From L.A. to Ethiopia, Fruit Trees to a Famine

Andy Lipkis is executive director of TreePeople. Susan Becker, manager of international programs for TreePeople, has a master's degree in environmental science from Yale University.

Another famine in Ethiopia--horror for some readers, ho-hum news for others and, for those more personally involved, a story of mixed emotions.

A climate of hopelessness seems to encircle the country but amid apparently endless cycles of drought and famine, a small innovative program has created some hope for Ethiopians.

The current famine should have been news months ago. Last August, Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Committee announced that a new drought had destroyed Ethiopia's crops and that food aid would be needed by the end of 1987. After the famine two years ago, the United Nations and the Ethiopian government established an early warning system for prediction. The system worked but most media let the warning go unheeded.

There are, unfortunately, frequent cries of famine in Africa. If the press covered them all, it might be accused of crying wolf, because predicted famines aren't always as bad as anticipated. Yet Ethiopia is different; had media coverage happened months ago, relief would be certain for people now wondering if enough food will be available next month.

Still, current coverage now is welcomed; attention always quickens the flow of international relief efforts. Help will again be provided.

Simultaneously, Americans ask why Ethiopia has a famine again. Should we have to bail out the Ethiopians every time? If we don't help and millions die, should we much care, especially if it seems their own government doesn't much care?

Such questions almost defy answer. Instead, we wonder why Americans aren't looking at more creative ways to help the country become self-sufficient, in terms of food and agriculture.

Two years ago, USA for Africa reminded people that "We Are The World." Politics and economics were put aside in favor of an appeal to basic unity among human beings. TreePeople, an environmental organization in Los Angeles, took this message to heart and, in the spirit of innovation, began work on a small project that can make a lasting difference in Ethiopia.

In 1986, TreePeople airlifted 10 crates of fruit trees to five Ethiopian villages. The trees, leftovers from winter sales, were donated by wholesale fruit tree nurseries in California's Central Valley.

Background research lasted over a year; climate, geography, sites, transport, import permits and financing details were studied. Unfortunately, there is a stigma against innovation in the international aide community (too many "good new ideas" have failed). To ease the burden of working in Ethiopia, TreePeople selected partner organizations such as Oxfam, Concern Ireland and an indigenous church group for links to local villages and for ongoing support.

These groups allowed TreePeople to fit into existing programs rather than waste resources developing yet another organizational infrastructure. They had experience with the Ethiopian government and system. Errors often made by outsiders--who don't understand local customs--were avoided. Most important, the on-site partners could take charge of daily monitoring.

The strategy worked. The crates of trees cleared customs the same day they arrived at Addis Ababa's airport. Within two weeks, they were planted in Sidamo, Harar and Shoa Provinces; Sidamo and Harar turned out to be two areas hit hard by this year's drought. Trainers were sent from Los Angeles to manage the planting process.

Within just one year, the trees started fruiting in the south. And now, in Harar Province, Oxfam reports that their trees, too, have fruit.

How can they fruit so quickly? The trees were three years old at the time of shipment and they were well cared for throughout the year because the local farmers recognized their value. Fruit trees help feed families, provide small cash crops and protect the soil. They grow well alongside vegetables and, in shedding their leaves, add humus to the soil.

Moreover, older fruit trees can tolerate a year of drought; three-year-old trees were strong enough to survive. A second year of drought will make mature trees go dormant--but it won't kill them. If trees had been started from seed last year, the seedlings would have dried up and died. Villagers were inspired to care for these trees because they grew so rapidly and showed instant signs of being productive.

And the program continues. In 1987, two follow-up trips were made to the Ethiopian villages--one to evaluate survival rates and assess current problems, the other to provide training in disease/pest control, pruning and other forms of care. Next year, the villagers will try producing two crops per year. With two cold seasons and two rainy seasons, they can harvest twice annually, double what growers can do in North America.

The fruit trees won't build a new Ethiopian economy, but they matter. Each tree bears a few pieces of fruit a year after being planted and, four years later, each produces 30 pounds of fruit annually. In 1990, with just 1,000 trees, 30,000 pounds of fruit can be added to the Ethiopian pantry. For several decades, production levels remain this high.

Village farmers repeatedly ask for more trees; there is so much more dignity in tending one's own garden than in receiving a food handout. Propagating thousands more by grafting, trees identical to the originals from California, is the villagers' dream.

Every dollar raised for the fruit-tree program has come from people willing to take a risk or wanting to donate goods or services; Pan Am, for instance, donated some transport and shipping.

Two years ago, the international aid community snickered about the prospect of airlifting trees. People don't snicker now. Trees-by-air are providing long-term relief for Ethiopia. Start-up costs were high; payoffs were even higher.

Will America continue limiting itself to crisis response--sending sacks of surplus grain--or can Americans open their minds to new ideas that can make a difference in difficult countries like Ethiopia? Or will we wait for the next drought, stare at the same photos and ask the same questions once again?

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