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30-year war creates shadow of hunger over Eritrea

War and drought have reduced Eritrea to a state of almost total dependence on food aid. Most of the fertile land was caught up in the conflict with Ethiopia, and now that peace has returned, farmers have found their land covered with land mines and their cattle stolen.

Nearly 18 months 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 last year, 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-kilometres-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 ha – 26 per cent of the cultivable area – is 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. But independence in 1991 renewed hopes of development – agriculture was 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.

"During the initial year-and-a-half of the war, agricultural production did not decrease much because nearly all of the areas that were fundamental contributors to agricultural produce were still under Eritrean control," said Haile.

This changed after the third offensive in May 2000, when all these areas came under Ethiopian control. The 2000 cereal crop came down sharply after hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to flee Gash Barka and Debub, which account for more than 70 per cent of cereal production.

The conflict ended with the signing of a peace agreement in Algiers on 6 June 2000. Once again, this did not bring an end to Eritrea's troubles. The repatriation of war-displaced civilians began in April 2001, after the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) established a Temporary Security Zone, a 25-kilometre-wide demilitarized corridor along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border.

But Eritrean officials say Ethiopia continues to occupy some areas, preventing the return of 50,000 farmers to what – in many cases – are Eritrea's most fertile areas.

Another factor preventing their return is the thousands of land mines that were planted during the war.

In addition, about 200,000 internally displaced people were successfully relocated in Eritrea in late July, in the middle of the rainy season. It was crucial for these people to return to their lands before the beginning of the rains but the resettlement came too late for the returnees.

Yet others cannot return because of the proximity of their villages to Ethiopian territories and because Ethiopian troops destroyed most of the property. "What they did not destroy they looted and so there is nothing left to go back to," said Fissahaye.

"All the livestock that the people left behind as they fled were taken by the Ethiopians, and so those that return no longer have the oxen to plough the land nor the cows and goats to produce milk and meat," he added.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, another war legacy impacting on food security is a serious shortage of labour. "A majority of the work force of the younger generation joined the army in the beginning of the war and they have been serving ever since," said Haile. "These people left their fathers, wives and children to work on the land and so the villages are left with women, children and old men who cannot produce as much as the young men."

The ministry has launched a series of long-term programmes to deal with the crisis, including income-generating projects targeted at those women who have become the sole providers for their families. Single women have also been provided with poultry, goats and cows and allocated land in which they can work.

Government officials say that in the coming year, a significant sector of the population will depend on emergency aid. Food aid received in 1998, six months after the outbreak of the conflict, accounted for a staggering 62 per cent of the total food consumed.

Although the proportion decreased to 13 per cent in 2000 as more farmers were able to return to their lands, the food situation remains tight as a result of the war and last year's drought. Even with improved production this year, war-torn Eritrea is expected to remain food-deficit and in need of continued aid for some time to come.

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Panos London

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