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August 14, 2011

As famine bites, thousands of Somalians abandon farms

by Lisa Schlein

A senior U.N. official says thousands of people in famine-stricken Somalia are abandoning their farms in search of assistance. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative for Kenya and Somalia warns this mass movement risks overwhelming international aid efforts, and says FAO is taking measures to try to keep people from leaving their land.

The FAO representative says the situation of drought and famine in Somalia is worsening. Luca Alinovi notes five regions in south and central Somalia have officially been declared famine zones, and he expects famine to spread to other regions.

He says an increasing number of farmers, desperate for food, are abandoning their farms and moving to overcrowded refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Thousands of others have fled to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Alinovi warns the situation will become simply unbearable in the coming weeks, if this mass movement of people continues.

“We see the camps expanding dramatically in Mogadishu and we see the people moving towards Afgooye in a quite dramatic phase," said Alinovi. "It is difficult to foresee exactly a number because the possibility is basically everybody who lives in that area moving out, which would be a disaster.”

Alinovi says a major concern is that once people leave their farms, they will not be able to go back because someone else will have taken over the farms they have abandoned. He notes the next planting season is in October, just two months from now, and says it’s important the farmers remain on the land so they can be productive.

He says that FAO has a strategy for doing just that. He says the only way to keep people on the farm is to enlist them into cash-for-work programs. This will provide them with money to help them maintain their irrigation systems, have access to markets, and work their own fields.

“And, in September, latest early October, provide them with seeds, tools and any kind of support that is needed to go back to farming because most of these people have lost their…most of their assets, which do not allow them to access decent seeds, decent fertilizer and a possibility to produce," said Alinovi. "So, if they know that the package includes immediate cash support for cash for work activities and, at the same time, the possibility to have access to inputs at the beginning of the season, that will give them the possibility to continue to farm.”

Alinovi says immediate cash relief must be given to those people who are too weak to farm so they too will remain on the land. And, once they become stronger and able to work, he says they too should be offered the opportunity to be part of the cash-for-work scheme.

The FAO official says the goal of the plan is to make these people believe they can continue their lives where they are. If the international relief response is targeted only to selected areas, he says, people will be forced to migrate to these places.

Alinovi says the FAO has received up to 70 percent support in pledges for its $70 million appeal. He says the agency could persuade a lot Somalis to stay on their farms if these pledges were translated into money in the bank.

VOA News

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