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While Western countries' role is not to be underplayed, we should be extremely wary of the moral assertions of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi around climate change, argues Rezene Hagos in this week's Pambazuka News. The Ethiopian government's record on both the environment and human rights is abysmal, writes Hagos, and Meles's demands for vast sums from donors in support of Africa's battle against climate change should be viewed with a great deal of scepticism.

Last week we read in the news that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was warning that African delegates may walk out of the upcoming UN World Summit on Climate Change to be held in Copenhagen in December unless they are assured of a huge sum – hundreds of billions a year – by the countries of the West. A number of things may come to one’s mind on reading such warnings. For the sake of this article however, we will only focus on whether or not African leaders, and Meles in particular, have the moral high ground to issue that warning. We believe not.

Let’s unambiguously state from the outset that Western countries, and the US in the main, are largely to blame for the world’s climate change and that they bear the highest responsibility for the consequences that occur globally thereof. That said however, nobody is free from blame either; it is only the degree of the blame that differs. It is true that Africa is on the receiving end of the environmental crisis resulting from climate change. But, Africa also has its part in contributing to the climate change. The cause for climate change is not just the emission of greenhouse gases, it is human activity in general as well as some natural changes occurring within and around earth. Nobody is to be spared of responsibility from the consequences of human activity in general. However, the degree of greenhouse emissions as a result of human activity differs from activity to activity. One thing for sure is that emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) since the industrial revolution have greatly increased and the global temperature has also risen. Industrialisation as one human activity is the biggest culprit in this respect. Other human activities that result in emissions of CO2 also contribute to climate change. These are fossil fuel burning, deforestation purposes and other forms of environmental degradation. Now, the industrialised countries are undoubtedly the first to blame for CO2 emissions as a result of industrialisation. In this regard, the greatest polluters at the moment are the US, China and India.

The non-industrialised countries are not to be spared from blame either. They have their share of the blame too. In fact, from the angle of the prevalence of poverty and under-development, their mistakes are as detrimental to the existence of their own communities as we are going to see in the case of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government in Ethiopia. In Africa as a whole, the degree of deforestation that results in soil erosion, the drying of lakes and the reduction of soil fertility and other forms of environmental degradation is extremely high. Until a few years ago, Africa was well-known for its tropical forests and wild animals. Today, it has been observed that the forest land coverage in Europe is much larger than it is in Africa. That means, Europe has more forests and trees than Africa. This is because Europe resorted to massive reforestation while Africa is still in the process of destroying its forests. Europe resorted to policies of massive reforestation while African governments resorted to massive deforestation or displayed utter insensitivity and complicity in face of massive deforestation. Now, here is the crux of the matter: government policies. What have African governments done to conserve the environment and their forests in particular? Let’s focus on the records of Meles’s government in Ethiopia and examine if Meles really has the moral high ground to accuse Western governments on grounds of polluting the world.

Environmental protection or the conservation of nature are absolutely crucial for Ethiopia as the greater part of its social formation is constituted by activities of the natural economy, as well as the fact that more than 85 per cent of its population live in rural areas and depend on what nature provides. The rural population’s survival depends on the environment and it goes without saying that the sustainable use of the environment is the crucial link to food security. From the point of economic growth, social development and indeed of social change, the protection of the environment is crucial for Ethiopia as it is connected with issues of rural development. Social development in rural Ethiopia cannot take place just by 'boosting production through the hard work of the peasantry', but by creating the legal, social and political environment that enables the peasantry to diversify its livelihood system. In other words, development and economic growth that in turn begins with the accumulation of wealth also begins with disengaging the peasantry from land and enabling it to be engaged in other livelihood systems. To enable the peasantry accumulate wealth through production surplus, it is crucial to ensure that its production target succeeds, which in turn requires the availability of rain or irrigated water and the conservation of the soil. And this is what protecting the environment all is about. It is indeed crucial to realise the environment–rural production–accumulation nexus.

In an impoverished country such as Ethiopia which has no capacity to replace nature with technologically advanced alternatives accessible to a large population, once the environment is destroyed and eroded it is nearly impossible to recover it. In the face of an increasing population which still depends on nature and works on it for survival, the sustainable use of nature is indeed a very serious issue that requires not only seriousness of purpose on the part of governance but also intellect and capacity. Here, a number of crucial issues are interwoven and interdependent: protecting the environment, strategising rural development, population control and ensuring food security in the immediate term, and a comprehensive environmental policy to address these issues. The need for such a policy is to prevent the further erosion of the environment, ensure food security and generate rural development. In all these, the record of Meles Zenawi’s government is abysmal.

Now, what are Ethiopia’s environmental problems that have a direct bearing on the prevalence of continued environmental destruction, poverty and under-development? First of all, massive deforestation. Trees and forests have a special function in preserving moisture and water and, above all, soil and its fertility. The preservation of forests and trees is absolutely crucial for Ethiopia’s survival. Unfortunately, due to the utter neglect of successive governments in the country, massive deforestation has occurred. Records show that Ethiopia’s forest coverage by the turn of the 20th century was 40 per cent. By 1987 (under the military government), it had gone down to 5.5 per cent and in 2003 (under Meles’s government) it had gone further down to 0.2 per cent. In terms of area, Ethiopia’s rate of deforestation was between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares of land a year.

Deforestation has led to massive soil erosion. One of the most important functions of trees is to keep the soil intact from erosion by running water as a result of rain or from being blown away by strong wind. When soil is preserved, its nutrients are also preserved, meaning its fertility is also preserved. Trees also absorb and maintain water and moisture and play crucial role in balancing the ecosystem, which has strong bearing on agriculture. When deforestation takes place, all these crucial roles of trees are lost, exposing the land to further erosion of its top soil, with a huge negative impact on agriculture. A study by M. Constable suggests that the highlands of Ethiopia contain one of the largest ecological degradations in Africa.

Soil erosion in turn contributes to the drying of lakes. In the last few years alone, three Rift Valley lakes have dried up: Lake Alemaya, Lake Adele and Lake Lange. When soil is massively washed into the lake, silt develops underneath, pushing the water upwards and expanding the area of water coverage. This gives the impression that the lake has more water and in fact makes it look as if flooding takes place. The reality is exactly the opposite, however. The water is pushed to a larger surface and exposed to massive evaporation, drying up at the end.

The same process is repeated at Lake Awassa. A study by one international NGO concluded that Lake Awassa is threatened by the same process through which the other three lakes dried up. The regional government of Meles Zenawi refused to accept the report and argued that they are actually noticing that Lake Awassa threatens a flood situation because they see more water in a larger area. (So much for the capacity his officials in the region.) Undoubtedly, the issue of water in general is crucial for Ethiopia as an agricultural society as it is often hit by drought, resulting in a situation of perennial food insecurity. There was no visible sign of seriousness or alarm on the part of Meles's government when the three lakes dried up completely. The town of Harrar, probably the fourth or fifth largest town in the country, which depended on Lake Alemaya for its water supply, was left to suffer from acute water shortage for weeks when the government watched the lake dry and did practically nothing noticeable until the last minute. This brings us to the policy of Meles’s government.

In 1967, G.C. Last, advisor to the Ministry of Education, warned the imperial government of the alarming environmental destruction occurring in the country at the time. He wrote, 'As you are probably aware, this is a most serious issue [the conservation of nature] in Ethiopia. In some ways the problem has already reached crisis proportion with regard to: a) the loss of soil through erosion, b) the destruction of forests, c) the destruction of wild life, d) the rapid diminution of utilizable water supplies … there is sufficient evidence to show that, unless serious steps are taken, not only will desert conditions develop rapidly in various parts of Ethiopia, but important national resources will disappear…The question of conservation is usually the subject of a great deal of talk but very little action. It is clear also that really effective measures must be based on a wide spread understanding of a spirit of co-operation among the population'. It has become the scourge in Ethiopia that the role of experts is to warn the successive government of an impending catastrophe, and the same warning is repeated again and again. In the same vein, when Meles Zenawi threatens Western leaders, he seems to be forgetful of the most serious warnings made by Ethiopian environmentalists, particularly those made in 2004. In much the same way that Haile Selassie’s government ignored G.C. Last’s warning, Meles’s government also ignored the warnings of Ethiopian environmentalists. Now, to the policies of his government.

To start with, Meles’ and his Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had no idea about the environment, sustainable development and the relationship between the two when they entered Addis Ababa in 1991. The awareness came after a government delegation led by Tamrat Layne, who had attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. In 1995, they set up the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and much later made two proclamations, namely the Environmental Pollution Control Proclamation (2002) and the Environmental Impact Assessment Proclamation (2002) and ratified a number of UN and international conventions on the environment.

Apparently, the problem of Meles’s government is the problem of perception. They have an ossified position on their Stalinist–Maoist understanding of revolution that has no room for environmental preservation and the independent role of the peasantry. This constitutes the main gap. The second gap is the lack of seriousness around protecting the environment. As on the issue of gender, they pay lip service to environment because of pressure from donors (whom he is now threatening!). The third gap is lack of a legal framework to protect the environment. The EPA is under the leadership of a world-class scientist in Tewolde G. Egziabher, but it is a toothless institution and made toothless deliberately. Meles often resorts to a well-known excuse for his government’s failure: the problem of implementation. On the environment, the problem is not any lack of implementation but a lack of seriousness. No wonder why the state of the environment in Ethiopia is one of the most alarming in the world – it is alarming because 85 per cent of the population depends on nature for its survival. Official neglect on this matter should constitute the most serious crime, if not genocide. No wonder why the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other environmental organisations of international reputation have continuously reported on the alarming state of environmental destruction in Ethiopia.

The negative role of Meles’s government on the environment also includes its hostile attitude towards environmental NGOs who try to educate the public and conduct policy advocacy campaigns. Like all other development NGOs, environment NGOs are seen by Meles as undesirable. The recent NGO law that literally outlaws advocacy NGOs also would undoubtedly outlaw environment NGOs or obliterate their role. Indeed, Meles’s policy on the environment should be seen from this light. We have witnessed for the last two decades his government leading the country to a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The International Crisis Group, an institution established and led by ex-politicians and world leaders of international reputation, recently came up with a devastating report on the possible consequences of the Ethiopian government's ethnic politics. This comes as a definite blow against Meles's efforts to restore his tarnished image following the 2005 elections.

Meles is extremely sensitive to his international image. Because more than 62 per cent of Ethiopia’s annual budget comes from aid money, the EPRDF government heavily depends on the donor community for its survival. To keep the flow of aid money, Meles has to keep up his image. His government devotes a lot of money for propaganda purposes and controls the main means of communication in the country. He is extremely wary of the activities of the Ethiopian diaspora and engages in polemics with diaspora groups as well as foreign journalists and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Meles's recent diatribe in response to the devastating report by the International Crisis Group can be cited as an example in this regard (visit the EPRDF’s for these articles).

It is for no strange reason that Meles’s government has almost always been at loggerheads with international human rights organisations. His regime has been as repressive and as genocidal (as in the cases of Gambela and Ogaden) as that of his predecessor, Mengistu H. Mariam. This became glaringly obvious during and after the 2005 elections when his government massacred protesters in their hundreds and imprisoned opposition leaders and around 17,000 people. He closed down private newspapers and is now in the process of closing down NGOs. He recently introduced a new 'anti-terrorism' law that gives him the 'legitimacy' to clamp down on anyone. He has literally closed all avenues for the emergence and development of a civil society, without whose participation poverty eradication and development will not be possible. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have always exposed such violations of human rights. To keep the outside world blind to the reality in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi did everything he could. In his endeavour, he has the ingenious support of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who still seems to think that Meles is an ally in the fight against terrorism. Gordon Brown never seems to ask whether or not the Ethiopian people as a whole are being terrorised by Meles’s regime.

In 2006, a draft bill in the US Congress named the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act, was passed by the House International Relations Committee and was supposed to be passed by the US Congress. As the Daily Nation of 6 September 2009 reported, 'To counter this effort, the Ethiopian government hired a well-established law and lobbying firm, DLA Piper, to protect its interests in Washington at a cost of $2.3 million.' Yet drought and food insecurity threaten around 20 million Ethiopians this year alone.

Now we have a dictator threatening the donor community that he will walk out of the Copenhagen summit on climate change unless Africa leaves the summit with US$200 billion annually, as if to suggest an excellent record in preserving the environment and ensuring respect for human rights and freedom. It has been proven through the experience of the last 40 years that aid money has been mismanaged and extorted by politicians manipulating political power in Africa. Meles’s government has been one of the largest recipients of aid money in Africa. It is indeed because aid money has been mismanaged and stolen that some African economists are compelled to question the validity of aid money in the first place. Some even go to the extent of holding aid money accountable for Africa’s poverty, as one Zambian economist argues strongly. Then, what is this noise about threatening a walk out from Copenhagen? Isn’t this like a thief calling 'thief!'?


* Rezene Hagos is based at Addis Ababa University.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.