By Tesfamariam, Donica
Contemporary Review , Vol. 280, No. 1632
Two years after the end of a crippling war with its neighbour Ethiopia, the East African nation of Eritrea is faced with a grim food situation in a reminder of the way conflicts can destroy dreams of development. Although armed conflict ended with the signing of a peace agreement in Algiers, the troubles are far from over in Eritrea, whose population of about four million is in continued need of food aid. Worryingly, some 50,000 displaced farmers are still unable to return to their lands despite the creation of a 25-kilometre-wide demilitarized zone along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, Eritrean officials say.
In the Horn of Africa where drought is common, conflict has proved disastrous for food security. Eritrea is no newcomer to these lessons. Out of a total area of about 122,000 sq km, cultivable land constitutes about 1.6 million hectares, or 13 per cent of the total area. Only 439,000 hectares - 26 per cent of the cultivable area - are frequently cultivated, a mere four per cent of the landmass.
The population is growing at an annual rate of more than three per cent. About 65 per cent of the population lives in the four highland provinces - Asmara, Hamasien, Akele Gusai, and Seraye - that account for only 16 per cent of the total land area.
The shortage of cultivable land, along with often low and erratic rainfall, means that in the best of times food self-reliance is a hard fought matter in Eritrea.
The annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia in 1962 started off a bitter 30-year war of independence. The war, periodic drought and many widespread epidemics that wiped out huge numbers of people dashed any hopes of making progress in food production.
After claiming independence from Ethiopia in 1991, Eritrea had renewed hopes of development with agriculture as the key. Since then, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the average contribution of agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product has been about 20 per cent. But the growth rate for agriculture and fisheries has been less than one per cent. Agriculture's contribution to the GDP peaked in 1992, hit rock bottom in 1996 and began rising again in 1998 - though only temporarily.
'The reason for the peak in production in 1992 was that Eritrea had previously been engaged in the struggle for independence and 1992 marked the first time the people were able to properly till their lands after independence', said Solomon Haile, head of Planning and Statistics at the ministry.
The 1996 decline was because of low and erratic rainfall - characteristic of Eritrea's semi-arid climate. 'In 1998 we introduced integrated farming with modern machinery and farming techniques which is why we had a rise in production', Haile said. But the 1998 level could not be sustained because a border conflict escalated into large-scale fighting.
This border war proved to be completely debilitating to agriculture in particular, pushing about a third of the country's population to the brink of starvation. It not only claimed the lives of the thousands of soldiers in both countries, but also impacted on the lives of the food producing population. 'The [border] war caused the displacement of about one million people who lived in the surrounding towns and villages', said Mehretab Fissahaye, director general of Repatriation and Rehabilitation at the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERREC). Many of the displaced people came from the Gash Barka and Debub regions in the south -- the breadbasket of Eritrea. And of those displaced from the border areas, most were farmers who also owned livestock. The displacements started in mid-1997, escalated in 1998 with the second Ethiopian offensive and reached the one million mark with a third offensive in 2000. …