Since fighting broke out in November 2020 between the Tigrayan regional government and the Ethiopian army, the conflict has wreaked havoc on the lives of people living in the Tigray state. Over 9,500 civilian deaths have been documented, with many more unrecorded. In addition about 2 million people have been displaced and at least 400,000 are now in famine.
Situated in the northern periphery of Ethiopia, about 75% of the 5.7 million population of Tigray are farmers. Most people who live there depend on local yields for survival. It’s expected that there’ll be an even greater demand on local yields this year because millions cannot be reached with aid and last year’s harvest largely failed.
Hence, we set out to know what the state of farming is in Tigray. We were concerned that, due to warfare, ploughing and planting might not occur on time or at all.
Tigray’s growing period is generally 90 to 120 days long, depending on weather conditions in different areas. This stretches from June to September. Land preparation (ploughing) usually happens between March and July.
We investigated the status of ploughing from a distance because, due to the war, we couldn’t be present on the ground. Our main research tools were satellite imagery and telephone communications. This study covered March to early June 2021.
Sadly, our findings revealed a painful situation in which farmers try to grow crops, but they’ve lost many of their assets and fear for their lives. War conditions have made ploughing very challenging as oxen, used to plough farmlands, have been looted and deliberately killed. In addition, there was hardly any access to farm inputs such as seed and fertiliser, while farm tools have been destroyed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.
The targeted destruction of Tigray’s economic basis – especially the agricultural sector – has been framed as a deliberate attempt to starve Tigray.
Tillage in Tigray
Crop cultivation in Tigray has a long history as settled agriculture started more than 3,000 years ago. This is reflected in the region’s high crop diversity, including endemic crops, such as the renowned tef cereal. Overall, farmers have small plots (less than a hectare in total). They mainly grow subsistence crops on rain-fed lands and cash crops on irrigated lands in narrow river valley bottoms.
Farming methods are mostly traditional and low-cost, but effective. Oxen-drawn ploughs (or mahrasha) are widely used to till the soil, seeds are mainly sown by hand and most crops depend entirely on rainfall without supplemental irrigation.
Farmers in Tigray have modernised a lot over the last decades: they use mineral fertilisers and selected seeds and advice is mainly provided by the Office of Agriculture.
As a whole, we found that rainfall conditions in early 2021 were conducive to a normal planting season. However, we contrasted bird’s eye photographs with historical Google Earth imagery and saw that in early May, in comparison to previous years, less cropland had been ploughed.
To better understand why this was happening, we used 17 telephone interviews with key witnesses – all of whom who are well experienced within Tigray’s agricultural sector and have strong networks.
Challenges to farming
Several key reasons were given for why land wasn’t being prepared.
In many cases, soldiers – mostly mentioned were Eritrean soldiers who had entered Tigray as an ally of the Ethiopian forces – weren’t allowing farmers to plough their land. They told farmers, “we are here fighting to die, and you want to plough?”
Another reason was that young men, who would usually do most of the tillage work, left for fear of being killed. Some became fighters.
Having experienced atrocities, many young Tigrayans felt compelled to join the forces. A witness said:
The number of youngsters joining the Tigrayan Defence Forces per household may vary based on what happened in their surroundings (especially massacres, rape and destruction). In a village that I know well, almost all the young men joined after witnessing the indiscriminate killing of 13 people.
Even if farmers were “allowed” to farm, the absence of farm implements and inputs was often quoted as a major challenge. An agricultural expert in Mekelle said that:
Most oxen have been slaughtered or looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. The Eritrean soldiers are not only disallowing farmers to plough but also burnt and destroyed their farm tools.
And a staff member of Mekelle University said that:
There are no farm inputs (seeds and fertilisers) available, and many oxen have been taken (without which ploughing is impossible).
Who farmed has also changed. Farmers feared that they’d be killed while ploughing. We were told that, in some places, during the daytime elderly people, women and children worked on the lands. Adult men worked at night and stayed in the village during the day because they were a target of the Ethiopian army and supporting Eritrean forces.
Still hope, but…
Farmers have been late with land preparation, but in June most rural areas came under the control of the Tigray forces. This meant that farmers could start working on their land again. Rural markets – where farmers bought or exchanged seeds – thrived.
Despite the difficult conditions, a big effort was made in June and July to prepare the land for crops. An analysis of True Colour Composite images (combining the red, green and blue bands of Sentinel satellite imagery) showed that, by June, most farmlands had been tilled at least once – the share of exposed dark earth was similar to that of 2019 or 2020.
But this wasn’t uniform across the region. Western Tigray, for instance, remains occupied by Amhara Special Forces and militia. Most farmlands have not been tilled and, on the satellite imagery, many display the typical reddish colour of the standing unharvested sorghum from last year.
We do have hope though for many farmers. Tigrayan smallholder farming systems are resilient. From interviews, we learned that farmers adapted by switching to crops that require minimal management and to fast-growing cereal landraces. Cereals require less human presence on the fields (as compared to tomatoes or onions for instance), hence less risk for the farmers to encounter soldiers and get killed.
Nevertheless, for many the last food that people had at hand has been consumed and the next harvest will only be in November. And we read that a fresh locust infestation is threatening.
While it was in a minimal food insecurity situation before the war, the larger part of Tigray has now entered emergency and famine conditions. This corresponds to at least two starvation deaths per 10,000 inhabitants per day in areas under famine.