Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blaming the Rains is an Old Con Game

                                                                                                                                                                                         Source: FEWS Net

This will sound familiar: ‘it is unfortunate what is happening in East Africa.’ It has an air of redundancy in this blog because I wrote about another food crisis back in September 2010, when the Sahel faced food shortages (see the September 2010 archives “Vulnerability Does Not Happen over Night” or “Still Thinking ‘Inside the Box’”). Yet I am writing again on this topic because of the recent article in IRIN, “Ethiopia: Aid appeal for pastoralist regions,” http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91865. This is not the region I study but it shares similar climate and livelihood patterns of the people I do study in the Sahara and Sahel. I also empathize with the people experiencing this crisis and the obstacles aid workers face in saving lives. I do, however, have concerns with how the media and their interviewees are portraying the current crisis.


First, as one can see from the map above, found at the Famine Early Warning Systems website this month, the areas experiencing the most vulnerability are northern and central Somalia, not eastern Ethiopia as the article indicates. The instability in Somalia currently, however, may be motivating the media to focus on vulnerable regions that are more accessible to aid workers, like the Ogaden and Oromiya Regions in Ethiopia. The Somali populations here have cultural and economic connections to those affected in Somalia. Thus, helping people here may have spillover effects for those affected in Somalia as well.

Second and more importantly, the opening paragraph of the article reads as follows, “Poor rains, especially in the Somali and Oromiya regions of Ethiopia, have led to food shortages and prompted the government and its international partners to appeal for US$226.5 million in relief aid for almost three million people, a government official said.” Later in the article it continues to vilify the climate, “Poor performance of short rains [has led] to increased beneficiary numbers in pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of southern and southeastern parts of the country, especially the Somali Regional State," Mitiku [Ethiopian state minister of agriculture] added. "There is a critical problem due to the failure of ‘deyr’ and 'hagaya' rains [October-December] in Somali, Borena and Guji."

I do not wish to deflate the severity of this crisis. This is a serious matter for many East Africans, particularly the pastoral communities in Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Even regions that received adequate rainfall or have access to groundwater will likely come under great stress or conflicts over natural resources. The news article and the Ethiopian state minister of agriculture, Mitiku Kassa, however are duping the general public into believing the failure of the ‘deyr’ and ‘hagaya’ rains are the only culprits in this food crisis. I argue that the economic and social transformations in the region over the past twenty years are the culprits responsible for local peoples’ food insecurity, not the region’s natural climatic variability.

This region of the world, like the Sahel of West Africa, is a zone of disequilibrium, where there are periods of drought and even cases of flooding from time to time (see R.H. Behnke, I. Scoones and C. Kerven, editors, Range Ecology at Disequilibrium: New Models of Natural Variability and Pastoral Adaptation in African Savannas [London: Overseas Development Institute], 1993). In the past, people of the region adjusted for these climatic fluctuations by migration and managing the pasture, water and other natural resources through social ties, negotiation, and yes … through warfare. It was not an ideal system and there is no need to romanticize what no longer exists. The transformations that began during European Colonialism and continue under the modern African State, however, have physically constricted the commons, severed social ties and created greater conditions of vulnerability in the name of integrating East Africa into the global economy.

Mitiku Kassa is a recent appointment to the Ethiopian state minister of agriculture, but this is the same bureau that has seized land that was deemed by the government as ‘unproductive,’ leasing the land to multinational corporations to grow cash crops like tea, coffee, or food for export to the Gulf States. This seizure of land was done with little or no compensation to the people who use the land seasonally or in times when the rains fail in other territories. I find it unjust that the media and Mitiku Kassa appeal to the United Nations and other aid organizations to finance and coordinate food relief for the region when the real culprits who created this vulnerability are the multinational corporations and ministers who took land that was alternative fields and pastures for local peoples in the first place.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of the foreign corporations and Ethiopian national ministers who received ‘compensation’ from these multinational corporations to supply immediate relief to local populations. Also, the accountability should not end there. It is also the responsibility of these agents to either return the land they seized from local farmers and herders, or, provide local communities compensation through alternative income generating activities and infrastructure (clinics, schools, roads, wells, and other agricultural and pastoral implements) to reduce future food insecurity. Is it so wrong to ask the arsonists to put out the fires they started? Or will we continue to blame nature for man-made catastrophes? At a time when it is important to start preparing for greater variations in climate, it is time to stop blaming nature for tragedies and start recognizing the consequences of a callous global economy and how it undermines peoples’ food security, their control over natural resources and their livelihoods altogether.

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