Farmers give silver lining to famine clouds

Farmers give silver lining to famine clouds FOR THE first time in many years, Ethiopian leaders are talking of self-sufficiency in food, buoyed by UN forecasts of a record harvest of 7.7 million tonnes of cereals and pulses this year. Such a crop would reduce the country's need for food aid by 50 per cent.

The world had come to consider Ethiopia a synonym for hunger in the 10 years since a famine claimed one million lives. This year, though more than four million Ethiopians will still require food aid to survive, the change for them is for the better.

A recent spell of good rains is partly responsible for the optimistic forecasts, though the transformation of the centrally-planned economy of the previous rigidly Marxist regime has also contributed to it. Hundreds of people in the government bureaucracy have been retrenched; the currency has been devalued to almost the black-market rate; military spending has been halved; farm prices have been freed, and plots of communal land given back to small holders.

These factors, combined with a tight lid on government spending, brought down inflation from 24.8 per cent in 1991 to 12.9 per cent last year.

Responding positively to these initiatives, Ethiopian farmers tilled an additional 500,000 ha last year. But, Ethiopia still has a long way to go and hurdles along the way are an inexperienced leadership under the President, Meles Zenawi, the division of the country into sharply defined ethnic regions and the effect that potential Eritrean independence could have on the country as a whole.