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La chute d’un Eden éthiopien

Sabine Planel


Alain Gascon

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1La chute d’un Éden éthiopien, an original and healthily polemic title, does in fact summarise Sabine Planel’s argument very well. Indeed, this book forcefully puts forward an argument. The diagnosis, imprinted with ‘Ethio-pessimisim’, is more than a regional variant of Afro-pessimism; it is based on a rigorous, well-argued approach that is convincing. Personally, I would describe the author as an ‘Ethio-realist’. Indeed, she runs counter to the representations shared by Ethiopians and foreigners with regard to the southern parts of Ethiopia. For Sabine Planel, after others, the simple contrast between a catastrophic Ethiopia in the north and ‘happy’ Ethiopia in the south is an idée reçue. Notice that she already contradicts another idée reçue describing southern Ethiopia – Ethiopia without monuments, like a reserve of primitive populations with an oral culture guided towards the light of the Semitic languages, of written culture and monotheism, by the northern Ethiopia of monuments, manuscripts, icons, etc. and that justified its political servitude. It was thus accepted until the Italian invasion in 1935 that ‘historical’ Ethiopia had, like the European powers, the duty to civilise and colonise the people dominated by Menilek II (1889-1913) and annexed to Greater Ethiopia.

2Conquerors from the North, European travellers and subsequently anthropologists, historians, geographers and agriculturalists – both foreign and Ethiopian – were (and still are) surprised and disconcerted to find agrarian landscapes developed by the enset planting peoples in southern Ethiopia. Thus, seeing plateaux covered with small fields under cereals where eucalyptus was then absent, Europeans spontaneously talked in terms of an ‘African Europe’ (Reclus) of even an ‘African Switzerland’ (Rimbaud). Little sensitive at first to the cared-for garden appearance of the pattern of little fields, planted with false banana (enset) and, as regards the Ethiopians, disdainful of the impure food provided by the ‘miraculous plant’, scientists finally noted that although these regions are the most densely populated of Ethiopia, both avoid famine and have among the highest growth rates. In addition, in the dry season when the highlands in the North display yellowish, grey, bare and bony slopes, tablelands and ridges, the mountains and plateaux of Guragé, Hadiya, Känbata, Sidama, Wälayta and Gamo still gleam with an insolent, unchangeable green. The image of enset, a land of plenty, became clear. Among these areas, the Wälayta – called Wällamo until the 1974 revolution – was archetypal ‘green country’, displaying abundance and prosperity: Lämlämawi Wälayta (green, lush, cool, prosperous Wälayta) as the saying goes in Amhari. Now Sabine Planel undertakes the deconstruction of the Lämlämawi Wälayta image and shows that at the beginning of the twenty-first century it has become a ‘fallen Eden’.

3The demonstration is supported by close field surveys and much documentary and bibliographic work in several languages. Sabine Planel overcame the obstacle of the Wälayta language, hardly known outside the region, thanks to her remarkable informers. Having had the good fortune of meeting them during a 2000 field mission in the Wälayta with Roland Pourtier, I consider that having found such helpers is doubtless one of Sabine Planel’s merits. She is almost too discreet as regards the difficult circumstances of her work, and in particular the riots in 2000.

4Prolonging the surveys conducted in the towns and country areas of the Wälayta, even the most remote and the most isolated and in spite of the sometimes pathological suspicion of the Ethiopian administration, she collected and used abundant statistical and cartographic data. She succeeded in overcoming the reticence of local stakeholders who were often involved in painful personal histories – vanquished, demobilised soldiers of Mängestu Haylä Maryam’s army, forced migrants with no right to land, farmers deep in debt, threatened with imprisonment and obliged to give up their draught teams or the little bit of land they possessed.

5Surveys and bibliographical research made it possible to trace the stages and consequences of the incorporation of the Wälayta in Greater Ethiopia. Sabine Planel shows how the reputation of Eden – that she considers to be usurped – developed in the 1950s and 1960s under the then regime and how it has lasted after the Revolution. The Wälayta performed a miraculous conversion: the kingdom that had resisted Menilek for so long and had suffered ferocious repression and exploitation, became a model region turned towards modernisation. A fierce warrior people turned into reputed, inventive farmers and welcomed Catholic and Protestant missionaries and their regional development programmes called Agri-Service Ethiopia. This project became the Wällamo Agricultural Development Unit (WADU) and gained the status of exemplary project to the extent that it survived the revolutionary upheavals. The old regime and the Revolution recognised that the Wälayta and their territory were open to ‘progress’. In the Wällamo before the revolution and having met the Catholic missionaries involved in the Agri-Service Ethiopia programme, I was aware of the almost enthusiastic atmosphere among the developers amazed by the ‘exceptional’ receptive capacity of the Wälayta to ‘development’ objectives. Was this a miracle? It was more revenge from a people that dominated its neighbours within an ‘empire’ whose organisation resembles that of the Ethiopian Empire. However, before Agri-Service and the WADU, the governor Gärmané Näway, one of those involved in the coup d’état of December 1960, had already settled farmers on crown land. Haile Selassie dismissed him six months later.

6The rigorous, original analysis of the relations between identity and territory in Ethiopia through the example of Wälayta is without a doubt extremely convincing and very new. Sabine Planel describes and gives a very precise explanation of the fall of Wälayta as an Eden, with the aid in particular of short biographies. Increased population and land-holding pressure and the pauperisation of the population result in seasonal departures to farms in the Rift region and more distant migration to Addis Ababa. As the Wälayta are deeply attached to their territory and to enset, the emblematic plant of their agrarian systems, one wonders what becomes of them when they are uprooted and far from their territory and their agrarian landscapes. Can you still be a Wälayta outside Wälayta? Must one leave a fallen Eden at the risk of decline? Can one abandon enset for maize? Does one have the choice?

7Sabine Planel makes a high-quality contribution to knowledge of a region of Ethiopia that is in fact unknown and that is, paradoxically, the victim of its good reputation. The author questions, asks us questions and, we hope, the authorities in the Wälayta will ask themselves questions about the harmful effect of the representations of the Wälayta – a land of plenty, a green land. Indeed, the green of the landscapes can mean pauperisation, migration, abandon and departure. Accepted without being examined and repeated endlessly, these idées reçues had obliterated and concealed the state of a region that is losing its population and its enset. The extraordinary skill of planters who are obliged to intensify production while incorporating cash crops in their agrarian systems has long made it possible to face up to the increase in population pressure on the land. However, has not the Wälayta reached the threshold beyond which soil fertility is no longer renewed, as was shown by Marion Le Pommelec in her recent thesis on agriculture in the region? But the Wälayta still display combativeness and a spirit of resistance, even when they are hit by food shortages. They are fiercely opposed to the teaching – imposed by the central authorities – of a new language, an ‘Esperanto’ consisting of a mixture of local idioms, instead of Wälayta and in competition with the national language. They succeeded in their fight for the re-establishment of a Wälayta zone that had disappeared in the 1991 federal reform and managed to have silos built.

8The Wälayta must doubtless learn lessons from the experience of their neighbours, the Guragé or Dorzé, who were earlier confronted with or became aware of the threats to their territories. The former earned money at the Mercato in Addis Ababa and the latter drew income from ‘authentic’ craft textiles and re-invested it in their region to improve housing and roads and to build schools and dispensaries. It is to be hoped that they will not follow the farmers east of Addis Ababa in the cultivation of kat, a drug whose use is increasing dangerously in the Horn of Africa and in the Yemen and that has already reached the Guragé and Känbata regions west of the capital.

9Paris, 1st December 2007

© IRD Éditions, 2008

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