Associate 2000-01

Donald Crummey


An Agroecological Study of Farmers and the Environment in Ethiopia from 1937 to 1997

Professor Crummey directed the Center for African Studies from 1984 to 1994. His work explores the social and religious history of the Ethiopian highlands with a special concentration on the 18th through 20th centuries. The University of Illinois Press published his monograph, Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia: From the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, in June 2000. The monograph rested on documents that register the granting and transfer of rights over land by the rulers of Ethiopia. While those documents throw a great deal of light on government and on society, the view which they provide of land is from the top-down and tells us little about land use. His Center project, entitled "An Agroecological Study of Farmers and the Environment in Ethiopia, 1937-1997,” takes land use as its point of departure and has a bottom-up perspective. It seeks to throw light on the relationship between farmers, environmental stress, and vulnerability to famine in Wällo province, which was at the center of the great famines of 1973 and 1984-85. It rests on evidence from the landscape itself and from the farmers who manage it. Landscape evidence comes from a set of photographs taken in 1937, during the Italian occupation; farmers’ evidence comes from interviews with 120 Ethiopian farmers, men and women. The photographs compared with photographs of the same landscape sixty years later, raise doubt about the standard explanations of how farmers contribute to environmental stress and the interviews suggest the processes which have made for an environmental history significantly differ from the one posited by the governmental and non-governmental agencies, national and international, which have worked to address famine. He will start writing a book which sets the famines of 1970s and 1980s within the context of a sequence of famine in Ethiopia running back to 1889. It further sets those famines within a landscape history framed by the photographs of 1937 and 1997, periodized by aerial photographs from 1960 and 1984, and deriving its dynamics from the testimonies of the men and women who lived that history.