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Farming in fragile land

To win the Eritrean public’s confidence President Isaias Afwerki’s has sought to boost agricultural production with a series of new initiatives.

At nearly 70 years old, Gebremichael Gebremeskel has become something of a model farmer, having built terraces to trap rainwaters and cultivate the dried-up river bed around his village in the Eritrean Highlands, about 50 miles south of the capitol, Asmara.

Corn stalks crunching underneath his feet, Gebremichael Gebremeskel led me to a 3-foot-wide ditch – all that is left of the river that once flowed passed his village. He leapt over the ditch and landed, graciously, on the other side, then motioned toward rows of durra, wheat and vegetables.

Around the plots, Gebremichael Gebremeskel had built walls made of thousands of stones. The stones work as a buffer, stopping rainwater from trickling into the valley below. The water, then, is collected, stored, and redistributed to the crops in times of need.

“I’ve carried every single one of those stones,” he said, stretching his back. “It’s taken me 30 years.”

Gebremichael Gebremeskel said that when he started talking about building such irrigation systems on the public land more than 30 years ago, nobody believed that they would help him boost his output, even though by this time, such systems had become a standard part of farming across Eritrea. “People laughed at me,” he recalled. “They said I was crazy.”

Ignoring critics, Gebremichael Gebremeskel began experimenting in the fallow fields on the outskirts of his village, even on land that wasn’t his own, building an irrigation system of terraces and stonewalls that could preserve water that fell during Eritrea’s intense but brief periods of rain. But also by combing different crops in new ways.

“Many wondered why I spent time and money on soil that wasn’t mine,” he said. “I’ve worked for years, days and nights, and invested my own money to make sure the water stays in the soil and doesn’t run off elsewhere.”

After three decades and many record-breaking harvests, nobody calls Gebremichael Gebremeskel strange or crazy anymore.

Agriculture is the main source of income in Eritrea. Three in four citizens are engaged in farming, livestock or fishing.

Gebremichael Gebremeskel led me onward, toward the mountain ridge that separates the highlands from the Red Sea. The mountain peaks stretched to the azure blue sky above. An eagle soared overhead.

Sparely populated, the Eritrean Highlands are considered the heart of the country’s agriculture industry. As such, they have become the focus of the government’s efforts to provide more food for its more than 5 million people. Despite boasting nutrient-rich soils, the country is struggling with an increasing population and to little or to much rain. As a result, crop yields have declined, throwing Eritrea’s food security into doubt. Higher prices for milk have exacerbated people’s frustrations.

Gebremikchael Gebremeskel points to one of his many cultivation plots.After our trek, Gebremikchael Gebremeskel invited me into his one-room house. While we drank milk and ate traditional bread, he told about how farming in his family was a tradition for as long as he could remember; he had worked the land since he was a child.

“I had a reputation as a hard worker ever since I was little,” he said

The savvy farmer that he is, Gebremikchael Gebremeskel realized early on that he had healthy soil, but what was missing was access to a steady supply of water, arguably an even more important component of his business.

“I saw how the soil that was left gave larger harvests the following year if we managed to keep it moist,” he said.

During the droughts of Gebremichael Gebremeskel’s childhood, the villagers crowded into churches to pray for the rain to return. Now, many of them have started built terraces and stonewalls of their own. And while they still pray, the villagers are not as reliant on a Higher Power to deliver bountiful harvests.

“At first people laughed at me,” Gebremichael Gebremeskel recalls.  “They said I was crazy.” Thirty years later, as harvests have ballooned, nobody is laughing anymore.

In a country like Eritrea, food shortages pose enormous problems for defense and security, as people uproot themselves in search of a better life abroad. Eritreans are the second largest group of migrants seeking refuge in Sweden. Most of them cite repression and Eritrea’s compulsory military service as their reasons for seeking asylum. But in a country where 80 percent of the population is employed in the agricultural industry, poverty is undoubtedly a factor as well.

This past year, the Eritrean government has made concerted efforts to improve the plight of people living in the countryside, but whether these steps will be effective remains to be seen, and some of them have been taken as a worrying sign that leaders want to further consolidate control. For example, recently the Afwerki administration consolidated the country’s many small civilian-led provinces into four large administrative regions, each ruled by the military.

One of the many smaller dams, recently constructed in Eritrea.

In a less controversial move, the government has also poured money into solar and hydropower, and built extensive irrigations systems that include dams and water cisterns. While those investments have ameliorated acute water shortages in many areas, staples like milk remain expensive.

According to sources to Blankspot.se, the worrying price of milk prompted President Afewerki to fly in hundreds of dairy cows from Europe.

At first, the story about the cows felt like yet another bizarre tale, and it has been rejected by some as shear rumor. Others see it as a reflection of the president’s personality and grip over the economy. But the idea is not new. Fidel Castro tried to do something similar in Cuba, but with undetermined success.

According to one other source officials evacuated one of the nearby universities. As the cows crowded inside, they slipped on the floors and broke their legs. Some birthed calves.

I tried to confirm this story about the cows with the Minister of Agriculture, Arefaine Berhe. We sat down at his department on a recent day. But before I turned my recorder on, Berhe stopped me to set some ground rules for the interview.

No questions about the cows, he said.

Eritrea’s Minister of Agriculture, Arefaine Berhe, at the lush yard in front of the department building.

Why? You are the Minister of Agriculture?

“The new cows fall under a newly created special department,” the minister said.

While the cows were off-limits, Arefaine Berhe would discuss what the government was doing to keep its population fed, and he did not hesitate to heap praise on the actions of the administration, saying its forward-thinking priorities and careful strategies had kept Eritrea from slipping into the famines that wracked neighboring countries last year.

“Agriculture is a question about national survival for us,” he said pointedly, adding that the government was taking taken climate change seriously.

“Our country is located in a very arid and mountainous part of Africa,” Arefaine Berhe said, “so working with dam and soil development and planting trees is not a choice, it’s an issue of survival.”

He is pleased about farmer Gebremichael Gebremeskel’s methods spreading in the rural highlands, calling it a good example of a bottom-up movement that the government may be able to assist.

“The key is with the people in the villages. If they see that as water is conserved, the larger harvests become, we can then support that with advice on where to build dams,” Arefaine Berhe said. “But the initiative, has to come from the people.”

The minister also told me about a state-run program to give each family farm one cow, 25 chickens, two beehives, 10 fruit trees and five other trees that will provide food for the cows.

“That will supply each family with milk, eggs, meat and vegetables, and give them a nutritious diet,” he said.

But drought remains a stubbornly persistent concern. “If the rain patterns change, we have to get better at collecting the water,” Arefaine Berhe said. “We have to practice climate-smart farming.”

Eritrea’s push for sustainability reflects the government’s belief that the country’s problems should be solved within its own borders, without interference from outsiders. One of the reasons Eritrea has rejected foreign aid is that its leaders believe that doing so would lead to long-term dependence on other countries, and none of Eritrea’s problems would actually be solved.

But Eritrea is also wrestling with an urban-rural divide, raising tensions between city dwellers and residents of the countryside over how much the former should be involved in ensuring the country’s economic viability.

Eritrea has suffered from massive deforestation over the past century, ruin brought on by colonial exploitation and civil war. Some estimates suggest that as much as 30 percent of Eritrea’s forests have been wiped out. That poses a huge threat to agriculture, in part because forest roots help trap moisture in the soil.

“People in the cities need to be involved by planting trees,” Arefaine Berhe said.  “I think a tree should be planted at every wedding, every funeral, every family gathering. If we are going to turn development around in this country, we have to keep nature in mind — always.”

After the interview, we went outside to take a photograph, where I spot posters hanging on the wall of the agricultural department building that read, “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.”

“They only have wheat in its symbol. No cow, no fish, no vegetables, just wheat for export,” Arefaine Berhe complained. “The world is focusing too much about grain.”

Gebremichael Gebremeskel walks next to one of his many stonewalls. He’s spent 30 years building an intricate system to contain rainwater.

Back in Adi Abzage, when it came time for me to bid Gebremichael Gebremeskel farewell, he insisted on walking with me to what locals call “the big road,” a strenuous trek down a path riddled with razor sharp rocks.

While we walked, Gebremichael Gebremeskel continued talking with affection about his crops. Stories about his success had been spreading, and farmers seemed increasingly eager to learn about his methods.

“But first they want to see it with their own eyes, before they dare to try,” Gebremichael Gebremeskel said.

In this area, more than 9,000 hectares of forest have been replenished with new trees. And changes in agricultural practices have doubled the output for 17,000 families, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Gebremichael Gebremeskelnow wants to construct large dams between the mountains, buffers that could hold even more rainwater.

“From the beginning, I was alone. But now more and more people are supportive,” he said. “Now my dream is to cultivate all the land between here and the neighboring village.”

A story about sustainable agriculture isn’t what usually comes out of Eritrea, a country that is often riven by allegations of human rights abuses and reports of widespread poverty.

But the country is looking good in reaching some of the UNDP’s millennium development goals (MDG7), including in reconstruction; providing a safe water supply; and improving sanitation, food security and environmental sustainability.

Despite his extraordinary efforts, it’s unlikely that GebremichaelGebremeskel will get any international recognition. But to him, that’s not what’s important.

“All this, I’ve done for us to get food — and keep us from starving,” he said.

Gebremichael Gebremeskel’s work in the Eritrean Highlands has not been completely ignored, though. Not long ago, the president gifted him a new Toyota.

He’s never driven it.

“It sits in a garage in Asmara. What am I going to do with it?”

For nearly 70 years, Asmara Diary has produced butter, milk, cream and cheese from the region’s diary cows. Photo: Martin Schibbye.

In Asmara the secrecy around the new cows is totally incomprehensive, at least if you expect it to be like everywhere else. But asking about cows in Eritrea is like asking for confidential defense information.

Since the university is closed for visitors (where the cows may be kept) and the Minister of Agriculture himself refuses to comment, there’s only one way to find out if there is any truth to the rumor.

A short walk from the heart of the capitol, close to the old railway station, is the country’s oldest dairy factory, Asmara Dairy. For nearly 70 years they have produced butter, milk, cream and cheese from the cows in the region.  I knock on the door and the plant manager, Afwerki Wolde Michael, greets me and shows me around in the modern facility that has 70 employees.

Demand is larger than supply, says Afwerki Wolde Michael, the plant manager of Asmara Dairy, which supplies all hotels in the capitol with fresh milk.

Since he started working here, 16 years ago, they have produced more butter and cheese for each year.  In one room men are hunched down, churning butter by hand and in another room the milk is chilled for transportation to restaurants and stores in Asmara. At the end of the guided tour, I force myself to ask the question nobody seems to want to answer.

“The new cows, sure! We’re just getting ready to receive the milk from them,” says Afwerki Wolde Michael and walks back into the noisy factory.


Update: April 1st 2019, there were pictures from the farm to be found on social media which can be seen here. So the story with the cows turned out to be true.

This is one article in a series by Martin Schibbye from Eritrea. Read also:  

Part 1: One country – two realities

Part 2: Voices from the other side

Part 3: The dictatorship that came in from the cold

Fore more stories in English see. Read more about Blankspot.