everybody moves, the happy and the sad...
...Everywhere you go in the project areas, people tell stories of eroding hillsides that have been stabilized, once-dry springs that now flow again, improved soil fertility, reduced flooding, double- or triplecropping on newly-irrigated land...
...In the last category, I think of the man who told us how use of the local hillsides has been changing...
...After the Revolution, nearby villagers invaded the hillsides, which were then stripped bare...
...There was a phenomenon in Welo then called "closDOUGLAS STEVENS is a pseudonym...
...March: "The Oromo people live in round houses built of locally available materials wood or bamboo and are thatched...
...These are the lucky ones, since there have been periods when practically anyone might simply kill you...
...We sit '___..^, they sit on the ground...
...I am told the calendar will become a collector's item...
...The Ethiopian Airlines calendar for 1987 has sketches and descriptions of traditional houses from various parts of the country...
...The disorder is gone, and so is the harmony...
...And the hard work is yet to come: most of the roadside areas (where food payments can easily be made) have now been treated, leaving much less accessible areas (which often have the most severe erosion) for the projects' next phases...
...many people are unaffected...
...you there, move out of the area...
...Here in the field, the facts of development are often obscure and capricious...
...It makes me think of technologies like the space shuttle look what we can do...
...653 It can be a hard place, this new People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia...
...ing the house:" families would tidy up their affairs, sit down together, and die...
...Now, there is need for new ways of controlling access, so the hillsides will provide something for everyone...
...Images: Rounding a curve, we burst upon a herd boy and his flock of sheep: In an instant, he has scooped the smallest lamb into his arms and leaped for the roadside...
...A new thought, and the expressions shift, falling into dissonant clusters along lines of disagreement...
...When he takes a shower, the water pours through the floor...
...Patches of rich, freshly-plowed earth alternate with patches of crops ready for harvest after the short rains...
...Some people are bored now, some alert...
...Beneath them, through a great cut in the mountainside, you look at the valley far below...
...Such crushing, dead weight in language like this...
...It came from centuries of rubbing away at the hills, until their most intimate contours were wholly known...
...It is a game played with indecent success by Party members, government officials, merchants, whoever has access to the pie...
...Let me finally remember that of Ethiopia...
...In some places, people didn't even bother to plant their short-rains crops, preferring to catch up on marriages and memorial services instead...
...there are also many sticks...
...No conversation goes long without reference to this.' 'Just when we get our storekeepers trained, they get sent off to jail...
...Isn't there something wrong here...
...but what can we expect to come of it...
...This is the region where the BBC took all those films of starving children in 1984...
...For example, a group of villagers is told by the government to keep its animals off traditional grazing areas on nearby hillsides...
...When the man upstairs flushes his toilet, a sampling leaks out of the pipes onto the toilet seat below...
...Now, hillsides are green...
...One reason the country is so vulnerable to famine is that topsoils are everywhere washing away...
...Mile after mile, there are woodlots, bunds, regenerated hillsides...
...We are meeting with a group of farmers and local officials...
...Halfway to Dessie, the road winds down off the high central plateau in order to move north through the Rift Valley...
...In a year or two, the foliage has grown back and the hillsides stop washing into the valley...
...One person I met spent four years in prison for what his discharge papers called "suspicion of associating with a certain organization...
...So these projects thrive on famine, and lose momentum when the harvest is good...
...A woman I talk to is worrying about her daughter in the U. S.: " She is now my oldest child, since the government shot my son/' Not many people here are without stories like these...
...but nobody knows that yet...
...ETHIOPIAN LANDSCAPES THE POLITICS OF WATERING A DESERT DOUGLAS STEVENS The doors of the airplane swing open to the familiar smells of Addis Ababa: urine, spice, and eucalyptus smoke...
...Now, everyone has been "villagized" by central decree, and the houses are lined up in rows like military barracks...
...Still, working here forces you to think in new ways about coercion...
...In the course of all this work, fundamental issues are being confronted: how to manage woodlots for sustained yield of the products people most need, how to control access to communal resources...
...I'm glad I'm not the one who has to decide what to do...
...The restaurant menu features "PIN APPLE BROKEN SLICE," though there isn't any this week...
...It is like an orchestra, which I am conducting through my questions...
...closures sharply increase access to fodder...
...Between these modes of experience is a chasm so vast as to be almost unbridgeable...
...Suddenly, the faces all set stonily in opposition to a line of questioning...
...In Addis Ababa, people talk ironically about the pursuit of the "3 Vs" Videos, Volvos, and Villas...
...So simple and direct...
...Given the pace of villagization, there soon won't be any traditional housing in Ethiopia...
...Not understanding the language, I see only complex rhythms and tones of expression...
...Before the 1974 Revolution (he explained), only the ten or fifteen most powerful people could take grass and wood from the hillsides, so the foliage constantly renewed itself...
...Others are less happy, finding themselves jammed together with people they don't like, far from their fields and grazing lands...
...More and more these projects seem to me a metaphor for how things are in socialist Ethiopia...
...We have heard similar stories from soil conservation officers who close off grazing lands to let them regenerate...
...work plans are arbitrarily handed down by bureaucrats in Addis Ababa...
...When the lights fail in the bar, pocket flashlights flick on all around...
...There is a rationale for this...
...They will regret this, since the big rains are about to fall again...
...He was running the zonal office until he went to jail.'' "He's out of jail now and back on the job...
...Simplicity is the exception...
...At best, therefore, things are standing still...
...To repair the damage, foreign donors give people food as payment to plant trees, to build bunds and hillside terraces anything that will renew and stabilize the soil...
...Images: A baby donkey lies dead in the road, looking so very surprised and disappointed...
...Most of the trees live...
...What do you do with information like this...
...It leads to a sense of defeat, a corruption of spirit...
...There was disorder there, and complete harmony...
...All these observations are accurate, I think, and they reflect Ethiopia's'troubled state: some people are better off...
...Some people like the result anyway, especially the young, who enjoy the villages' open social life...
...It is a vital learning process for both farmers and government officials...
...Even these results depend on a great deal of coercion, leaving farmers poised between gratitude for progress made and resentment at being pushed around...
...In one respect at least, the Ethiopian Revolution has been a democratizing force: there are now many more people than before with the power to push other people around...
...Rule of Thumb (as expressed by a government official): "When you're using food as a paymerit to get work done, the most cooperative peasant is a hungry peasant...
...We speak to a forester, who tells us how he shifts families and villages around to make room for his fuelwood plantations...
...You move your animals off the hillside...
...654...
...At one point, I am at the end of a bridge on the Gonder road, looking at the terraced hillside opposite...
...Slopes once bare are covered with grasses that can be cut and carried to the livestock...
...Much of this work (say, one-third) has failed to last...
...Even if this has been (say) only two-thirds effective, many thousands of people have benefited...
...When the rains don't come, or when they come too fast, the thin soils cannot hold the crops...
...Eagles hang motionless in midair here, resting on the winds sweeping up the mountain's face...
...The sense of helplessness and dependency has deep roots in Ethiopian social history...
...We are driving back to Addis Ababa...
...Do I really have a good enough ear to be playing this role...
...the "correct'' line (tuned carefully to what the visitors want to hear...
...When he goes for a stroll amongst his trees, he takes bodyguards along to avoid embarrassmeiit...
...The food is the carrot...
...Farmers voluntarily maintain their soil bunds...
...You've got to be impressed by how much these projects have gotten done: everyone says that...
...In every such discussion with farmers, there emerge three lines of thought: the negative and discouraged view (with its implicit appeal for help...
...For example, practically anyone can throw you in jail: police, army, your neighborhood council...
...Hillside closures sharply reduce the farmers' access to fodder...
...the author is a development analyst who has written for Commonweal previously on third-world issues...
...Party and government have simply assumed the coercive role of the pre-revolutionary landlord...
...We are driving to Dessie, in the heart of Welo...
...Back at headquarters, thoughts about development are clear and consistent...
...When I was here many years ago, I was struck by the beauty of that valley: it was as if God had flung down a great handful of mud houses and gardens and people, scattering them across the Rift...
...It is an act of instinctive love: I know my sheep, and my sheep know me...
...Little by little, new conservation practices are becoming ingrained in local culture, and land is being reborn...
...How can bureaucrat and farmer ever hope to touch...
...farmers are so dependent on food aid that they maintain bunds only when paid...
...It is the peril of leaving the office and confronting the real world...
...Every piece of information we have heard on this trip has, within twenty-four hours, been directly contradicted by some other piece of information...
...But villagization is a blunt instrument...
...There was a bridge and a hillside like this where I worked once in Nepal, and I can't help comparing the views...
...We stay at the Ambessel Hotel, Dessie's best...
...CASSANDRA: Over ten years, these projects have treated only 2.5 percent of the land originally defined as "highly eroded...
...At the same time, new areas are constantly becoming "highly eroded...
...it is nasty to leave the hillsides open and watch them wash away...
...Now the poetry has been swept away by a revolutionary leader: Comrade Mengistu Haile-Mariam, President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia, and Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces...
...the situation is deteriorating...
...Just before, at Tarma-ber, the road swings out to the very lip of the plateau...
...When you look closely, you see the flaws bunds broken, great gaps where the trees have died but how very much work has visibly gone into it...
...People used to make fun of the emperor for the high-flown poetry of his titles: King of Kings, Defender of the Faith, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah...
...I take a deep breath, and am happy...
...Can a change this fundamental really be sustained...
...some people are worse off...
...In Ethiopia, the marriage of people and hillside seems arranged and awkward...
...It is nasty to force people to close their hillsides...
...You can draw conclusions in alternative ways, depending on who you are: pollyANNA: Over ten years, the projects have treated vast areas of Ethiopia with conservation works or planted them in trees...
...Friends speak of their grown-up sons, bachelors at what by olden standards is an indecent age: "Today's youth don't like to marry...
...This is no small upheaval...
...But grouping farmers (at their own expense) has proved easier than providing them with services (which 652 often never come...
...You there, you move off this hillside...
...This is very good," says the leader of the local Peasants' Association, "but it works only because the Ministry of Agriculture tells us what to do...
...Nobody seems to expect reasons...
...I am in Ethiopia to look at a group of watershed management projects...
...We are in our bush-travel gear, they wear patched pants and shirts the kinds of things that come in bales from church groups overseas...
...I wish we could make him project manager...
...you move yours out of the area...
...I ask questions through an interpreter, and then watch the long discussions that follow...
...Increasingly, the projects may consist of scattered pockets of social stress (where conservation works are underway), surrounded by great areas where degradation of the land proceeds unchecked...
...We are traveling again...
...and the unexpected act of imagination...
...If people are gathered from scattered farms and grouped in villages, the government can more easily give them drinking water, schools, clinics or so goes the theory...
...they like to spend their money to entertain themselves, drinking and smoking and going with women...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 20


 
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