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Ethiopia's Tired Soil Can't Keep Up With Need : Famine: On a per capita basis, nation is slipping ever further behind, producing 10% less grain per person today than it did in the early 1980s.


GODE, Ethiopia — From the air, the landscape tells the story. After endless miles of pale orange, the color of hunger, the desert turns an abrupt green, a hint of hope.

Thousands of acres of corn flourishing in the Ogaden Desert carry a message: Food has a future in the heart of famine country.

"These people are pioneers," Assegid Kibret, agronomist in charge, said of the ex-refugees being resettled beside the silty Shebelle River in eastern Ethiopia.

Pioneers, and now happy corn farmers.

"The last drought killed all our animals," said a young livestock herder named Fahima Farrah, as she took a break from cleaning an irrigation ditch. "We thank God we can be farmers now and grow crops on our own land."

But the big picture in Ethiopia--eight years after its killer famine, one year after its latest drought--is more complex, and less hopeful, than the desert snapshot.

A transitional regime that took over from the toppled Marxist government in 1991 is instituting free-market policies meant to encourage agricultural production.

They may be working. Ethiopia's latest grain harvest was its biggest ever.

But this ancient nation's tired soil still cannot keep up. Ethiopia will fall short by hundreds of thousands of tons of grain in 1993. Emergency food will still be needed.

Gray columns of production statistics spell it out: On a per capita basis, Ethiopia is slipping ever further behind, producing 10% less grain per person today than it did in the early 1980s. The national population leaped from 42 million in 1984, the height of the famine, to an estimated 52 million.

"It's certain we're going to have another major famine," said Peter L. Simkin, the U.N. Development Program representative in Addis Ababa, the capital. "We'll have famine after famine until we can balance food production with population growth."

This Africa veteran sees a lone reassuring sign for the next crisis: "At least now there's a good emergency infrastructure in place."

One outpost of that infrastructure, a camp of tiny huts sheltering more than 30,000 refugees, sprawls over the desert here, across the Shebelle from the Gode farm project. The refugees are fed by international relief agencies, but they look across the river and feed on hope as well.

"My hopes are high I'll be getting my land soon," said Hasan Odol Mohamed, 55. "And then my sons can continue to farm it."

He is one of the lucky ones on the list for land. But the three-year Gode (GOH-deh) project, covering 6,600 acres, will ultimately accommodate only 2,500 families.

Hasan's story is typical among the Ogaden's nomadic Somalis. His family, sometime farmers on the Shebelle, fled to neighboring Somalia in 1978 when Ethiopia defeated Somalia in a war over the Ogaden. Then, after 13 years in a refugee camp, they trekked back to Gode to escape civil war in Somalia.

The riverside land, meanwhile, had been turned into a state cotton farm by the Marxist government, worked by laborers from northern Ethiopia. The new government decided to restore the fields to the Somalis.

Working in a broiling sun, coaxing water through old irrigation pumps, rationing fuel, relying on a single bad 300-mile road out of the desert--the former nomads will find farm life hard.

But cattle skeletons on the nearby sandy flats are reminders of a harder life yesterday.

"People are fed up with living on foreign aid," said new farmer Muhumed Mohamed, 30. "They're ready to grow their own food."

Kibret, acting project manager, said national planners should look more toward the Shebelle River basin and southwestern Ethiopia for new agricultural lands--and focus less on the old fertile heartland, the central and northern highlands.

"The land in the highlands is exhausted," he said.

Generations of shifting cultivation have destroyed the highlands forests. Topsoil is being washed away and fertility depleted. Farmers, without fuel wood, burn their animal manure rather than put it in the ground.

"There's no question that the future of Ethiopia will have to see large numbers of people voluntarily moving from one area to another," concluded Ethiopian specialist Lars Vidaeus, a World Bank economist in Washington.

Planners say, however, they cannot give up on the densely populated highlands.

"It will be a major challenge, but we can improve the agriculture in high-production areas," insisted Takele Gebre, chief of extension services at the Agriculture Ministry in Addis Ababa.

The new leadership must also work on population control and on untangling a land ownership system that turned chaotic under the old regime. Clearly establishing private title to land would allow consolidation of small holdings into larger farms.

But for now, specialists say, they will have to work with the millions of half-acre peasants who are the backbone of Ethiopia, farmers unschooled in the use of high-yield seed, fertilizer and pesticide, in terracing, plant spacing and multiple cropping, in proper weeding and watering.

These are the techniques of the "green revolution" that boosted production in Asia in the past generation--techniques that some argue are too expensive and impractical for this continent, but which others hail as the straightforward path to African self-sufficiency.

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