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Ethiopia - Paradise Lost Through Monocrop Agriculture

Ethiopia is known as a land of famine. In fact, its highlands are one of the most richly fertile regions in the entire world. Or at least they were, before the introduction of maize. This book tells the story of how Modern farming practices ravage the natural environment and reduce the human population to a condition of desperate poverty.

I have a new library card, now that I am an enrolled student. For me this is like being a kid in a lolly shop, I go a little nuts ! I want to read everything, at once. Some of my reading choices can be a bit random, because its all so fascinating. This book by James McCann happened to catch my eye, I was not disappointed.

McCann is an agronomist, a technician, and his style reflects that. His interest is in how stuff is grown, how the land is worked, its a farm's eye view. Inevitably, he gets drawn into the politics of food production, because that's how everything got messed up, but his distaste shines through, as does his enthusiasm for the topic, the region, and its people.

My interest lies in understanding the implications of various forms of agriculture, from all angles - the food grown, the environmental impact, the social and political consequences that flow from different kinds of production. This is new territory for me, there are some difficult problems here, no easy solutions. I have no idea what direction Ethiopia should take going in to the future, but I am interested in learning lessons from its recent past.

This is how McCann introduces his work,

"The subject of this book is the modem history of Ethiopia's agriculture and the paradox of how the land and farming system which has sustained Africa's historically most productive agricultural system can have fallen into deep fundamental crisis...Why then has there been, since at least the late nineteenth century, fairly consistent evidence of decline in farm productivity ?"

McCann concentrates his focus on the last two centuries, roughly corresponding to our concept of Modernity in the West. I am not as convinced as he is over the long term viability of 'plough-based agriculture', although it is undeniable that it has existed for anything up to 3,000 years in the Ethiopian highlands, as the basis of numerous civilisations. My impression is that it was always fragile, never that far from disaster, and that the risk was only mitigated by non-agricultural practices, namely pastoral land use and the presence of forest. That, however, may just be prejudice on my part. The largely Christian 'people of the plough' strike me as a population with a slave mentality, and slavery was certainly a part of the landscape, although more so in the Moslem areas. It is also clear that agriculture expanded largely on the initiative of elite political classes, in the pursuit of state interests such as military expansion or foreign trade.

The pastoralist peoples of the area, and the harvesters of wild coffee, appeal more to my aesthetic and ethical sense of how humans should live, but this too says more about me than Ethiopia.

McCann provides some interesting perspective on the environmental impact of plough based agriculture on the land. He writes,

"Current estimates of soil loss place the removal by water and wind at 1,493 million metric tons per year - a staggering rate and probably the cumulative effect of human actions of cultivation and deforestation - which exacerbated the natural effects of seasonal torrents on highland soils. Recent alarmist estimates place the annual loss of soil productivity at 2-3 percent". (p.35) It seems to me that tilling the land for annual crops, usually cereals, is enormously destructive and by far the most wasteful means of growing food. It is only sustainable in any sense if it is held in check and counterbalanced by the presence of animals, and forest. A key theme of McCann's book, to my mind, is the pivotal role of animals, even when the main product is an annual crop of grain. Plough based agriculture required oxen, ideally around 10 per household (p.49), a major weakness of the highlands economy was its failure to breed and provide for these animals, who then needed to be brought in from elsewhere. This was an important catalyst for the disaster that was to unfold later in the 20th century.

The blame for this failure did not lie with the farmers, but with absentee landlords based in the cities who were only interested in the crop, and not the factors needed to produce it. (p.83) Cereals were easy to divide up, to store, and to transport, this made them ideal as source of revenue for landowners and taxes for the state. McCann gives a convincing account of how the spread of annuals like grains, as opposed to perennial crops such as coffee or cotton, affected social relations, even to the point of encouraging frequent divorces. Wealth was easily split between partners, the harvest and the oxen, each taking their share with them. This, alongside the absentee landlords, discouraged more long term investments in rural and farm infrastructure.

The catastrophe that overtook Ethiopia during the 1980's was partly a result of these factors, and also due to the overextension of plough based farming into the lowlands, formerly producers of cotton and cloth, and the forested areas, centres for the cultivation of wild coffee. The former was driven by the growth of urban centres, creating a demand for food, and population pressure in the highlands. Immigrants into the lowlands brought their farming practices with them, but now on marginal land and dependent on landlords for oxen (p.140). This encouraged the adoption of maize, not a traditional plant but imported from the Americas in the 19th century. Maize grew quickly, even on poorer land, was harvested earlier in the season, but was also more vulnerable to drought.

When the rains did fail, in 1984, it led to famine. This in turn created the current trap many subsistence farmers in Ethiopia find themselves in - living from year to year in constant fear of starvation, and without a surplus to claw their way out.

The story of the coffee regions is slightly different. Here the problem was disease, a constant threat once a monoculture is established, in this case to serve export markets. Disease struck in 1971, and the districts McCann analyses in detail never recovered, these too becoming largely dependent on cereals (p.181).

A brighter picture emerges in the other area McCann looks at, one directly supplying the nation's capital Addis Addaba. This went the way of other lowland areas for a period, but then animals were reintroduced to supply city demand for meat and dairy products. It was this that rescued the area from the fate of the purely subsistence farmers further out.

A constant theme throughout the book is how farming practices, the extension of ploughing, the replacement of perennials, the selection of crops, the decline of pastoral herds, and also of horticulture, were largely driven by urban elites rather than farmers themselves. These had little understanding or interest in the realities on the ground, the longer term impact of their decisions. This situation worsened with the arrival of 'scientific' experts following World War II, mostly from the United States, with all kinds of ideas for 'improving' rural productivity and promoting 'development'. Most of their schemes failed dismally, but they also encouraged a certain mindset among educated Ethiopians that they knew better than 'backward' peasants how to cultivate the land. Following the 1974 revolution, these led to a series of excesses strongly reminiscent of the Soviet experience during the early 1930's. McCann gives a dry account of this period, but his bitterness at what he witnessed is never far from the surface.

McCann's is a fascinating tale, far richer than this short review can do justice to. Unlike me, McCann has genuine expertise in this field, and approaches his subject from a purely practical standpoint. A good read for anyone interested in the debates around sustainable farming and the potential of regenerative forms of agriculture.

People of the Plow : An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800-1990

James C. McCann

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