From long march to great leap

Sen, Sudhir

652: 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....

...We are meeting with a group of farmers and local officials...
...It leads to a sense of defeat, a corruption of spirit...
...When the lights fail in the bar, pocket flashlights flick on all around...
...No conversation goes long without reference to this.' 'Just when we get our storekeepers trained, they get sent off to jail...
...653 It can be a hard place, this new People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia...
...The Ethiopian Airlines calendar for 1987 has sketches and descriptions of traditional houses from various parts of the country...
...Halfway to Dessie, the road winds down off the high central plateau in order to move north through the Rift Valley...
...It makes me think of technologies like the space shuttle look what we can do...
...The bill for six days is $51, and the place is just about worth it...
...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...
...There was a phenomenon in Welo then called "closDOUGLAS STEVENS is a pseudonym...
...and the unexpected act of imagination...
...We have heard similar stories from soil conservation officers who close off grazing lands to let them regenerate...
...Little by little, new conservation practices are becoming ingrained in local culture, and land is being reborn...
...In some places, people didn't even bother to plant their short-rains crops, preferring to catch up on marriages and memorial services instead...
...How can bureaucrat and farmer ever hope to touch...
...We sit '___..^, they sit on the ground...
...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...
...Beneath them, through a great cut in the mountainside, you look at the valley far below...
...What do you do with information like this...
...they like to spend their money to entertain themselves, drinking and smoking and going with women...
...You've got to be impressed by how much these projects have gotten done: everyone says that...
...When the man upstairs flushes his toilet, a sampling leaks out of the pipes onto the toilet seat below...
...people have stayed here before...
...But villagization is a blunt instrument...
...I am told the calendar will become a collector's item...
...More and more these projects seem to me a metaphor for how things are in socialist Ethiopia...
...Isn't there something wrong here...
...Still, working here forces you to think in new ways about coercion...
...Do I really have a good enough ear to be playing this role...
...Images: A baby donkey lies dead in the road, looking so very surprised and disappointed...
...many people are unaffected...
...some people are worse off...
...652: 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...
...When he goes for a stroll amongst his trees, he takes bodyguards along to avoid embarrassmeiit...
...It is nasty to force people to close their hillsides...
...Even if this has been (say) only two-thirds effective, many thousands of people have benefited...
...Nobody seems to expect reasons...
...These are the lucky ones, since there have been periods when practically anyone might simply kill you...
...Such crushing, dead weight in language like this...
...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...
...Hillside closures sharply reduce the farmers' access to fodder...
...This is the region where the BBC took all those films of starving children in 1984...
...Just before, at Tarma-ber, the road swings out to the very lip of the plateau...
...the author is a development analyst who has written for Commonweal previously on third-world issues...
...Farmers voluntarily maintain their soil bunds...
...One reason the country is so vulnerable to famine is that topsoils are everywhere washing away...
...Between these modes of experience is a chasm so vast as to be almost unbridgeable...
...It is an act of instinctive love: I know my sheep, and my sheep know me...
...It is like an orchestra, which I am conducting through my questions...
...The restaurant menu features "PIN APPLE BROKEN SLICE," though there isn't any this week...
...Back at headquarters, thoughts about development are clear and consistent...
...One person I met spent four years in prison for what his discharge papers called "suspicion of associating with a certain organization...
...You move your animals off the hillside...
...I'm glad I'm not the one who has to decide what to do...
...I take a deep breath, and am happy...
...farmers are so dependent on food aid that they maintain bunds only when paid...
...Can a change this fundamental really be sustained...
...We stay at the Ambessel Hotel, Dessie's best...
...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...
...It is a game played with indecent success by Party members, government officials, merchants, whoever has access to the pie...
...I ask questions through an interpreter, and then watch the long discussions that follow...
...There was disorder there, and complete harmony...
...it is nasty to leave the hillsides open and watch them wash away...
...Now, hillsides are green...
...March: "The Oromo people live in round houses built of locally available materials wood or bamboo and are thatched...
...Mile after mile, there are woodlots, bunds, regenerated hillsides...
...there are also many sticks...
...Not understanding the language, I see only complex rhythms and tones of expression...
...All these observations are accurate, I think, and they reflect Ethiopia's'troubled state: some people are better off...
...Eagles hang motionless in midair here, resting on the winds sweeping up the mountain's face...
...but nobody knows that yet...
...A new thought, and the expressions shift, falling into dissonant clusters along lines of disagreement...
...I am in Ethiopia to look at a group of watershed management projects...
...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...
...The food is the carrot...
...In every such discussion with farmers, there emerge three lines of thought: the negative and discouraged view (with its implicit appeal for help...
...You there, you move off this hillside...
...There was a bridge and a hillside like this where I worked once in Nepal, and I can't help comparing the views...
...So these projects thrive on famine, and lose momentum when the harvest is good...
...Others are less happy, finding themselves jammed together with people they don't like, far from their fields and grazing lands...
...But grouping farmers (at their own expense) has proved easier than providing them with services (which often never come...
...Much of this work (say, one-third) has failed to last...
...ing the house:" families would tidy up their affairs, sit down together, and die...
...the situation is deteriorating...
...When he takes a shower, the water pours through the floor...
...Every piece of information we have heard on this trip has, within twenty-four hours, been directly contradicted by some other piece of information...
...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...
...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...
...the "correct'' line (tuned carefully to what the visitors want to hear...
...We speak to a forester, who tells us how he shifts families and villages around to make room for his fuelwood plantations...
...It came from centuries of rubbing away at the hills, until their most intimate contours were wholly known...
...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...
...In Nepal, the terracing was of an almost erotic beauty, a perfect fusion of man and mountainside...
...Suddenly, the faces all set stonily in opposition to a line of questioning...
...Even these results depend on a great deal of coercion, leaving farmers poised between gratitude for progress made and resentment at being pushed around...
...We are traveling again...
...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...
...When the rains don't come, or when they come too fast, the thin soils cannot hold the crops...
...At best, therefore, things are standing still...
...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...
...work plans are arbitrarily handed down by bureaucrats in Addis Ababa...
...Simplicity is the exception...
...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...
...Now, there is need for new ways of controlling access, so the hillsides will provide something for everyone...
...Some people are bored now, some alert...
...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...
...At one point, I am at the end of a bridge on the Gonder road, looking at the terraced hillside opposite...
...Villages are choked with dust in the dry season and mud in the wet, and epidemics sweep freely through the crowds...
...Given the pace of villagization, there soon won't be any traditional housing in Ethiopia...
...In the last category, I think of the man who told us how use of the local hillsides has been changing...
...There is a rationale for this...
...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...
...Now, everyone has been "villagized" by central decree, and the houses are lined up in rows like military barracks...
...So simple and direct...
...CASSANDRA: Over ten years, these projects have treated only 2.5 percent of the land originally defined as "highly eroded...
...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...
...654...
...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...
...For example, practically anyone can throw you in jail: police, army, your neighborhood council...
...I wonder the same about these vast projects we are seeing...
...Party and government have simply assumed the coercive role of the pre-revolutionary landlord...
...In Addis Ababa, people talk ironically about the pursuit of the "3 Vs" Videos, Volvos, and Villas...
...The disorder is gone, and so is the harmony...
...In Ethiopia, the marriage of people and hillside seems arranged and awkward...
...Here in the field, the facts of development are often obscure and capricious...
...At the same time, new areas are constantly becoming "highly eroded...
...you there, move out of the area...
...Let me finally remember that of Ethiopia...
...Work plans for each area are developed through consultation with local peasants...
...After the Revolution, nearby villagers invaded the hillsides, which were then stripped bare...
...I wish we could make him project manager...
...Some people like the result anyway, especially the young, who enjoy the villages' open social life...
...He was running the zonal office until he went to jail.'' "He's out of jail now and back on the job...
...This is no small upheaval...
...Patches of rich, freshly-plowed earth alternate with patches of crops ready for harvest after the short rains...
...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...
...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...
...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...
...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...
...when it strikes, everybody moves, the happy and the sad...
...closures sharply increase access to fodder...
...In the absence of village solidarity and initiative, what is the correct role for the government to play...
...In a year or two, the foliage has grown back and the hillsides stop washing into the valley...
...but what can we expect to come of it...
...how much of this work will endure...
...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...
...Whatever the sins of the ancien regime, it is difficult to muster much affection for the "revolutionaries" who have followed...
...you move yours out of the area...
...most of the trees die...
...We are driving to Dessie, in the heart of Welo...
...For example, a group of villagers is told by the government to keep its animals off traditional grazing areas on nearby hillsides...
...They will regret this, since the big rains are about to fall again...
...Most of the trees live...
...Slopes once bare are covered with grasses that can be cut and carried to the livestock...
...The sense of helplessness and dependency has deep roots in Ethiopian social history...
...It is a vital learning process for both farmers and government officials...
...It is the peril of leaving the office and confronting the real world...
...We are driving back to Addis Ababa...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 20


 
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