Interview with Tewolde (20/5/2005)

Ethiopia: basket case or organic horn of plenty?

Ravaged for decades by famine and war, Ethiopia is trying to eliminate hunger once and for all through organic farming. Robin Maynard met the man spearheading the campaign

Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, director-general of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority, is dedicated to overturning the stereotypes of despair and dependency that attach to his country and its people. A courteous, quietly spoken man, for the past 30 years he has been in the vanguard of driving an environmentally sound, grass-roots agricultural revolution in Ethiopia.

On top of that challenge, in recent years he has, as the spokesperson for the Africa Group in negotiations to establish the Cartagena protocol on trade in genetically-modified organisms, faced down global GM giants like Monsanto and Syngenta, refuting their claims that GM crops are the solution to Africa’s hunger and poverty. In 1998, he and representatives of all the African nations (bar South Africa) signed a declaration condemning Monsanto’s marketing attempts to characterise GM crops as the solution to world hunger. In 2000, along with international consumer and aid agencies, he was at the forefront in fighting off US attempts to dump GM crops on Africa as ‘food aid’.

If Africa is, in Tony Blair’s words, the scar on the world’s consciousness, then Ethiopia is surely an unhealed scab. Smarting from famine, drought and regional conflict, it is a country characterised by TV pictures of children with swollen bellies and fly-blown, listless faces. But Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher looks beyond the past half-century of conflict and political experimentation to a time when Ethiopia had a reputation not for poverty and starvation but abundance and good farming. Speaking to The Ecologist[itals] in Hampstead, north London, he says: ‘Ethiopia has suffered under famine, drought and regional warfare, but it is not a “basket case”. In contrast to the more recent stereotypes, people who visited Ethiopia in the 1930s and 1940s described it as a country of plenty, where it was unimaginable that people would go hungry. Crops grew lush in the fields and European visitors marvelled at our livestock, bigger and sturdier than cattle back home.

‘I have absolutely no doubt that Ethiopia can feed itself again, and indeed feed more than twice its present population with spare food for all. We’re some distance from that state now, and to achieve it we need some development of infrastructure: better transportation, better communications, better storage facilities and the economic capacity of individuals to buy food when needed; because you can have plenty of food in store and yet still have hunger. Solving the problem of hunger depends on more than the amount produced. But we’re well along the process of achieving enough food production. Barring a nationwide drought catching up on us, as in an El Niño year, the government’s plans are moving ahead and the country will be food self-sufficient in the next three years.’

That’s an extraordinarily bold prediction given the major drought that hit Ethiopia in 2002. The drought caused crop failure across the country, forcing the Ethiopian government to request food aid for more than 14 million people, around a quarter of the country’s total population. At the end of 2004, further drought in the Somali region of Ethiopia threatened to repeat that disaster, putting 4 million people at risk of starvation.
Elsewhere in the country inter-tribal conflicts break out over scarce water resources. Ethiopian farmers traditionally grew two crops, one snatched from the short rains of March and April, and a main crop sustained by the longer rains of the summer months. In recent years the short rains have failed altogether, while the long ones are increasingly erratic. Drought and unpredictable rainfall drive drastic but essential measures like the government’s resettlement programme of more than 2 million people ‘encouraged’ to move from the country’s fertile but degraded eastern highlands to the more sparsely populated western hills. ‘Essential’ if soil erosion is to be halted in the east; ‘drastic’ because malaria and sleeping sickness are endemic in the west. Such are the invidious choices forced upon poor nations by climate change.

Given these facts on the ground, Tewolde’s optimism sounds dangerously like the hubristic claims of the Marxist regime of colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, which set wildly ambitious targets for improved crop yields through its programme of high inputs of imported agrochemicals. Paper calculations rarely translated to the field. Faith in artificial fertilisers survived into the present government’s participation in the Sasakawa-Global 2000 programme, to boost food production through credit schemes and subsidised prices for fertilisers. But when the world market price for maize, the main crop targeted for increased production, collapsed, so did Ethiopia’s export earnings.

This is something Tewolde had predicted: ‘The reliance on fertiliser as the strategy to increase production wasn’t realistic,’ he says. ‘Who’s going to subsidise the fertiliser, when there isn’t the national economic capacity to provide subsidies? The agrochemical inputs have to be available at their market value, which currently makes them expensive. If, with their reliance on high-yield varieties dependent on chemical inputs and irrigation, the green revolution programmes of India and Asia were starting today it’s questionable whether they’d be affordable. So the Global 2000 project had a limited horizon and applicability. A more ecologically oriented management requires only the labour input from the farmers. In any case, Ethiopia is a mountainous country, with broken-up terrain, and consequently it’s very difficult to make a homogenous environment out of it. It was obvious very early on that any chemical inputs would have to be useable with and beneficial to the varieties of
seeds that the farmers themselves have access to, not some uniform seed that could be planted throughout the country.’

Convinced of the inevitable failure of Sasakawa-Global 2000, in 1996 Tewolde initiated the parallel, more localised Project Tigray to demonstrate that food security would be better attained by building on farmers’ traditional knowledge, using their ‘free’ labour and adapting available, local resources. ‘The shift away from strategies focused around agrochemical inputs is not something that I or anyone in government can claim to have introduced,’ he says. ‘We are just responding to and adding to the reality on the ground. It is the farmers themselves and their methods which have ensured that the chemicals distributed and stockpiled around the country have remained in the stores. Most of the farmers relied on use of manure, as well as fallowing fields and crop rotations, to build fertility. Through Project Tigray we’ve promoted the use of compost: a new technology to most of our farmers. We’re spreading the facts about composting, but having millions of people involved in agriculture, the same factor that prevented the spread and take-up of chemical-based agriculture, also slows down the spread of sustainable methods like composting.’

Nevertheless, Project Tigray’s results have been impressive. For example, thanks to the use of compost, yields of the commonly sown field pea the faba bean have rocketed from 500 to 2,500 kilograms per hectare. More importantly, practical evidence of Project Tigray’s increased yields has convinced the Ethiopian government to abandon agrochemical-reliant agriculture and re-orient national food and farming policy towards organic farming. In 2002 the government issued a new policy guideline on rural development, placing a priority on environmental rehabilitation as an essential factor in increasing productivity. ‘Ensure that essential ecological processes and life-support systems are sustained, biological diversity is preserved and renewable natural resources are used in such a way that their regenerative and productive capabilities are maintained, and, where possible, enhanced. Where this capacity is already impaired seek through appropriate interventions a restoration of that capability.’

Statements about shifting to sustainable agriculture are easy to make; shifting the toxic legacy of previous policies may prove more difficult. Ethiopia has one of the largest stockpiles of obsolete pesticides in Africa (estimated to amount to approximately 3,000 tonnes in 2003). Despite the danger of their spreading across the country, Tewolde sees such dumps as fitting memorials, reminding policy-makers of the inappropriateness of westernised, intensive farming techniques to Ethiopia’s topography and structure of agriculture. ‘We have this anomalous situation,’ he says. ‘We are a country with large stores of obsolete chemicals and yet have an environment that is not generally contaminated with chemicals. That’s why you’ll see very large populations of birds of prey throughout Ethiopia, such as lammergeiers, which are virtually extinct in their European ranges and yet here are common scavengers circling in their thousands over our towns and cities.
‘And thanks to Ethiopia’s great diversity and variety of crop species, pests are not so great a problem as with mono-crops planted across large, homogenous farmland. Pest outbreaks are very localised – excepting the migratory pests such as locusts and army-worms
Pests are much more of an issue when it comes to storage of crops, rather than when [crops are] in the field.’

Tewolde’s image of vulture-like lammergeiers circling above Addis Ababa evokes other less welcome powerful predators. Pesticides may have proven a false promise, but haven’t agrochemical and seed company reps been regrouping around Africa’s capital cities with the aim of persuading the continent’s politicians of the benefits of the new, improved technological fix to hunger and poverty: the claimed vitamin-enhanced, drought- and salt-resistant GM crops.

Having failed to overcome consumer resistance in Europe, the biotech companies have been playing the hunger card to exploit public guilt and uncertainty, saying that while GM crops may not be wanted or needed in the well-fed West, they are a necessity for the starving millions in less developed countries, particularly in Africa. This would have been a difficult strategy for campaigners in the developed world to counter, had it not been for spokespeople from Africa itself, Tewolde included. He says: ‘This was a very cheap ploy playing on the guilty feelings of the Europeans, who originally colonised Africa and enslaved its peoples. Your great-grandparents did this wrong and now you are joining them by continuing the tradition. This was a terrible lie. Our Africa Group decided by its own free will that, as it stands, GM technology is not good for us. The reasons are very simple: on biosafety concerns, something common to us all; I do not need to go into the details.

‘And, contrary to the claims of the GM lobby, these crops would not have fed or freed us by giving us greater control over our production, but rather enslaved Africa once more – particularly because of the patenting aspect. Through normal cross-fertilisation our farmers’ own planted seed would have acquired patented genes from neighbouring GM crops
According to international property law, those contaminated crops and seeds would become liable to payment of penalties and royalties. In other words, our farmers would become serfs to the patent-holding companies based overseas. A kind of slavery would have been reintroduced, not as historically [with] our people [being] transported to grow crops in the plantations of America, but rather that we would now be forced to grow US companies’ crops in Africa’s soil.’

So, there are no GM crops in Ethiopia, no field trials, as yet no outposts of GM companies in Addis Ababa, where their reps might hunch over their telephones waiting for pressures of conflict or climate or promises of increased export earnings to force a change of policy. This is an achievement that’s made Tewolde something of a hate figure to global agribusiness.

He says: ‘I’ll give you one example, which concerns a former US ambassador to the UN, who now runs a company that seeks to increase investment opportunities for commercial companies in Africa. When I was regional representative during the negotiations over the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, this person contacted me and said, “Why have you created this juggernaut, this big organisation that opposes Africa’s development, denying investment and keeping your young people unemployed and poor?”

‘I presumed he meant the Africa Group, so I pointed out to him that my government couldn’t even afford to send me to the negotiations. I could only attend thanks to a free ticket from the UN. My African colleagues were only there, too, thanks to hand-outs from the UN. So this was hardly a ‘juggernaut’ organisation flush with cash to help persuade people of its views. If we did manage to appeal to others, then it must be because there was something in what we had to say. [But he’d clearly come to try to make me change our stance, telling me he’d just come from our prime minister’s office. Whether that was simply to intimidate me or not, I don’t know: I never wanted to find out.]

‘Yet were we to have millions of people about to die of starvation then you would have to accept to feed them on GM foodstuffs, if those were all that were available. Hopefully, that will never happen. Should it, then the choice would be excruciatingly painful.’

Ethiopia’s harsh terrain and diversity of regions, with agriculture predominantly viable in high, mountainous areas with land broken up into small blocks farmed by more than 40 million smallholder producers, have defeated the giantist models of both centralist state-planned and corporate-owned intensive agriculture. Tewolde’s vision for Ethiopia’s agriculture is, in contrast, small-scale, locally-focused and community-owned. Its technologies and inputs can all be learned and produced by individual farmers. It is the right path for Ethiopia for the simple reason that no others are available. But it is not without huge challenges.

Project Tigray’s practical techniques – building bunds to prevent run-off and soil loss, using compost to improve soil structure, which in turn promotes moisture retention during dry spells, planting leguminous crops that fix ‘free’ nitrogen rather than depending on costly fertiliser in bags – are all making a difference as increased yields prove. But even Tigray’s 66 local schemes in operation across nine regions in Ethiopia, are modest, first steps. For outsiders to marvel again at the country’s agricultural abundance, rather than as bearers of food aid (currently standing at 300,000 tonnes annually), it’s not just compost but also hard cash that’s required.

Massive investment in storage facilities and better roads is needed nationally to ensure that any surplus food produced can be stored and got to the people who need it when the rains fail – as they certainly will under predicted climate change scenarios. But with Ethiopia’s international debt burden standing at $6.5 billion and requiring $120m annually in interest payments, and a stagnant economy growing at less than 3 per cent a year, money, like rain, is in short supply. Producing 40 per cent of the country’s GDP, agriculture is the largest sector of the economy; so on it rests not just the burden of feeding Ethiopia’s population (growing at the rate of 2 million a year), but also most of the onus of generating the cash to service its debts and construct that much-needed infrastructure.

Conventional agronomists and economists might scoff at the notion of Tewolde’s model of small-scale, organic-oriented agriculture being capable of producing the consistency and quantity of cash crops needed to satisfy international markets, even if they concede that history proves it’s the only model that stands a chance of contending with Ethiopia’s climate and terrain.

After our conversation is finished, I mull over Tewolde’s words in the only café I can find in well-heeled Hampstead that offers fair-trade coffee: an appropriate drink, given the commodity’s bitter recent history for Ethiopia. Coffee accounts for more than 87 per cent of the country’s total agricultural exports: some $6 of every $10 earned. But in 2003 world market prices for it crashed, halving Ethiopia’s export earnings from around $400m in 1997 to less than $200m. The crash was the result a poorly conceived World Bank investment programme that resulted in the emergence of Vietnam, a country with no history in the sector, as the second largest coffee producer after Brazil.

It strikes me that the roots of Tewolde’s conviction that he will confound the sceptics lie in this disaster. Ethiopia has twice derailed agricultural programmes based on quantity-oriented, mono-cropping techniques. Ethiopia’s adoption of ecological and organic techniques was less a choice than the obvious thing to do given the natural limitations of its geography and the absence of any money to subsidise yet another experiment with expensive inputs. Even had the latter not been the case, the coffee crash underlined the need to diversify from over-dependence on a single or small number of export crops sold into volatile, low-value commodity markets, which trap developing-country producers into an endless ‘race to the bottom’ to produce at the lowest cost.

Switching to ecological, organically oriented production offers the added benefit that any surplus crops produced can be marketed as quality rather than basic quantity-commodity products. If Ethiopia’s coffee, tea, cotton, pulses and other potential cash crops are increasingly focused on overseas markets for organic and fair-trade produce then Tewolde may square the circle by rebuilding Ethiopian agriculture on low-tech, locally appropriate techniques that are also attractive to high-value, international outlets. Despite such produce being surprisingly hard to find in Hampstead, there is no doubt in my mind that the potential market for fair-trade and organic produce is a surer bet than that for GM.

Robin Maynard was a founding member of Farm, the campaign for independent and sustainable farming, and is a longstanding campaigner, writer and broadcaster on environmental issues


Back to the Archive