Longing for Land

By McWhirter, Simon | Geographical, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Longing for Land


McWhirter, Simon, Geographical


As Ethiopia's food crisis worsens, its people are on the move again, desperately seeking a new home. For a while, thousands had settled in an old military camp in a national park--where these photographs were taken--but have since moved to another site. However, many problems remain: notably, where can some 35,000 or more displaced people find a permanent home on land that can support them?

Set on a high volcanic plateau pocked with alpine lakes and dissected by dramatic gorges, Bale Mountains National Park in southeastern Ethiopia is an oasis of calm in a ravaged country. Boasting the country's second-highest peak--4,377-metre Mount Tullo Deemtu--the park is also home to the greatest concentration of its endemic plant and animal species. Huge stands of juniper and hagenia trees, the habitat of Menilik's bushbuck, give way to lush mountain meadows awash with wildflowers, where the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) roams.

In recent years however, the park has seen growing numbers of newcomers unwittingly disturb this natural utopia. People had left their land in the eastern and western Hararghe region where, over the past five years, droughts and soil erosion repeatedly starved them of their harvests. Their destination was Shawe camp, a disused military complex in the park's dense Bale Zone forests, which they knew about because it was where some of the migrants had once trained. However, there was a much larger influx of migrants in November 2001 and June 2002, in Response to an initiative by the current Ethiopian government, under its revised famine policy. When the biannual rains--the springtime Belg and the autumnal Meher--once again failed, the government offered to resettle the struggling Hararghe people to patches of fertile, arable land in the Bale Zone. It was an offer they couldn't refuse.

Sadly, the promise of a new beginning also failed. All existing land in the intended relocation area has already been sub-divided so many times it's incapable of supporting more people, and a mooted alternative site, about three days' drive west of Shawe, has been deemed unsuitable. Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland (MSFH) claims the land may no longer be viable as it hasn't been cultivated for more than 15 years and the nearest water source is an arduous six-hour walk from the new site.

According to the UN's Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia, migrants were arriving at the camp in need of food and shelter, but also of clothing, cooking utensils and medical facilities. In addition, there were numerous sanitation and health problems in the form of TB, measles, malaria and the ubiquitous HIV/AIDS.

Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has acknowledged that this drought is worse than that of 1984, when a million people starved to death. "If the 1984 famine was a nightmare," he said, "then this will be too ghastly to contemplate." UN officials are already describing it as the "greatest human catastrophe of the 21st century". And the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

However, Ethiopia's problems are different this time. There are crops in the fields and food in the markets, but because of the expanding population, rising food prices, continued drought and devastating flooding, many more people are in need than before. Although the crisis hasn't yet reached famine proportions, up to 20 million Ethiopians are estimated to require aid if they are to survive. …

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