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Interview with Dr. Tewolde B. G. Egziabher
(Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia
and the Institute for Sustainable Development)

On Farmer Empowerment, Genetic Engineering
and Global Systems

Johannesburg, South Africa

“My name is Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Tewolde for short. I am at the moment the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, which means I’m in charge of the environment for the government of Ethiopia. But I also am involved in an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Institute for Sustainable Development. Before coming to my environment job, I was a teacher and researcher in the University at Addis Ababa, then also president of the Asmara University. Most of my life has been in the university system.” (Dr. Tewolde). This interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke on September 1, 2002 at Sandton Center, the main conference site of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.

Empower, encourage the farmers

In Motion Magazine: Can you please tell me a little about the Ethiopian Institute for Sustainable Development?

Tewolde: The Institute for Sustainable Development is a small NGO we created about seven years ago, now, and the idea is to be a focal point for people working and thinking of discussing, debating and also publishing on issues of importance to the environment and development, largely in Ethiopia. In theory, at any rate, it is not restricted to Ethiopia but our capacity has been limited to Ethiopia at the moment. In any case, the problems are so immense in Ethiopia.

In Motion Magazine: How does your work at the Institute relate to the average farmer?

Tewolde: The one project that has been directly involving farmers deals with better management of the overall ecological systems in the farming community to maximize production and to improve the environmental conditions. We had four experimental sites starting in 1995 in northern Ethiopia. The idea was very simple, just simply empower, encourage the farmers to do what they know best and possibly give them one or two selected new ideas.

I’ll have to take you a little bit into the history of Ethiopia, starting in the nineteenth century. The preoccupation of the Ethiopian government was one of maintaining central power so as to withstand colonial attempts from Europe. To this end, the central government has seen local autonomous movements as dangerous and therefore traditional systems of land management necessarily involving communities as a whole, using their own traditional systems of organization, were seen as unacceptable and were systematically destroyed.

For this reason, you have a situation where the farmers know what is going wrong, environmentally wrong, because they have an accumulated knowledge of thousands of years, but they are totally unable because environmental action cannot be taken singly, individually, by one person, and community action has been prevented.

Now, the policies to reverse the situation in governance are de-centralized to the district level but farmers who have had a long period of fear don’t find it easy to free themselves of that fear. So our first step was to reassure them. We reassured them and we told them they could decide what to do. We would liaise between them and the government and the government will accept what we say. So they made their own by-laws and the local administration has recognized their by-laws.

The farmers knew what to do with their environment and how to protect it. The only new input we had was composting. That was new. They used manure in the past, animal manure from where they kept their cattle at night, but making compost was new. That was an added new technology. Otherwise they used all the technology they knew. It’s amazing the change it brought about in two, three years.

They prevented free-range grazing so the grass and the trees came back. Because they prevented free-range grazing, productivity, biomass productivity increased and their animals were better fed.

They made physical barriers to erosion -- terraces, and bunds -- trench bunding for infiltration, better infiltration, and gully protection. There were things they didn’t need much help in. They themselves did that. And it worked very well.

Now something we hadn’t thought of and we hadn’t predicted, and neither had they, was two kilometers below one of the villages there is now a big spring coming up which never existed before. About 10 hectares of land are now been irrigated from the water from that just because of the improvements in the land management they made.

I could say similar, not the same, but similar things about the other sites.

Following this, the regional government -- this was in northern Ethiopia -- the regional government got convinced that what we are trying is good and now it has adopted it as a component of its extension system. We expect a few years from now a lot more change of that nature, ecological management, better, improved ecological management of the environment in northern Ethiopia. We hope it will catch on in other parts also.

Developing systems to protect the environment

In Motion Magazine: How about the Environmental Protection Authority, what exactly does that do?

Tewolde: The Environmental Protection Authority, in the U.S. your Environmental Protection Agency is about equivalent, is a new institution. It was established in 1995 and so far we have been developing the instruments for regulating environmental impact. Our role is to develop policies, strategies, laws, and standards for environmental protection and enforce them or see that they are enforced. I say see that they are enforced because many of them are sectoral and we oversee implementation of that sector. For example, is Agriculture doing the environmental protection it should do? Is Health doing the same? We are supposed to monitor and regulate.

We also have the responsibility to help build capacity in regional governments. Ethiopia is a federal state. The equivalent to your states in the United States we call regions. So when I say regional governments it’s something like your state governments. We as a federal institution help build the capacity of the regions to do their own environmental protection and then we are responsible for international relations on the environment. Thus, we follow up all the environmental agreements on behalf of Ethiopia.

It has only been seven years since 1995 and environment protection is a very complex affair. Most of our activities have been in developing systems.

About two years ago we finalized our draft laws. It has taken some time but this year they have been presented to the parliament. We expect the laws to come in the next four or five months. Then we’ll be able to start regulating, meaning overseeing the activities of the various institutions and when it comes to individuals including taking them to court.

Awareness of environmental degradation

In Motion Magazine: How did you come to be in the position you are now?

Tewolde: Well, who can tell what things happen in an individual’s life. I can tell you how it happened. I had been teaching and in 1989 during our military government, following the very severe famine of ’84, ’85, there was a heightened awareness of environmental degradation. In 1989, the government was finally convinced that it had to do something about identifying what the government should do together with the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), the World Conservation Union, as it is called, the first NGO created on environment, created just after the Second World War.

Anyway, there was a project and I am an ecologist by training, and I was asked if I could head it. I was happy to do so. From that the Environmental Protection Authority evolved, all these environmental instruments evolved. And also they’ve asked me to stay on to see the implementation.

The Declaration of the Valley of a Thousand Hills

In Motion Magazine: You helped initiate the Declaration of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Is that true?

The Valley of a Thousand Hills.
The Valley of a Thousand Hills, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Tewolde: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about why you thought that was important, and why you helped organize it? And how?

Tewolde: Well, my life is on environment and development. We organized that meeting (editor: near Durban, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa) to invigorate Africa’s involvement in those issues. I’ll have to take you back to 1990 when the Rio Summit was under preparation. I was involved on behalf of Ethiopia because of the project I told you of. I was involved in negotiating Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity and later on also the Convention to Combat Desertification and lastly the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

These heightened my awareness and I felt the need to be more involved. Well, we did that. It was not only me. It was a group of us in that meeting and we suggested ideas and we sat down and wrote them.

In Motion Magazine: What are the key points?

Tewolde: The key points are care for the environment and care for the people. And a call to a change in the global systems so that de-centralization would be possible. People would be able to be locally significant in what they do. They can decide and execute their decisions without being prevented or threatened. We believe that people are sensible, even instinctively we are by nature friendly. It is simply conditions created that complicate our relationship. If people are free to interact with nature they establish the best possible relationship.

GMOs: Our bigger fear is the environment

In Motion Magazine: I believe the Declaration opposes GMO (genetically modified organisms)?

Tewolde: Yes, it opposes GMOs. Definitely.

In Motion Magazine: Why?

Tewolde: Why? GMOs are being introduced precipitously. You know, in America you started with the substantial equivalence principle, which means unless a GMO is seen to be otherwise it is good and safe. We think differently. A GMO is a result of a combination of genes that would never have happened naturally. Therefore unless proven to be safe we assume it to be dangerous.

You hear it being said that genetically engineered foods have been in the market for over ten years and nobody has died of poisoning. That’s not what we fear. In fact, my prime worry is not what happens to humans. If we get poisoned because of our adventures we would have only ourselves to blame. In any event, poisoning is such an easy thing to detect. It will in this case, it won’t have escaped detection. It’s other possible consequences including on human beings that take decades to show up. For example, cancer. Asbestos was a good commodity two decades ago, now nobody wants to see asbestos. Why? Because it encourages cancer development. There are products that are teratogens, many, many, many possible problems that appear slowly.

But as I said that is marginal, our bigger fear is the environment. With foods in particular, our parts of the world have many native crops and if you make a mistake in introducing a gene into a crop you are not going to be able to call it back. Once it is released it’s going to stay there for good. And if you make one mistake and you pollute the germ plasm of the crop you’ve had it.

Of course, you could probably try to breed certain genes out of it. Well, why go into that uncertainty when there is really no hurry? They will tell you there is a real hurry in Africa because Africa is short of food. It is very often short of food, but it’s not because of lack of good seed. It is global structures. It is within country governance. It is in-built injustices that have made Africa what it is. Africa is many, many times the size of Europe. The Congo Democratic Republic alone is nearly the size of Europe. And we are talking of 700 million people in Africa. The land that is cultivable and is not cultivated is probably in the order of eighty percent or more. The lack of food, our food shortage, is definitely not because of a shortage of technologies to produce. It’s because of a shortage of systems to produce. And one single technological input does not change a system.

Genetic engineering is not going to change the World Back, IMF conditionalities

Genetic engineering is not going to change the World Back, IMF (International Monetary Fund) conditionalities. It’s not going to change the agricultural subsidies in Europe and North America which depress the local market for agricultural goods here because of food dumping and the farmers get marginalized and hence cannot produce enough food, and when it is the whim of America or Europe that cheap food is withdrawn and the countries are in crisis. That’s what’s happened in Liberia. It was American cheap rice that killed rice production in Liberia and when Tubman disappeared and the United States was unhappy, it withdrew the rice and the crisis started.

We are in a situation controlled by whims in Washington, London, Paris etc., owing to the long history of colonization, the slavery era, and so on. In fact, the current institutions were established during the colonial period. This is often not realized. The World Bank, IMF, the United Nations, they were all made just at the end of the Second World War when there were only a handful of independent countries in what is now the developing world. And hence their agenda, their dynamics, are those of the colonial masters. The system hasn’t changed. And you cannot change that with genetic engineering.

Saying that genetic engineering will feed Africa is diverting attention. Once, “the Green Revolution will feed Africa” was the story. Just as it was diversionary so is genetic engineering. We don’t want any diversions. We want to face the problems that really exist.

The clear demarcation between North and South

Alexandra township
A street scene in Alexandra township. Johannesburg. South Africa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

In Motion Magazine: Is that history at the root of some of the problems in this series of negotiations?

Tewolde: Yes. That is the clear demarcation between North and South. If you look at the section on globalization it is a continuation of the processes of control that started about five hundred years ago. And it is a reaction to say, “We want, yes, a united world but a more democratic world. Greater equity.” It is the push-me pull-you effect in these negotiations that is around that.

In Motion Magazine: So how could things be improved?

Tewolde: How could things be improved? They could be improved if the United States and Europe consciously wanted to improve them. I don’t expect them to be so altruistic as to give up their advantages overnight but at least look at the minimum that the rest of the world must have. Let it have it.

At the moment, it is “No” to everything and agreements are not worth the paper they are written on because they are ignored.

In 1992, Agenda 21 was approved and it’s been disregarded. In 1992, there was an agreement by the industrialized countries to give .7 percent of their GDP (gross domestic product) to help developing countries protect their environment and develop. Now it is down to 0.225 percent. The big issue is Europe is now saying in five years they will raise it to 0.29 percent. The U.S. isn’t even doing that.

I think if they wanted a stable world they would let go of some of their advantages. If they don’t, the troubles that we see are going to grow. Hopefully it won’t be as bloody as September 11, but disobedience globally is going to multiply.

Pressuring Ethiopia into privatizing land

In Motion Magazine: I was reading Joseph Stiglitz’s book “Globalization and its Discontents” in which he is critical of the IMF and the World Bank and in particular he mentions Ethiopia. Can you sum up what was the experience of Ethiopia with those institutions?

Tewolde: I think the worst part is it’s still going on. The IMF, the World Bank, all the industrialized countries are pressurizing Ethiopia into privatizing land. Land has never been private. Even when you have a claim as a birthright your claim has always been to use it, never to alienate it. You couldn’t sell it. You couldn’t give it away.

Our present constitution maintains that.

In Motion Magazine: It’s in the constitution?

Tewolde: It is in the constitution that land cannot be bought or sold. You have the right of use of the land you have, and your heirs will inherit it, but you cannot transfer it. You cannot sell it. You can rent it out. But as soon as you die you are no longer capable of renting it out so the agreement also dies.

And the World Bank, IMF, the North are saying you must buy and sell land. The government’s argument is buying and selling is new, why do we do it? It never was here.

Secondly, if we allow the buying and selling of land those with some money will simply buy up the land and since we are eighty-five percent rural, the workforce would simply be displaced. Where does it go? What do you do to it unless you industrialize and slowly? If you don’t coordinate industrialized development with labor moving to the industrial sector you are going to end up in major upheavals.

Of course the World Bank and IMF have also forced an opening of the market. We had a textile industry. It’s now in very serious trouble from very cheap imports from other countries. Especially from the Far East. These are two examples.

In Motion Magazine: Where do you think that is going to go?

Tewolde: It boils down to what I said earlier. My expectation is to the extent that the government of Ethiopia feels it can resist it will resist. If it is forced to give up I suppose we will go the same way other countries have gone, at the risk of growing instability

The Africa Model Law

In Motion Magazine: Returning to the Declaration of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, one of the objectives of the Declaration was to try and get the points that it outlines made into law by the different African countries?

Tewolde: That’s right.

In Motion Magazine: How is that going?

Tewolde: We helped the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now the African Union) develop a Model Law on community rights, farmers rights, breeders rights, and on access to genetic resources. Various aspects of it are being incorporated into national laws in many countries. Not the whole of it as one law but components of it. Some countries are, what we say, domesticating it. Not all of them. Many of them are in fact domesticating at least part of it.

We also helped the OAU develop a Model Law on Biosafety. It is based on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and on Africa’s peculiarities so that we have similar laws across countries. That is relatively new but many countries are using it as a starting point to discuss what kind of biosafety regimes they will have.

In Motion Magazine: Has Ethiopia adopted it?

Tewolde: Ethiopia will probably be one of the countries that will adopt the law on access and community rights, farmer’s rights, etcetera, in one go. It is now at an advanced stage of preparation as a law. Not yet presented for approval by the parliament but it is in the process of doing so. The same is happening to the Biosafety law.

The possibility of non-G.E. food

In Motion Magazine: What do you think about Zambia’s position on attempts to force it to accept GE (genetically-engineered) food?

Tewolde: I think it is a very difficult question. I think if there were no choice I would probably, if I were the Zambian president, shut my eyes and say give them food. But what Zambia is saying is there are options. There is a possibility of getting non-genetically engineered food. If so, Zambia’s stand is absolutely right. You do not solve one season’s problem by accumulating problems for the future. That’s bad choice in government. And maize is the main food there. If genetically engineered maize comes in and they discover later on that they shouldn’t have allowed it because it hasn’t gone through their regulatory system, rather it’s just gone through the U.S. regulatory system which is virtually non-existent, as seen by the rest of us, really they are right to be frightened.

Secondly, from the point of view of trade, the biggest trade partner for Africa is Europe and Europe isn’t all that pro-GE. So they could be jeopardizing their future trade prospects as well. For this reason I think the Zambian government is doing the right thing.

In fact, it isn’t a free market

In Motion Magazine: Is there something else you think is important that I haven’t asked you about that relates to these topics?

Tewolde: Yes. We spoke earlier about what should industrialized countries do. Maybe I should have said the most important single thing they can do is since they are preaching free trade they must make trade free. Eliminate all subsidies, especially from agricultural products, because that is where the developing countries are competitive. Not only the direct subsidies but also the hidden subsidies. For example, according to a study I read, to produce one unit of food in the U.K. it costs about six hundred times more energy than it does in subsistence agriculture in rural Africa. Somebody is paying for that energy. Further, the production of that energy is going into changing the climate. So, hidden as well as direct and indirect subsidies should be removed.

And may I here point out that the trade agreements are so cleverly designed that the industrialized countries can say, “We don’t want to import,” for example, maize this year, or indefinitely, or whatever commodity. And there is nothing to stop them. But the markets of developing countries have been forced open from that kind of protectionism through the World Bank and the IMF when it comes to goods.

In services and in intellectual property rights systems, in TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), there is the national and most-favored nation treatment which means if my government in my country allows something for its nationals, it has to allow that to all other nationals. So anybody who wants to give their service will be able to do so by force in Ethiopia, but any importer can bar Ethiopian goods. That is a very, very unfair system.

If you must preach free market, then free it. In fact, it isn’t a free market.

I’ll end up by telling you a story I heard of Julius Nyerere being asked about the free market and he said if Mohammad Ali Clay and I are given gloves to fight and are put in a ring, a level playing field. Punch on. What chances do I have? And what chance does a least-developed country have in a level playing field of the free market. It’s neither free nor can the field ever be level so long as there is inequality of capacities.

Food sovereignty

In Motion Magazine: How about food sovereignty?

Tewolde: Food sovereignty is absolutely essential if you are to be self-reliant. If the food in my country is dependent, for example, on the United States and the United States comes and says I’m going to attack Iraq you must support me, there is no way my country can say no. There is nothing more sensitive than food. If a country is capable of feeding itself it has fulfilled the most important requirement for being able to take its own decisions. It does not mean it’s not susceptible to other pressures, but the most difficult pressure is one which says “If not, no food.”

In Motion Magazine: So food sovereignty is a political question that goes far beyond food?

Tewolde: Absolutely. I was in a meeting in May, last May in the U.K., near Oxford. We had farmers from India, several countries in Europe, from the United States, and the question of food sovereignty came up and I raised the example of Liberia, the one I told you earlier, and I said what I felt afterwards was naïve. What I realized was naïve was that I said that this rice, the food that was sent initially, was presumably to help Liberia. And one of the farmers there said no, you are wrong, it is definitely a U.S. policy to make countries dependent on food, to make countries lose their independence in food so they can be easier to influence. It is deliberate. You go with cheap food, heavily subsidized food, into the market and the agricultural systems in poor countries have absolutely no subsidies anyway, so you can tip the balance very easily. Destroy the food production system, and you control.

That is his interpretation: you make what you think of it. I’m not saying if he’s right, if he’s wrong. It’s something you can investigate at home.

Published in In Motion Magazine, December 15, 2002
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.