ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia plans to resettle to more fertile areas thousands of peasant farmers threatened with severe food shortages because of crippling drought, an official said on Thursday.
Under the plan, the Horn of Africa country, which aid agencies fear is facing its worst drought in nearly two decades, would move up to 150,000 farmers this year.
Around 11 million people out of Ethiopia's population of 67 million face severe food shortages in what is probably its worst drought since the great famine of 1984 in which one million people died, aid agencies say.
The World Food Programme (WFP), the U.N. food agency, said it backed the plan as long as it provided farmers with resources to start a better life and avoided the errors of previous such programmes -- referring to a Marxist regime which used resettlement to punish dissenting ethnic communities.
WFP also called on Thursday for urgent food aid for Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, warning that existing food supplies could run out in the next few months.
"The resettlement is voluntary by people whose crops had failed due to cycles of continued failures of rain," Ethiopian Information Minister Bereket Simon told Reuters.
"They volunteered to be relocated in areas where there are plenty of rivers and the climate is conducive to growing crops."
Mebrate Haile, an official in the northern Amhara region, said: "Those who choose to be resettled will be provided with provisions to last them until they produce their own food as well as with seeds and farm equipment."
"ERRORS OF THE PAST"
Ethiopian opposition parties have attacked the government's land policy as the main reason the country was now staring at new food shortages.
Analysts say that under the current land tenure system, farmers who believe their existing holding may last only a few years are reluctant to invest.
WFP welcomed the resettlement "provided all necessary infrastructure and all means to enable the farmers to start a new and better life are in place," spokesman Wagdi Othman said.
"But it has to be well conceived and should definitely avoid the errors of the past resettlement programme in Ethiopia," Othman said. "It has to be on a voluntary basis with the right of return of the resettled population to their original homes if they so desire."
The Marxist regime of former ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam attempted to relocate up to 1.5 million drought-affected people by force to remote areas in the west of the country.
But the exercise was condemned by the donor community which said Mengistu planned to use the exercise as a political tool to control people from regions where rebels had fought the government for years.
Calling for aid for Eritrea and Ethiopia, WFP said food stocks to Eritrea, facing its worst crop failure in a decade, would dry up by the end of next month. The country, experiencing a four-year drought compounded by a war in 1998, has 2.3 million people depending on food aid.
"An irreversible spectre of widespread malnutrition and starvation is becoming a reality with each day that passes," the Rome-based WFP said in a statement.
"If more donations or are not received urgently, food distributions will have to be halted by the end of June."
WFP said it had to reduced food rations by about 2.5 kg per person to feed more people. It now requires 600,000 tonnes of food for Ethiopia and $77 million worth of food for Eritrea.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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