Donald Crummey, James (ed.) McCann. Farming and Famine: Landscape Vulnerability in Northeast Ethiopia, 1889-1991. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018. 312 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-31630-3.
Reviewed by Gregory H. Maddox (Texas Southern University)
Published on H-Africa (March, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)
Gregory H. Maddox on Farming and Famine: Landscape Vulnerability in Northeast Ethiopia, 1889–1991
Donald Crummey’s posthumous work reflects a long career devoted to the study of the history of Ethiopia. Crummey studied for his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the 1960s and later taught at Emperor Haile Selassie I University. He later moved to the University of Illinois where he had a long, productive career, turning his scholarly attention increasingly towards environmental history. This last work was intended to serve as a companion to his magisterial work, Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia (2000), turning attention towards the tragic history of famine in the highlands of that country in the twentieth century. He had not completed the manuscript at his death and his fellow student of Ethiopian history James McCann used his “manuscript drafts and notes” to complete the manuscript for the University of Wisconsin Press. Some sections had been previously published as articles and book chapters.
Crummey’s main goal here is to explain the famines that struck the Ethiopian highlands in 1888-92, 1973-74, and 1984-85. His focuses on the Wallo (Wollo) region in north central Ethiopia. As befits a senior scholar with long experience in Ethiopia, including working with a MacArthur-funded project at the University of Illinois, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the large literature on Ethiopia’s history of famine and landscape change. Three components of Crummey’s work stand out in the book. First, he emphasizes the importance of supply shocks in causing the three great famines. Second, he stresses the adaptability of Wallo’s farmers in the face of adversity. Finally, he weighs in the debate over landscape change that has become a prominent feature in studies of environmental change in Africa.
Crummey first examines the three major famines that struck the Ethiopian highlands in the last century and a half. The first, from roughly 1888 to 1892 and known as “Kefu Qan,” coincided with the continental epizootic of rinderpest, brought to Africa by Italian forces in Eritrea. Crummey finds the “cause” of this famine in the effects of rinderpest, which decimated virgin herds of cattle and destroyed much of the oxen used to plow the highlands. As he argues, “the decisive environmental factors at work were microbes, with human diseases preying on populations weakened by food shortage caused by a crisis in production" (p. 33). While Crummey draws connections to global and continental transformations at the end of the nineteenth century, he argues that this disaster was not part of a transformation of local communities by a spreading global capitalism: “The political economy of the famine was not capitalist” (p. 33).
Turning to the famines of 1973-74 and 1984-85, Crummey again asserts the primacy of supply shocks as a cause of famine. In both cases he argues that the principle cause of famine was drought. In both cases he places the explanation for drought in climate variation. Crummey hammers this point home in support of arguing against the idea of “deforestation” causing drought. In placing the primary cause of famine on drought, he also argues against explanations developed by Amartya Sen in Poverty and Famine (1986) that focused on the distributional differences that led to suffering and Alex de Waal in Famine Crimes (1997) that saw state depredations as the main cause. To some extent those studies sought to answer different questions than Crummey asks. In Sen’s case, it was more about who suffered while de Waal has long focused on local resiliency and what hinders it in times of crisis. Crummey of course acknowledges these differences but remains adamant on the supply shock as the fundamental cause of shortage.
The final two chapters focus on what Crummey sees as the central message of the work. He argues that farmers in Wallo have proved good stewards of their landscapes, contrary to a wealth of conservationist and developmentalist literature coming out of the crises of the 1970s and 1980s. He begins at the same point that James McCann made in People of the Plow (1995) and an article, “The Plow and Forest” in Environmental History (1997), in arguing that the Ethiopian highlands have not suffered massive deforestation over the last century. Of course, to some extent, the time scale of degradation is not so much the point of conservationist arguments. Whether the degradation occurred over a hundred years or a thousand, the point seems that any landscape modified by humans becomes degraded. Crummey surveys as much published literature as possible from the nineteenth century on to show that the mosaic of fields and pastures with scattered trees had long described the highlands. He then reviews some of the early remote-sensing work of the area, complemented by his own comparison of recent photographs of landscapes with those of an Italian official taken in the 1930s. In this section, Crummey makes a compelling case through a close reading of landscape change. He agrees with McCann that landscape change has been subtler than the degradation narratives often adopted by conservationist and development specialists. He supports arguments made by James Fairhead and Melissa Leash in Misreading the African Landscape (1996) and Michael Mortimer in Adapting to Drought (1987) that farmers often cultivate more trees on their farms than might have existed otherwise. Crummey notes the relatively rapid spread of eucalyptus trees in the region both promoted by government action and adopted by farmers for their utility. He then turns to remote-sensing studies and finds in two of three examples support for his contention of only modest changes in tree cover, while in the third, differing definitions of landscape type make comparison difficult. While he notes that some researchers involved in such work rejected his assertion that it was possible tree cover had increased since the 1940s, he concludes by noting, “changes were modest” and “largely the work of farmers” (p. 162).
Fundamental to Crummey’s discussion is a compelling argument for a version of Esther Boserup’s view in The Conditions of Agricultural Change (1965) of African farmers of being driven to innovation and intensification. The population of the region has continued to increase, and since the 1980s, no famines on the scale of the 1974 and 1986 ones have occurred. The amount of land under cultivation has only increased marginally (and in some ways been reduced by the closing of steep hillsides to grazing, as had been the case in the past). Yet food production has increased as farmers found ways to reduce fallow periods and rely on different crops. He attempts to come to an understanding of this process of intensification through interviews with farmers about their experiences.
Crummey’s final work will become an important one in understanding rural change in Ethiopia and Africa. It draws on his lifelong work in the field. McCann has done an admirable job in bringing the work together. While in some places it reads as if Crummey did not have the chance to fully work through the evidence and what it might mean for his arguments, and he only briefly touches on the impact of urbanization on rural society in Wallo, it is a fitting capstone to an important career.
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Gregory H. Maddox. Review of Crummey, Donald; McCann, James (ed.), Farming and Famine: Landscape Vulnerability in Northeast Ethiopia, 1889-1991.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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