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Defence and Peace Economics
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Crop Cultivation at Wartime – Plight and Resilience
of Tigray’s Agrarian Society (North Ethiopia)
Jan Nyssen, Emnet Negash, Bert Van Schaeybroeck, Kiara Haegeman & Sofie
To cite this article: Jan Nyssen, Emnet Negash, Bert Van Schaeybroeck, Kiara Haegeman & Sofie
Annys (2022): Crop Cultivation at Wartime – Plight and Resilience of Tigray’s Agrarian Society
(North Ethiopia), Defence and Peace Economics, DOI: 10.1080/10242694.2022.2066420
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10242694.2022.2066420
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Crop Cultivation at Wartime – Plight and Resilience of Tigray’s
Agrarian Society (North Ethiopia)
, Emnet Negash
, Bert Van Schaeybroeck
, Kiara Haegeman
and Soe Annys
Department of Geography, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium;
Institute of Climate and Society, Mekelle University,
Department of Meteorological Research and Development, Royal Meteorological Institute of
Belgium, Brussels, Belgium;
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
During the 2021 conict in Tigray (north Ethiopia), crop cultivation has
been hampered by warfare. Oxen have been looted and killed, farm inputs
and tools destroyed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. Farmers felt vul-
nerable out in the open with their oxen. To produce, farmers evaluated
risks involved with ploughing and organised lookouts. Overall, a large part
of the land had been tilled in dicult conditions, and crops sown that
require minimal management, without fertiliser, what led to low yields.
True Colour Composite images, produced from Sentinel satellite imagery
show that smallholder irrigation schemes were operational. There was
a shift from commercial crops to cereals. The situation in western Tigray
was particular, as there has been ethnic cleansing of the population and
often the 2020 rainfed crops had even not been harvested. Overall, our
ndings show that the Tigrayan smallholder farming system is resilient,
thanks to community self-organisation, combining common strategies of
agrarian societies in wartime: spatio-temporal shift in agricultural activities
to avoid the proximity with soldiers and shifts in crop types. Rather unique
is the relying on communal aid, while the blockade of the Tigray region
made that outmigration and o-farm income were no options for the
Received 27 July 2021
Accepted 12 April 2022
Tillage; famine; Ethiopia;
rainfed cropping; farmer-led
irrigation; Sentinel imagery
A civil war is taking place in Tigray (12.2-15°N; 36.4-40°E), northern Ethiopia, since November 2020.
In this conict, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and its allies – formal and informal
military factions of the Amhara region, the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) – oppose the troops of the
Tigray Regional Government, the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). Numerous publications address the
origin of this war and potential paths to peace (Crisis Group 2021), which is largely out of scope of
this work. The conict has detrimental eects on the human population of the region, in relation to
massacres, gender-based violence, health (Gesesew et al. 2021) and food situation (Weldemichel
2021; Biadgilgn et al. 2022). About three out of four Tigrayans live from farming (Regional State of
Tigray 2018) and the region typically depends on local yields. Also in the war year of 2021, the
survival of the Tigray population largely depended on the local crop yield, as hardly a quarter of the
4.5 million people in need were reached with food aid (OCHA 2021). How about crop cultivation in
such war conditions? Kremti is the main (summer) rainy season in Tigray, when cropping takes place
(Alemtsehay, Abrha, and Hruy 2019). Due to intense ghting in the rst half of 2021, there have
CONTACT Jan Nyssen firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Geography, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
Supplemental data for this article can be accessed online at https://doi.org/10.1080/10242694.2022.2066420
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
been low farm inputs and this could directly lead to crop failure at the end of the year. Early
February, a message was conveyed from within the rural areas controlled by TDF: ‘Farmers express
their hope that the war should be over before kremti, otherwise there will be huge famine and
starvation next year’ (Nyssen 2021). Interviewed by Radio France Internationale (RFI) in May, farmer
Gebre Gebremeskel decided to plough: ‘Ethiopian soldiers killed several animals and stole my bed.
But at least I’m alive and the cows spared could save my life. Anyway without a harvest, we die. So
I have to plant, otherwise what will my kids eat?’ (RFI 2021).
In Tigray’s longstanding indigenous smallholder farming system (D’Andrea 2008; Blond, Jacob-
Rousseau, and Callot 2018; Alemtsehay, Abrha, and Hruy 2019), the average start of the around 100-
days long growing period is June in most of the region (De Pauw and Ramasamy 2017). Land
preparation, using a non-reverting oxen-drawn plough (Solomon et al. 2006) is commonly used to
prepare weed-free seedbeds and to enhance inltration – most crops entirely depend on rainfall
without supplemental irrigation (Alemtsehay, Abrha, and Hruy 2019; Nyssen et al. 2019b). Tillage
needs to be done within the months of April to June, preceding the main growing season (Tewodros
et al. 2009). When the spring rains induce suciently wet soil moisture conditions lasting up to the
main rainy season, a good long growing season is possible, called azmera. Particularly, at lower
hence warmer locations, crops with longer growing requirements will be sown, such as maize,
sorghum and nger millet (Frankl et al. 2013). Farmers have modernised a lot over the last decades:
they use mineral fertilisers (Nyssen et al. 2017) and selected seeds, and get advice from the Oce of
Agriculture. They also must select the crop to be grown as a function of the length of the growing
In Tigray, irrigation is also on the development agenda as high crop productivity is necessary to
ensure food security in the context of population growth and environmental changes. The main
contexts of irrigation cropping are formal irrigation downstream of reservoirs or using pumped water
from deep wells, informal schemes along rivers and springs, using gravity irrigation, and motor
pumping of shallow ground water and river water (Walraevens et al. 2015; Haregeweyn et al. 2006;
Woldeab 2006; Nata et al. 2015).
In the 2021 dicult war conditions, the Tigray farmers needed to rely on themselves. This paper
addresses the state-of-the-art of crop cultivation in Tigray in early 2021, its geographical variability as
well as prospects for successful planting. The resilience of Tigray’s smallholder farming system is
particularly addressed, and contrasted to larger plantations in the region and to the war resilience of
other smallholder farming systems worldwide.
Targeting and Resilience of Agrarian Societies in Civil Wars
It is not an uncommon phenomenon for government and rebel armies to strategically target
agricultural and other natural resources during wartime. Both in 20
C. wars (e.g. the Second
World War) and in more recent wars (e.g. Syria) natural resources have often been weaponised
even though ‘attacking, destroying, removing or [the] rendering useless [of] objects indispensa-
ble to the survival of the civilian population, such as food, provisions, agricultural areas for
production of foodstus, crops, livestock, supplies and drinking water installations and irrigation
works’, is prohibited by Article 54 of the 1977 Protocol of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Yin et al.
During the Second World War, the nazi military planner and agronomist Herbert Backe designed
the Hungerplan as a way to use starvation against their enemies in important crop producing areas of
the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine (Runge and Graham 2020). The native population was denied
food and all produced stocks of food and raw materials were seized, after which it was distributed
among the German people. An estimated 4.2 million inhabitants of the USSR died by starvation
between 1941 and 1944 as a direct consequence of the Hungerplan (Snyder 2015). In the Vietnam
war, the United States used biochemical warfare, by spraying millions of litres of concentrated
2J. NYSSEN ET AL.
herbicide over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (Westing 1972). The goal was to defoliate the land to
reduce the cover for the opponents and to destroy their croplands and food supplies (Appau et al.
Water is another valuable natural resource that has also been weaponised in conicts, especially
in drier environments. In Syria, all major parties have weaponised water in order to control or to
inict damage on their opponents (Abbara et al. 2021). For example, ISIS (Islamic State) is responsible
for the deliberate contamination of drinking water to expand their control over the populations, the
government of Syria bombed eight water facilities over the summer of 2019 and the Free Syrian
Army captured and controlled a spring in 2014 to control the water provision of Damascus with the
goal of having leverage in negotiations.
In African agrarian societies, there are several examples of the interference of armies in the
agricultural production during wartime (Macrae and Zwi 1994). In the Angola civil war, farmers
were not allowed to cultivate their lands without military escorts to protect them from rebels
(Carranza and Treakle 2014; Bowen and Steinberg 2003). In Sudan and Somalia, both government
and rebel armies targeted storage facilities to demotivate the community to re-establish the grain
supplies (Macrae and Zwi 1994). On top of the destruction of crops, in South Sudan during the
Second Sudanese civil war (Keen 1991, 1994), the pastoralist communities were impoverished by the
conscation and killing of their livestock. Also, in Somalia during the rule of the military Barre regime
(1969–1990), government troops attacked herders at wells and watering points, while additionally
poisoning wells and destroying water tankers (Macrae and Zwi 1994).
Another tool of war, causing a lot of damage to agricultural production was the use of land mines
in, for instance, Mozambique and Angola, but also in Eritrea and Somalia (Macrae and Zwi 1992). The
mines were commonly used to block roads and prevent the delivery of military goods and agricul-
tural produce, but also to directly attack troops. However, many other tactics were also used, such as
the random deployment of mines in Mozambique and Angola (Unruh, Heynen, and Hossler 2003;
Unruh 2012). Agricultural production itself was not a target, but suered a lot of collateral damage. In
Southern Sudan, famine was facilitated in scenarios where bushes and trees, rich of berries and bark,
were felled to destroy the cover of the opponents. Wild foods such as berries are important foods,
where people can rely on when crop yields are low. Also, in garrison towns, blockades of food were
often maintained for complex commercial and private (economical) interests (Kuol 2014; Macrae and
In the previous civil war in Tigray between the central government of Mengistu Hailemariam and
the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) between 1975 and 1991, ground and air oensives were
conducted by the Ethiopian army, targeting livestock, croplands, houses and storage facilities with
the aim of weakening Tigray’s rural economy. This way, the government wanted to make sure that
the Tigrayan peasants would not be able to access food or sell their labour (Hendrie 1994). The idea
was: the more people that ed, the lesser the support for TPLF would be. Also, crops and livestock
were sometimes conscated, while relief operations were attacked. In Tigray and Eritrea an esti-
mated 165,000 ha of cropland was destroyed by Ethiopian forces, which caused the farmers to
cultivate their lands during night, limiting its productivity (Macrae and Zwi 1994). In other situations,
like in Southern Sudan, economic activities also started to take place during the night to outwit
soldiers as a coping mechanism (Macrae and Zwi 1992). Markets were held at night to avoid aerial
bombing and lorries with aid and food started to travel at dusk to avoid ground attacks.
In dierent countries and regions, similar coping mechanisms are used in conict times. The
shifting of crop types is often used and successful, by choosing a crop that is more suitable for the
situation. In Uganda, for example, due to the absence of men, a shift was observed towards crops
that are more easily cultivated by women (El Bushra and Piza-Lopez 1994). Prioritising cropping in
less exposed areas is another commonly used coping mechanism to avoid harassment or attacks by
soldiers while tending crops and was successful in the 1980s war in Tigray (De Waal 1990; Hendrie
1994), as well as in Angola (Bowen and Steinberg 2003; Carranza and Treakle 2014) and Nigeria
(Adelaja and George 2019a, 2019b). An o-farm income by selling labour or assets was also often
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 3
used as a survival mechanism of households. This can be related to the out-migration of family
members or whole households, looking for a source of income in more secure areas, a strategy used
in almost all mentioned rural areas aected by war.
Plausible Expectation of Non- or Late Cultivation in the Tigray War
Under normal conditions, decisions what to sow and when to cultivate depend on a large set of
variables, which Tigrayan farmers integrate in a mental decision tree, building upon the expertise of
more than 100 preceding generations of farmers (Smidt 2019). Parameters taken into account are soil
type, elevation hence temperature, previously sown crop, availability of oxen, presence of workforce
in the household, possibilities to have additional labour support through linti (ልፍንቲ) labour
exchange or by hiring in people, crop rotation, availability of seeds, perceived soil nutrient status
of the land and availability of fertiliser, religious calendar with its non-ploughing days, adjusting to
neighbours’ decisions, take-up (or not) of advices from agricultural experts, distance between
homestead and farmland, and, importantly, rainfall conditions (Nyssen et al. 2008; Frankl et al.
2013; Hendrie 1999; Gebredmedhn Gebru et al. 1994). War aects several of these variables, and
adds the important factor of lawlessness and unsafety. Concerns had been raised that due to warfare
(timely) ploughing might not occur in Tigray, leading to a second season with failed crops (World
Peace Foundation 2021). One of our witnesses stated: ‘The main cause for not ploughing the
farmland is obviously the war’ (key witness [W2] – prole of all key witnesses is detailed in Table 1).
Lack of Farm Inputs, Oxen and Tools
The large absence of farm implements and inputs has been quoted as a major challenge for the
2021 cropping season in Tigray (World Peace Foundation 2021). The 2020 harvest suered from
locust attacks and marauding soldiers; seeds for the next season have often been consumed
(FEWS NET 2021). An agricultural expert in Mekelle stated: ‘Most oxen have been slaughtered or
Table 1. Key witnesses interviewed.
Witness N° Witness proﬁle Interview date Topics addressed in the interview Interviewer
[W1] Traveller to Mekelle Early May 2021 Observations made from airplane JN
[W2] NGO expert, Mekelle, Tigray 5 May 2021 Rainfall conditions, overall status
of ploughing in 2021
[W3] Junior lecturer at Mekelle
5 May 2021 Rainfall conditions, overall status
of ploughing in 2021
[W4] Tigray Bureau of Agriculture oﬃcial 13 May 2021 2021 conditions of farming in
Tigray’s irrigation schemes
[W5] Agricultural expert, Tigray Bureau
14 May 2021 2021 conditions of farming in
Tigray’s irrigation schemes
[W6] Researcher, Mekelle, Tigray 19 May 2021 2021 conditions of irrigated
[W7] Wukro St. Mary staﬀ, Wukro, Tigray 10 May 2021 2021 irrigation conditions around
Agula’e and Wukro
[W8] Civil servant, Betemara, Tigray 10 May 2021 2021 irrigation conditions around
[W9] Agricultural Development Agent,
Heda Alga, Chercher, Tigray,
13 May 2021 2021 irrigation conditions around
[W10] INGO expert Addis Ababa 3 May 2021 Summary of back-to-oﬃce reports
by NGO workers in Tigray
[W11] Mekelle University senior lecturer 7 May 2021 2021 tillage conditions in villages
[W12] Mekelle University lecturer 13 May 2021 2021 tillage conditions in Enderta
[W13] Livelihood expert, Central Tigray 15 May 2021 2021 tillage conditions in Central
4J. NYSSEN ET AL.
looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. The Eritrean soldiers are not only disallowing farmers to
plough but also burned their farm tools’ [W2]. A sta member of Mekelle University indicated:
‘There are no farm inputs (seeds and fertilizers) available, and in areas away from Mekelle, many
oxen have been taken (without which ploughing is impossible) [W3].’ Also, with regard to
irrigation, ‘many motor pumps have been stolen from the farmers in districts that were reached
by the Eritreans.’ [W2]
Fear for Warfare
Farmers were in fear that if warfare occurs while they were ploughing, they might be killed. They also
feared that the remaining oxen might be stolen or killed. In villages near Samre, for example, the farmers
wanted to give their animals to the TDF – which was not accepted by the latter. The farmers insisted: ‘you
better take it before the Eritreans come again and loot’ [W3]. The information pertains to a village near
a secondary road, more at risk for looting; it shows how the Tigrayan farmers were desperate.
An agricultural expert stated: “Even around Mekele, the fear of war is still there and on the way to
Samre, there is frequently war for shorter periods. You may think that near Mekelle, the condition is
a bit safer, but there are troop movements to places like Dongolat, Samre and Gijet which are war
zones. Farmers near Mekelle are fearing for their oxen to be taken by soldiers when they come back
from the battleeld [W2].
Forbidden by Eritrean Soldiers
Soldiers, especially the Eritreans were not allowing the farmers to plough their land. Farmers reportedly
mentioned the soldiers to have told them ‘we are here ghting/to die, and you want to plough?’ [W3] An
agricultural expert said: ‘Eritreans are not allowing farmers to plough; they threaten to kill anyone whom
they see ploughing on the spot’ [W2]. A witness pertaining to an INGO stated: ‘EDF units have been visiting
villages where people were preparing the land, with the message: you won’t plough, you won’t harvest,
you won’t get any aid; we will punish you if you try’ [W10].
On 10 May 2021, this was also conrmed by the deputy head of the Tigray interim administration,
Abebe Gebrehiwot: ‘There is a campaign to stop farm activities in the name of “law and order
enforcement”, especially in Shire, Tembien, Hawzen. (. . .) The other problem is that trucks carrying
seed were stopped in Kobo (Amhara region). (. . .) If seed transport is obstructed and farm activities
are stopped where farmers are not allowed to plough, then the outcome would be famine (Tigray TV
2021; AFP 2021; Addis Standard 2021).’
Lack of Manpower
Constrained by an immense plight of massacres, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence and other war
crimes by ENDF and EDF, many young Tigrayans felled compelled to join the TDF guerrilla forces
(Lefort 2021). These were the same men who would bear the brunt of tillage.
A witness said: ‘The number of men joining TDF per household may vary based on what
happened in their surroundings (especially massacres, rape and destruction). In a village that
I know well, almost all the young men joined after witnessing the indiscriminate killing of 13 people.
It also depends on access, there is for instance fear to be caught when travelling to the TDF-
controlled areas. In most cases, if TDF happens to move across a village, the young men who stayed
home in fear of being caught on the road join them’ [W3]. The rural communities took the larger part
of the burden of the war, and also here it was common to see the villagers particularly assisting the
households whose youngsters joined the TDF. It will be interesting to see whether, under these
particular circumstances, gender roles will be broken and women would take up the plough (Hawku
2014; Mamusha, Abay, and Waters-Bayer 2000).
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 5
Tigrayan farmers are largely (>95%) Orthodox Christians (CSA 2008) and have many religious
holidays throughout the year; on such days they are prohibited from conducting heavy
activities such as building, ploughing or harvesting (Hendrie 1999; Kijima and Gonzalez 2013).
Over the last decades, authorities have tried to decrease the number of non-ploughing days
(Hendrie 1999). If in-depth studies could not demonstrate eects of the number of religious
holidays on agricultural productivity or household welfare (Kijima and Gonzalez 2013), the
sixteen consecutive days without ploughing in the Easter period seemed like an impediment,
particularly in the war year 2021, when, furthermore there was a ‘late Easter’, celebrated early
May (Annex D – supplemental material).
Two witnesses mentioned that, in 2021, ‘all farm labour was interrupted from 24 April to
9 May 2021 – a compulsory religious rule in the week before and the week after Orthodox Easter’
[W2, W3]. Reversely, in 2019, there was also such a late Easter, and then many farmers managed to
plough before the Easter holidays.
Lack of Cultivation as a Consequence of Ethnic Cleansing
The situation in western Tigray was particular, as there has been ethnic cleansing of the
population (The New York Times 2021; Labzaé and Planel 2021) and often the 2020 rainfed
crop had even not been harvested (VRT 2020). Many lands remained uncultivated, and irriga-
tion schemes abandoned. A researcher who is familiar with the Tekeze River stated that: ‘What
we hear from beyond the river (i.e. SW of Tekeze River) is that many Tigrayans have been
displaced and replaced by Amhara people and militias. These have harvested the products of
the irrigated lands, but they do not manage to irrigate the banana trees, so these are
In May 2021, the Amhara region, that was in control of Western Tigray, had started leasing the
Western Tigrayan lands to Amhara investors at particularly cheap rates (Tghat 2021), presumably in
view of attracting new settlers.
Besides the multidisciplinary expertise on the study area (Nyssen, Jacob, and Frankl 2019a; Annys
et al. 2021a; Van den Hende et al. 2021; Negash et al. 2020), this research used remotely sensed
data and telephone interviews during early 2021, when most of Tigray was controlled by the ENDF
Semi-structured interviews by telephone of 17 key witnesses (Schmidt 2004; Novick 2008; Legard,
Keegan, and Ward 2003; Holt 2010; Fontana and Frey 2005; Cachia and Millward 2011) who are well
experienced with the agricultural sector in Tigray and who each have a strong network in the region
allowed contextualising the spatially explicit results. The privacy rights of the key witnesses have
been observed: we do not reveal the identities of the interviewees, who furthermore all are
researchers or civil servants (Table 1). They fully understand the context of the interview and gave
an ‘informed consent’ to involve in the research.
Rainfall conditions were analysed using the CHIRPS 2.0 dataset (Funk et al. 2015) that covers
January 1981 – April 2021.
We further contrasted the visual interpretation of a sample of three oblique photographs in
a radius of 25 km around the regional capital Mekelle taken early May 2021 to corresponding Google-
Earth imagery of 2018 which had similar rain conditions. Farmlands that have been ploughed appear
darker than the neighbouring unploughed elds.
6J. NYSSEN ET AL.
Sixteen areas with rainfed agriculture, and 14 areas with irrigated agriculture spread over the Tigray
region, were taken as a sample in order to contrast the situation of tillage and irrigation in early 2021
(median values of the period from March to mid-May), with that of 2020 and 2019. The analysed areas
covered dierent parts of Tigray, with various military forces in control (see Figure 1). Median values
over the study period in the dierent spectral bands of Sentinel imagery were used, in order to avoid
the inuence of extreme values induced by clouds or their shadow.
To analyse the status of tillage, we used using True Colour Composites of Sentinel imagery,
with a spatial resolution of 10 m x 10 m (Sovdat et al. 2019). This resolution allows
representing the larger, level farmland areas of Tigray, but does not allow analysing the
relatively marginal croplands in mountain areas, as these areas appear very blurred on
To analyse the status of the irrigated perimeters, we also used True Colour Composites
(Sovdat et al. 2019), as well as a graphical indicator of greenness, the Normalized Dierence
Vegetation Index (NDVI) (Veloso et al. 2017), both derived from the high-resolution multispectral
Sentinel imagery (Mandanici and Bitelli 2016). Whereas the True Colour Composite images allow
visual interpretation, NDVI images allow to quantitatively derive irrigated areas.
Figure 1. Location of sampled areas and territorial control (status by the end of April 2021), exerted by the Ethiopian National
Defense Force (ENDF), Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), Tigray Defence Forces (EDF), Amhara Special Forces and fanno Amhara
militias (grouped as ADF). Thin lines delimit woredas or districts – see the ‘Tigray Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation’ for full
details (Annys et al. 2021b).
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 7
Observations: No or Little Crop Cultivation around Mekelle (Early May 2021)
Early May, a witness observed from the airplane that very few croplands had been ploughed in
the surroundings of Mekelle airport (Figure 2). When driving the road from the town to the
airport they could also observe that none of the croplands along the road had been ploughed
[W1]. Early May 2021, another key witness indicated: ‘There has been sucient rain for azmera
(to grow maize, sorghum, and millet); in normal conditions, farmers would have ploughed by
this time’ [W2] and another witness stated: ‘There were four rain events so far, which is
sucient for easy ploughing’ [W3]. Both witnesses insisted: ‘Some farmers started to plough’
[W2], and ‘They should have ploughed at least once, and for sorghum or millet, this would be
the sowing time’ [W3].
The landscape photos of some agricultural lands in a radius of 25 km around Mekelle airport,
taken early May 2021 were compared with historical Google-Earth imagery of March and April 2018
(no imagery available for May 2018) (Figure 3; Annex A – supplemental material). The year 2018 had
similar spring rain conditions as 2021 (see below). In each of the three scenes, only a quarter to half of
the land was ploughed early May 2021, as compared to March or April 2018. On two scenes in
May 2021, a greenish shade tends to indicate the growth of weeds that beneted from the rains and
absence of tillage.
An additional series of high-oblique photographs taken from the airplane on 21 May 2021 at the
east of Mekelle showed that around 40% of the plots were ploughed in the level agricultural lands
around the Ashegoda wind farm (13.427°N, 39.574°E), but only 20% of the terraced lands in Mones
Rainfall Conditions in the Study Period
According to the CHIRPS dataset (Funk et al. 2015), the precipitation depth in Mekelle was 9.7 mm in
March 2021. Analysis using the standardised precipitation index indicates that March 2021 was
abnormally dry (following American Meteorological Society – AMS conventions (Svoboda et al.
2002)); within the current (CHIRPS-based) climate, the probability of a March being even drier is only
23%. Similar drought conditions were met in March 2018 with a rainfall depth of 8.2 mm. Additionally,
the rainfall conditions in the three-month period January–March at Mekelle were very similar for 2018
Figure 2. Low-oblique view of Addi Aweto, early May 2021 (13.410°N, 39.287°E, 1830 m). In this stepped limestone landscape, the
scattered parts of the village can be recognised. The village church (Giyergis – St. George) is proeminent at the edge of the cliﬀ.
Ploughed farm plots can be recognized as rectangles that are darker than their environment (indicated by white arrows). The
greenish shade on the lower left part of the landscape tends to indicate that there has been rain and weeds started to emerge.
8J. NYSSEN ET AL.
and 2021, with 2018 being only slightly drier. April 2021 was a normal month (35 mm rain) and almost
exactly the same as April 2018. This justies the comparison of the 2021 imagery around Mekelle with
those of 2018 in the previous section. In addition, for Tigray as a whole, rainfall conditions for the spring
months February–April of 2021 were mostly normal, and locally (southern Tigray) extremely dry
(Figure 4). The year 2020, on the contrary, saw wet to severely wet spring rain conditions all over
Tigray (inset of Figure 4), while 2019 featured wet conditions in southern and eastern Tigray and dry
conditions in western and northwestern Tigray (inset of Figure 4). This is important to bear in mind
when contrasting the 2021 spring tillage conditions with those of earlier years.
Cultivation of Rainfed Land
Sixteen sample areas (each between 7.4 and 33.5 km
large) were chosen in such a way that larger
areas with contiguous farmlands could be analysed, avoiding unclear smaller plots in the mountains
(Table 2). For each sample area, one True Colour Composite (Sovdat et al. 2019) image was generated
in Google Earth Engine for the years of 2019, 2020 and 2021, based on the median spectral signature
for the period of 1 March to 17 May. Similar to aerial photographs, on such True Colour Composite
images, the ploughed lands are visual by their exposed dark earth in contrast to nearby plots in the
same soil unit that appear brighter and remain unploughed (Annex B – supplemental material). As an
attempt to quantify the share of tilled lands through a Normalized Dierence Moisture Index (NDMI)
analysis (Dutrieux et al. 2016) was inconclusive, the status of tillage is presented in a qualitative way,
and ranked between the three observed years (Table 2). In each set of satellite images, we specically
considered the wider areas with presence of clear farm boundaries and a large number of more or
less rectangular elds.
The sum of the rankings, normalised for the number of samples, indicates that the rainfed
farmlands in Tigray were best ploughed in 2019 and least in 2021. Regional dierences are remark-
able, however: in the west and northwest, the share of tilled land was on average equal in 2019 and
2020, while strongly reduced in 2021 – see Humera as a representative site for Western Tigray (Annex
B), and Lemlem-Sheraro for NW Tigray (Figure 5). To the contrary, in the rest of Tigray (sites 10-16),
most land had been ploughed in 2019, followed by war year 2021, and then only the exceptionally
wet year 2020 (see for instance Figure 6).
Figure 3. Low oblique Google Earth image of Addi Aweto in March 2018. White arrows point to tilled lands. Due to relatively high
temperatures, the lower lying land (lower left of the image) is most suitable for sorghum, which is sown early.
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 9
The 14 analysed irrigation perimeters were chosen in such a way that all had reliable water supply,
and that they represented the dierent types of irrigation schemes occurring in the region, under
dierent types of territorial control. For each sample area, one True Colour Composite (Sovdat et al.
2019) and one NDVI image were generated in Google Earth Engine for the years of 2019, 2020 and
2021, based on the median spectral signature for the period of 15 March to 15 May. On the True
Colour Composite, the irrigated lands are visual by their exceptionally deep green colour, and their
extent can be contrasted between years (Annex C – supplemental material). For each of the study
years, the irrigated area was obtained based on having a high NDVI value (NDVI > 0.3, reecting
active vegetation), and its area was measured (Table 3). The dierence between the situation in 2021
and the average of 2020 and 2019 was calculated (Figure 7).
Out of the pre-war sample of 4058 irrigated ha, 2782 ha were also irrigated in 2021, i.e. a decrease
of 1276 ha or 31%. Considering only the smallholder irrigation (all sites, except 1, 2 and 14), the
sample holds an average of 2057 irrigated ha in 2019 and 2020, which became 2184 ha irrigated in
2021, i.e. an overall increase of irrigated area by 6%. Yet, contrasts range between decrease in
irrigated area by one-third in Endaba Tsahma and Adi Daero, and increases in the same order of
magnitude in May Gabat and Betemara (Table 3 and Figure 7).
Figure 4. Rainfall conditions in February-April 2021 in contrast to long-term averages and previous years, as derived from the
CHIRPS 2.0 dataset (Funk et al. 2015), plotted on a 0.05° grid. The map also includes the locations of sample areas where tillage
and irrigation conditions of early 2021 were contrasted to those of earlier years. Classiﬁcation of rainfall conditions follows the
AMS conventions (Svoboda et al. 2002).
10 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
Table 2. Setting of the 16 sampled areas with rainfed croplands in Tigray (Figure 1), assessment of the status of tillage in spring between 2019 and 2021, and ranking from most (1) to least ploughed (3).
No. Location °N °E Interpretation
2019 2020 2021
1 Humera 14.250 36.655 With the exception of a few late plots, the land was fully ploughed in 2019 and 2020, but three quarters of it was unploughed in 2021.
The large tractor scheme near the town belongs to the Agricultural Research Institute and was only partly ploughed in 2021.
1 1 3
2 May Kadera 14.112 36.539 90% ploughed in 2019, 80% in 2020, 40% in 2021. In this last year many reddish plots can be seen, presumably dry standing millet
(Douny 2018) or sorghum (Sumner 2010) from the previous year that was not harvested.
1 2 3
3 Birkuta 14.176 37.324 There is not so much diﬀerence between the three years. Status of tillage is the same in 2019 and 2020, in 2021 a bit more land has
been tilled in the western part, but much less in the eastern part. There might be a particular reason that we do not know, such as
presence of soldiers, or occurrence of a massacre in that area.
1 1 3
14.403 37.726 Similarly ploughed in the ﬁrst two years, maybe a bit more in 2019. Signiﬁcantly less ploughed in 2021, particularly in the central part;
also in the western part a lot of unploughed, reddish plots.
1 2 3
5 Shegelele 13.776 36.770 Much less ploughed in 2021. Several large burned grasslands can be seen. 1 1 3
13.664 36.826 Many unploughed lands in the three years. Is that an area where regular fallowing is still practiced? Less ploughed though in 2021. 1 1 3
7 Adi Soguadi 13.833 37.417 Progress in ploughing was slow in 2019, whereas 2020 and 2021 show a better progress. In 2021, more land was ploughed in the
southwest in 2021 and a bit less elsewhere.
3 1 1
8 Adi Gidad
14.060 38.312 The land was least ploughed in 2020 and most in 2019. 1 3 2
9 Wuhdet (May
13.612 38.071 There are many soil zones, and when zooming in per soil zone, it appears that especially 2019 holds more unploughed land 3 1 1
10 Mahbere Dego 14.019 38.781 In the three years, only around 30% of the land has been ploughed; patterns are very similar, but diﬀerent lands were ploughed 1 1 1
11 Addi Tesfa 14.455 39.358 What appears as a large plot in the north are numerous elongated farmlands, all ploughed in the three years. Adjacent brighter area is
(dry) grassland. Almost all land that is possible to plough has been ploughed. We see a bit more ploughed land in 2021.
2 2 1
12 Addi Gorada’iti 14.329 39.264 Recognising tilled land needs an exerted eye in this sandy landscape. Less land was tilled in 2020. The other two years show a similar
shre of tilled land, that is tilled in larger blocks in 2019 (which ﬁts with commonly practiced block rotation (Nyssen et al. 2008)), and
more scattered in 2021 (maybe because many oxen have been looted in this area).
1 2 1
13 Tahtay Sinkata 14.068 39.545 Very diﬃcult to recognise the ploughed lands; in these sandy lands, farmers commonly sow in June whether or not the rains are good
(Jacob 2010), so probably most lands are not expected to be ploughed at this stage. Incidentally, we observe a cluster of buildings at
the NE corner of the scene that have been burned down. It was a military camp of the Ethiopian army (siding with Tigray Defence
Forces), burnt down by the Eritrean army between 20 and 25 November (as evidenced by Sentinel imagery).
14 Aynalem 13.462 39.505 In 2020, a similar small number of plots had been ploughed as in spring 2021. In 2019, more land had been ploughed 1 2 2
15 Fukasa 13.297 39.134 This is a nicely individualised fertile mesa. We assess that most land was ploughed in 2019, 50-60% in 2020 and 30-40% in 2021. 1 2 3
16 Atsela 12.934 39.542 Least ploughed in 2020. In all years, there is a green shine on the unploughed lands, indicating growth of weeds. 1 3 2
Normalised sums of the rankings
(lowest value corresponds to
greatest share of ploughed land)
Western and northwestern Tigray, sites 1-9 1.4 1.4 2.4
Other zones of Tigray, sites 10-16 1.0 1.7 1.4
All 16 sample sites 1.3 1.6 2.0
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 11
Interviews indicate that the strong decrease in sites 1 and 2 is due to ethnic cleansing in
Western Tigray, and in site 14 due to plantations being abandoned by their investors
(Table 4). The situation of smallholder irrigation in other parts of Tigray is much more exible.
Despite threats on their lives, killing of their oxen and theft of motor pumps, these farmers
focused their activity on the irrigated lands, generally shifting from commercial crops to
cereals or beans that need much less irrigation management, while nding ad-hoc solutions
for seed, fertiliser, fuel and possibly marketing of vegetables. During the daytime, elderly
people, women and children worked on the irrigated lands. Adult men often left their village
to join the armed struggle; if present, they were particularly a target of the Eritrean army and
worked at night. In site 14, the smallholder farmers also beneted from improved water
availability from springs, presumably in relation to the abandonment of water pumping for
nearby plantations (Table 4).
Endaba Tsahma (Figure 8) was located in the active war zone in early 2021. In addition to
the challenges faced in other irrigation perimeters, the probable absence of reservoir opera-
tors made that its management was not optimal and that the lower (southern) end of the
perimeter did not receive sucient water for cropping.
Figure 5. Rainfed cropland in Lemlem (No. 4, near Sheraro, NW Tigray). Width of scene is approx. 7 km; (a) in 2019. The land has
been extensively ploughed, particularly in the cropping zones at the west and the east of the scene; in 2020, the pattern was
quite similar, but a bit less land had been ploughed; (b) in 2021. Compared to 2019 and 2020, signiﬁcantly less ploughing was
done in 2021, particularly in the central part; also in the western part there are many unploughed, reddish plots (presumably dry
standing sorghum (Sumner 2010) or millet (Douny 2018)).
12 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
In Rubaksa in Dogu’a Tembien, the irrigation area is age-old, as it is fed by strong karstic
resurgences (Figure 9). Water resources are abudant, and the irrigation perimeter occupies the
whole alluvial plain and adjacent footslopes. Some expansion took place, as far as the topography
allowed this. The area was in an active war zone; we could not directly reach the farmers, but the
expert assessment [W4] is that they may have shifted to cereals.
In May Gabat (Figure 10), the irrigated area was expanded by 39% with respect to 2019-2020. The
proximity of Mekelle as a market for products and a source of supplies, as well as the impossibility for
o-farm labour in nearby Mekelle and relative safety due to distance from the main roads have
stimulated the farmers to maximally implement irrigation activities. A person familiar with the area
stated: ‘Near the May Gabat irrigation scheme, there has only once been warfare. People are
irrigating but not like before. They are producing tef, onion, garlic and tomato, but they are afraid
of transporting their products to Mekelle because robbers and soldiers can steal it’ [W6].
In addition, building upon earlier studies along the Tekeze River (Annys et al. 2021a; Annys,
Ghebreyohannes, and Nyssen 2020a), all the irrigated areas along the river were mapped, and values
of the NDVI standardised vegetation index contrasted (Peters et al. 2002) for the 2019-2020 average
and 2021. This allowed extracting the lands where riparian perennial irrigation (for bananas essen-
tially) was stopped and crops dried o. In 2021, 678 ha of irrigated farms were abandoned along the
Figure 6. Rainfed cropland in Atsela (No. 16, woreda Alaje, Southern zone). Width of scene is approx. 3.3 km; (a) in 2020. There is
a very patchy nature of ploughing, indicating absence of block rotation in all years; (b) in 2021. More land is ploughed in this
war year than in the rain-rich spring of 2020. In 2019, the status of tillage was even better than in 2021. At 2490 m, this valley
bottom is at the upper altitudinal range of sorghum (Jacob 2010), which is probably what the farmers have tried to sow with their
timely early ploughing.
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 13
Tekeze River, i.e. 57% of the pre-war irrigated lands (Figure 11). The total area of irrigated land in
2021 is in the same order of magnitude as that of 2009, i.e. before the dam was constructed (Annys
et al. 2021a).
Ploughing for Sake of Window Dressing?
A sta member of Mekelle University: ‘In some areas around the regional capital Mekelle, which are
under the eyes of observers, the farmers have started ploughing – areas like in Shafat, Shifta, or
Dagia, just south of Mekelle. But these areas do not represent the farming community of Tigray’
Table 3. Setting of the 14 sampled irrigation areas in Tigray (Figure 1), the area eﬀectively irrigated (in ha) and changes between
the 2019-2020 average and 2021.
No. Location Type* °N °E Elevation (m a.s.l.) 2019 2020 2021 DIFF (ha) DIFF (%)
1 Tekeze River Medium 14.1198 37.5296 600-700 1190 1208 521 − 678 − 57
2 Wolkayt sugarcane Plant. 13.8414 37.6391 845 197 281 27 − 212 − 89
3 Adi Daero Dam 14.3018 38.2028 1760 135 146 94 − 46 − 33
4 Kiwadat Dam 14.1071 38.6586 2060 244 204 234 10 4
5 Rama Dam 14.3618 38.8080 1410 626 793 847 138 19
6 Endaba Tsahma Dam 14.0655 39.0282 2045 118 107 77 − 36 − 32
7 May Ts’ebri Dam 13.5709 38.1660 1350 216 258 260 23 10
8 Addi Gidey River 13.7475 39.0908 1680 180 187 195 11 6
9 Rubaksa River 13.5953 39.2309 1940 115 135 137 12 9
10 Agula River River 13.6925 39.6078 2025 164 160 137 − 25 − 15
11 Addi Aweto River 13.4175 39.2829 1810 32 28 30 0 1
12 May Gabat River River 13.4353 39.3558 1770 73 75 102 29 39
13 Betemara River 13.0212 39.5225 2400 56 63 71 12 20
14 Mehoni Plant. 12.7059 39.7671 1540 643 482 50 − 513 − 91
*Irrigation type: Medium = informal medium-scale irrigation along river, Plant. = formal large-scale irrigated plantations,
Dam = formal small-scale irrigation (with irrigation dam), River = traditional small-scale irrigation along river, possibly
supplemented by springs
Figure 7. Evolution in irrigated areas from 2019 to 2021 for the 14 sampled irrigated areas. Changes greater than 20% between
the average of 2019-2020 (pre-war) and 2021 (war) are indicated in red (decrease) and green (increase). For speciﬁc ﬁeld
information, see Table 4
14 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
Table 4. The ‘story’ behind abandonment (or expansion) of irrigated lands in the Tigray War.
No. Location Field information from local witnesses
1 Tekeze River
“There is massive displacement in these areas, almost no farmers are remaining. Fruit plants are destroyed mostly by EDF and ADF. We doubt if there are any irrigation
activities at the moment [W4, W5] ‘Soldiers tried to take over some of the banana plantations, but failed to irrigate them properly.’ [W6]
‘Sugar factory destroyed. Residents and employees displaced, except those who are from Amhara.’ [W4, W5]
3 Adi Daero ‘Farmers in the northwestern zone are largely displaced to the nearby urban areas in search of safe places. The remaining few farmers, plant cereals instead of vegetables
and fruits; they also have no access to seed, fertilizer, phyto-sanitary products or technical support.’ [W4, W5]
4 Kiwadat ‘Irrigation activities are limited as farmers are at risk. They largely shifted from fruits and vegetables to cereals. No access to farm inputs or technical support.’ [W4]
‘Farmers started to irrigate their plots while the Tigray forces were controlling the area. They are mostly growing faba bean (since it requires less water). About 120 ha out
of 198 ha was covered by the crop. Later the farmers feared the EDF troops and did not manage their crops. Production is low; no access to fuel and lubricants.’ [W5]
5 Rama ‘(Part of) the production at this site has been looted by EDF.’ [W5]
‘No cash crops grown, but only maize. The expert for monitoring the dam and canal structures does not live there anymore, and thus sometimes it may not even function.
No seed and fertilizer supply; farmers however use their own ways to obtain it (if available).’ [W5]
6 Endaba Tsahma ‘Frequent warfare hinders farmers’ activities. Shift from fruits and vegetables to cereals. Farmers sometimes work at night; no technical support or inputs supplied.’ [W4]
7 May Ts’ebri ‘Less challenges as compared to other areas in western and north-western zones. The new Amhara administration is pushing farmers to continue irrigation activities.’ [W4]
‘Farmers were able to grow sorghum, tomato and other crops.’ [W5]
8 Addi Gidey ‘Frequent warfare hinders farmers’ activities. Farmers sometimes work at night; no technical support or inputs supplied.’ [W4]
‘Relatively good production of mango and orange. Some farmers sow crops between the tree lines.’ [W5]
9 Rubaksa ‘Frequent warfare hinders farmers’ activities. Shift from fruits and vegetables to cereals. Farmers sometimes work at night; no technical support or inputs supplied.’ [W4]
‘Irrigation through diversion from the perennial river. Due to frequent warfare and insecurity problems, farmers are not able to irrigate their farms.’ [W5]
10 Agula River ‘[Part of] the production at this site has been looted by EDF.’ [W5]
‘The main diversion in Agula’e is operated by Wukro St. Mary college, which monitors the irrigation structures and farm activities. Irrigation continued in Agula’e and few other
areas around Wukro. These irrigated farmlands used to grow high-income vegetables such as cabbage, onion, tomato; sometimes intercropped with maize. Now all irrigated
farms are covered by teﬀ, wheat, and sometimes maize, which does not require intensive management and frequent revisit. Most of the men have joined TDF, and the
remaining men, the elderly, and the women mostly stay at home. The land west of the road in Agula’i was leased to a small investor. Unlike other years, now it is only covered
by teﬀ. Farmers are trading fertiliser among each other in the market. There are no formal ways of distributing/getting fertilizer or seed, yet.’ [W7]
‘The farmers fear that if the soldiers ﬁnd youth farming or managing the land, they kill them. Two young men were killed near Wukro while irrigating (around 30 April)’. [W2]
11 Addi Aweto ‘No farm inputs supplied. Fruit trees reportedly destroyed by Eritrean soldiers.’ [W4]
12 May Gabat River ‘Unlike other areas, farmers in Inderta have better access to farm inputs from Mekelle, transporting it by donkey. Although there is a shift towards teﬀ, wheat and maize,
farmers are also able to produce vegetables. The growing market demand from Mekelle city is a stimulant. There is still strong fear for warfare and looting when crops
are transported to Mekelle.’ [W4]
13 Betemara ‘Irrigation takes place by diversion from the main river; there was no ﬁghting in the area. That has somehow allowed the farmers to continue their farm activities.’ [W8]
Seen from Mekelle, the overall picture of agro-industrial farms, to which regional authorities have no access, is: ‘Motor pumps and equipment completely looted and
destroyed. It is similar for all plantations in Raya Azebo, Chercher and Alamata weredas. All these plantation farms are not active at the moment.’ [W4] Local people
mention that the large perimeter is a ‘commercial farm that belongs to a Spanish company. Unlike other farms, nothing was looted and destroyed.’ [W5] ‘On the Spanish
farm, like on other land held by foreign investors nothing was looted. The farms held by Tigrayan investors were largely looted. The manager of the Spanish farm
evacuated all staﬀ and left the area. No irrigation is undertaken.’ [W9]
West of the plantation, there are ‘smallholder irrigation farms that beneﬁt from boreholes that were dug by the Tigray government. One borehole serves 30-40 ha of land.
Currently, they are growing sorghum. It is less probable that they cultivate commercial crops, such as vegetables because commercial crops are grown by small investors
who rent land from the farmers. Now, these investors are not there because of security problems.’ [W5] ‘The local farmers have managed the farms using irrigation (from
the borehole) and likely some rainfall events – sorghum, tomato and onions are grown. More water seems available than last year, so they can irrigate more.’ [W9]
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 15
[W11]. ‘Some Ethiopian soldiers started instructing the local farmers in Enderta and Hiwane to
plough their lands. In the area, crops started growing. There is no formal access to fertilizer in the
area. Traders bring it from other parts of Ethiopia’ [W12].
Shifts in Crop Types
It is dicult to know what was sown on the rainfed croplands. Much depended on the time of
ploughing and simply the seeds the farmer could get hold on. In the irrigated lands, all witnesses
mentioned a shift from cash crops to staple crops, for dierent reasons that reinforce each other: it is
less labour-intensive hence there is less exposure to risks, staple crops contribute to food security,
and there is less risk of looting of standing cereals, than for instance tomatoes or onions.
In areas that were within reach of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, the farmers developed strategies
to prepare their rainfed and irrigated land, while minimising the risk of looting or killing. ‘Farmers
plough very early morning (ለይቲ ለይቲ ኣንጊህካ, “the night time morning” in Tigrinya language; starting at
3 AM in May, June and July, when the nights are shorter). The soldiers only start roaming and
marauding after normal breakfast time, and by that time the farmer and his oxen should already be
Figure 8. Endaba Tsahma (No. 6) irrigation perimeter, supplied by a reservoir (out of the image, just at north), (a) in 2020; (b) in
2021. The irrigated area has decreased by 32% since 2019-20. The southern end of the perimeter has not been cropped.
16 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
away from the farmland’ [W2]. ‘After ploughing, women do the rest of the land management, breaking
down the larger soil clods (ዱንኩል, particularly in Vertisol areas) and even hoeing parts of the land that
were not ploughed by the oxen’ [W2, W12]. ‘Farmers above 50 years old are less likely to be targeted
and they take the risk to plough’ [W12]. ‘Farmers observe and follow-up on the movement of troops.
They plough on the days that they do not anticipate the soldiers to be around. And they ask their
neighbourhood to look out for roaming soldiers while they are ploughing’ [W3].
And by mid-May, ‘as the EDF are withdrawing to the towns and the main roads, and rural areas in
central Tigray are becoming more secure, farmers are ploughing more. They are using any seeds they
have, not sure if it will germinate or grow, but the extent of ploughing, while still far below normal, is
less bad than it was feared a few weeks ago’ [W13].
Resilience of Smallholder Farming in Wartime
An ocial of the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture said: ‘We do not have any formal or ocial
compilations on the status of any of these activities, we could not help our farmers’. He concludes
‘farmers are only trying to sustain their survival in one way or another’ [W4]. Such belief in the
need to fully guide and coordinate smallholder farmers by state institutions has been a red thread
Figure 9. The Rubaksa (No. 9) village, historically irrigates its land with water from the May Zegzeg river, as well as from karstic
resurgences (Walraevens et al. 2019), (a) in 2020; (b) in 2021. The village is far from roads, and the irrigated land was expanded by
9%. See for instance the extreme southern edge of the perimeter.
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 17
in agricultural policy in Ethiopia since the reign of emperor Hailesillasie. At an early stage during
the civil war of the 1980s and just after taking power in 1991, Tigray’s leading party TPLF promoted
self-government of rural communities (Hendrie 1999; Berhane and Haile 2001; Young 2006, 1996;
Hammond 1999; Milas and Latif 2000), but soon again, by the 2000s it had reintegrated with
mainstream top-down thinking about rural development (Segers et al. 2009; Nyssen et al. 2017)
just like elsewhere in Ethiopia (Nyssen et al. 2018; Vaughan and Tronvoll 2003; Berhanu et al. 2006;
Spielman et al. 2010; Planel 2014). However, during the 2021 wartime, the farmers’ ability of self-
organisation seemed remarkable. Despite harassing and killing of farmers as well as looting of their
assets, satellite imagery and interviews show that farmers in Tigray did their best to survive, and
more land was ploughed than what was expected based on witness interviews. In our sample
areas, smallholder farmers were managing an average of 2057 irrigated ha in 2019 and 2020, which
became 2184 ha irrigated in 2021, i.e. an overall increase of irrigated area by 6%. Similarly, farmers
competed in ingeniosity for circumventing all kinds of obstacles and harassment for ploughing
their rainfed lands.
In contrast, the war made investors and sta eeing from plantations. Smallholder farmers,
despite threats on their lives, killing of their oxen and theft of motor pumps, have focused much
on the irrigated lands, generally shifting from commercial crops to cereals or beans that need much
less irrigation management, while getting seed and leftovers of fertiliser from village markets. During
Figure 10. The May Gabat irrigation (No. 12) functions thanks to seepage water from the upstream homonymous reservoir
(Temmerman 2020); (a) in 2019-20, 74 ha (green colour) were irrigated; (b) in 2021, 102 ha were irrigated , which is an increase by
39% in comparison to previous years. See the densiﬁcation of irrigated lands.
18 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
the daytime, elderly people, women and children worked on the irrigated lands. Adult men were
particularly a target of the armies and may have worked at night. In contrast to irrigation schemes
downstream from dams (Figure 8), the strongest expansions of cropped area were in farmer-led
irrigation schemes fed by rivers and springs (May Gabat and Betemara) that do not depend on gate
valve operations (Table 3).
In such farmer-led irrigation systems, ‘farmers assume a driving role in improving their water use for
agriculture by bringing about changes in knowledge production, technology use, investment patterns,
market linkages, and the governance of land and water’ (Woodhouse et al. 2017). These systems hold
signicant potential to improve food security (Tesfaye et al. 2016), increase household incomes
(Zewdie et al. 2019), alleviate poverty (Burney and Naylor 2012), and increase rural employment
(Mengistie and Kidane 2016), while avoiding some of the pitfalls related to large-scale irrigation
schemes (Annys et al. 2019, 2020b). War is certainly an additional pitfall. Our sample is suciently
large to show that smallholder farming is much more resilient to the extreme shock of the Tigray war
than plantation farming. Indeed, a backdraw of economic development is that it left communities in
Tigray much more vulnerable to conict-related shocks; for example, the farmers’ money is in
Dedebit Microcredit bank and because of the war their accounts were frozen (World Peace
Foundation 2021). Similarly, plantation farming appears to be more vulnerable than smallholder
Abundant examples show that the situation in Tigray is not an exception when it comes to coping
strategies in agrarian societies during war periods (Table 5). Earlier on, in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan,
the warfare during the civil wars in the previous century aected the ability of local communities to
use their traditional coping strategies, i.e. the use of seed and food reserves. In 1988, the future
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi had argued in favour of specialisation in the rural economy, either
cropping or livestock or artisanal production, though empirical data that his own TPLF agricultural
department had collected hinted that this could be more ecient but less sustainable (De Waal
Figure 11. Changes in irrigated area along the Tekeze River (from 2019 to 2021).
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 19
During the wars in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan (1980s-90s) the population largely retreated
from the plains to the hills; the mechanized farms on the plains were abandoned and farmers rst of
all cultivated existing elds in the hills and then expanded that cultivation as the war dragged on
(African Rights 1995). In 1995, large areas in the hills had been terraced because people had
congregated there; it was less fertile but more secure (De Waal 2021).
In Southern Sudan, Spooner and Walsh (1991) found a decrease or even a total absence of the
storage of grain and seed, as a result of fear of theft by troops. There, subsistence agriculture survival
mechanisms have thus been neglected, making communities and households less resilient and more
susceptible to famine. In Angola, the threat of land mines obstructed the access to markets, services
or productive assets, but also access to croplands, reducing the agricultural production of the
farmers. As the risk of losing a limb or their life was very high, the Angolan farmers could not
show much resilience (Bowen and Steinberg 2003).
On the other hand, just like in Tigray shifting in crop types has been an important coping
mechanism for agrarian societies during wars in Nigeria, Uganda or South Sudan (Kuol 2014;
Adelaja and George 2019a; El Bushra and Piza-Lopez 1994). Also in Tigray, like in most war situations,
farmers prioritised cropping in areas out of sight of troops. Less mentioned or used coping
mechanisms worldwide are the use of a communal aid system and the cunning of soldiers. These
mechanisms seem typical for Tigray, during both civil wars, enhancing war resilience (Table 5).
In contrast to other war areas, the Tigray farming communities could not fall back on outmigra-
tion and o-farm income (Table 5) because opportunities were extremely limited. Lack of o-farm
employment opportunities due to war conditions (World Peace Foundation 2021) even made that
some farmers could now plough their land early, at least for those who could cope with all diculties
mentioned. This may explain the good advancement of crop cultivation observed at several sites,
more even than in the rain-rich spring of 2020.
Findings on large-scale commercial agriculture are in line with the results of a review study,
stating that investors are more risk-averse when it is about war, whereas smallholders do not have
the choice but to cultivate (Rohwerder 2017). Also, if larger-scaler irrigation depends on migrant
labour (even from not very far) this would be more dicult. And disruption to agricultural markets
and value chains also lessens incentives to engage in agricultural production beyond the subsistence
level (Rohwerder 2017).
Worldwide, considering time and space, regions that are not confronted with war situations every
few decades are relatively rare, and lessons maybe taken from the Tigray farmer communities’
resilience in this war.
Impediments and Prospects for Cropping Agriculture in the 2021 War Year
The predicament of the Tigray farmers in this war has been enormous. The situation was a bit less
catastrophic for areas near Mekelle and places away from the main roads. Our analysis shows that in
most of Tigray many lands have been ploughed in March–April 2021, although it was highly variable
between sample sites. Farmers wanted to try and produce anything they could with the little they have.
One reason for delayed ploughing may be that rains came late, especially March 2021 was dry
although conditions were similar in 2018. The non-ploughing period around Easter may then seem
an additional curse. Yet, in Tigray’s farming communities, religion is a cross-cutting, organising
principle, ‘upon which people’s socio-cultural and mental life rests, and which also structures their
economic and physical life’ (Segers et al. 2005), including the farm calendar. Hence, it is part of the
socio-ecological landscape (Ren and Yang 2019), and disrupting it would lead to even greater
disorganisation. This is particularly true in the current war conditions. De Waal (2021) mentions
that ‘those farmers are relying on themselves and the Almighty. The rest of the world has let them
down.’ It will come about as oensive to recommend them right now to be at odds with the
Almighty, the more so that the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies hurted the core of the society by
shelling churches and killing priests (The Telegraph 2021).
20 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
Table 5. Commonly used coping mechanisms as part of war resilience in agrarian societies.
Country or region Period
Prioritise cropping in
less exposed areas Outmigration
Angola 1975-2002 / / / ++ + N (Carranza and Treakle 2014; Bowen and Steinberg 2003)
Syria 2011- . . . N / / + + ++ (Bolton 2020; FAO 2017)
Mozambique 1975-1992 + + / / + + (Giesbert and Schindler 2012; Bozzoli and Brück 2009)
Nigeria 2009- . . . +++ / / ++ + / (Adelaja and George 2019b, Adelaja and George 2019a)
Uganda 1986-1994 ++ / / / + ++ (El Bushra and Piza-Lopez 1994)
Caucasus 1994-2009 / / / + / / (Yin et al. 2019)
Nuba Mts., Sudan 1985-1999 / / / +++ / / (African Rights 1995)
South Sudan 1983-2005 +++ N ++ + ++ + (Kuol 2014; Macrae and Zwi 1994)
Tigray 1975-1991 N ++ +++ / + + (De Waal 1990; Hendrie 1994)
Tigray 2020-2021 ++ + +++ ++ / N This study
N mechanism not used;/not mentioned; + mentioned; ++ successful and +++ very successful coping mechanism
DEFENCE AND PEACE ECONOMICS 21
While trying to produce, the Tigrayan farmers evaluated the risk to be out there with their
oxen, as they feared its looting by the Ethiopian or Eritrean army and risking their own lives
Witnesses have talked about the ‘risk that warfare comes’ and that ‘Eritreans do not allow
to plough’. Farmers evaluated such conditions, just like they evaluate rainfall. Can we than
think that in areas far from roads, or in areas controlled by TDF, farmers would have been
more condent to plough? An agricultural expert mentioned: ‘Farmers in areas that are
controlled by TDF can plough if they have oxen and some left farm tools. In other places,
farmers started to plough when the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers move away from the area
for some days’ [W2].
A sta member of Mekelle University added: ‘Some three people I talked to mentioned that
farmers around and south of Mekelle seem to have gained condence that the ENDF and EDF are too
weak to control their activities as they did before. If that is the case they are expected to plough
starting from Monday 10 May’ [W3], after the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter non-ploughing period.
There has been hope that some part of the land would be sown timely, in dicult conditions, and
without fertiliser, though the latter is direly needed on responsive farmlands (Nyssen et al. 2017;
Tittonell and Giller 2013). Farmers took into account all parameters in their mental decision tree, and
possibly organised lookouts verifying that the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers would not come. Late
sowing may also have led farmers to sow crops with a short growing cycle, like in drought years, such
as lentil and selected fast-maturing wheat or barley (‘sa’isa’) cultivars, with obviously a lower yield
(Frankl et al. 2013).
The average conditions made it very dicult to plough the lands of Tigray, whereas many
individuals additionally may have lost their ox or everything else. The ‘idir’ traditional social security
system (Maxwell et al. 2010) is assumed to have led to most farmers sharing all they have including
the use of their ox. A sta member of Mekelle University mentioned however that ‘the plight seems
beyond that. So many oxen have been taken, and the few oxen that remain may not cover the
ploughing needs of the whole village. In some villages there may be no remaining ox at all’ [W3].
Figure 12. Radio France Internationale interviewed (RFI 2021) this Tigrayan farmer who decided to plough his ﬁeld in May 2021 to
survive at all costs. Most surrounding lands were still unploughed. © Sébastien Nemeth/RFI (published with permission).
22 J. NYSSEN ET AL.
We have investigated the plight and resilience of the Tigray agrarian society in early 2021, essentially
from distance because of inaccessibility due to war conditions. Remote-sensing imagery and tele-
phone communications were our main research tools and they allowed demonstrating a painful
situation where farmers had lost many of their assets and feared for their lives. However, we also
could demonstrate the resilience of the Tigrayan farmers who were willing to plough at any cost, in
hope of preventing starvation at the end of the year as they anticipated to largely depend on the
local crop yield as food aid did not reach three-quarters of the people in need. Resilience was
facilitated by a combination of strategies that have also been used by other agrarian societies in
wartime: spatio-temporal shift in agricultural activities in order to avoid the proximity with enemy
soldiers and shifts in crop types. Rather unique is the relying on communal aid, while the blockade of
the Tigray region made that outmigration and o-farm income were no options for the farmers.
Unlike other parts of Tigray, in Western Tigray, the larger part of the population had forcibly left
the region (or has been killed) and land more often remained unploughed in spring 2021; the
irrigation perimeters along Tekeze River had largely dried back. This is an additional, independent
testimony of the ethnic cleansing that has taken place there.
In the 2021 wartime, it appeared that over the last decades the Tigrayan farmers have been wise
in resisting ‘land grabbing’, i.e. handing out community land to domestic and foreign agricultural
investors, and were able to rely on their age-old farming knowledge instead. Despite this resilience of
the traditional farming system, despite the existence and expansion of farmer-led irrigation in many
villages, traditional farming is often overlooked by researchers, NGOs and national governments (De
Fraiture and Giordano 2014; Veldwisch et al. 2019). Several studies mentioned the general barriers
and opportunities of farmer-led irrigation (Beekman, Veldwisch, and Bolding 2014; Bjornlund, van
Rooyen, and Stirzaker 2017; Parry et al. 2020; Giordano and de Fraiture 2014); here we argue that also
in the case of war, farmer-led irrigation allows better absorbing parts of the shocks. The Tigrayan
smallholder farming system is highly exible as it has to adapt often to dicult and unexpected
conditions, what allowed many farmers to incorporate the war conditions in their risk calculations
when deciding about ploughing their land. In short: except for the west and northwest of Tigray,
overall, farmers have cultivated in dicult conditions but yields are expected to be (much) lower
than in previous years.
The study area of this research is in Tigray, Ethiopia.
The authors are grateful to Alex De Waal (Tufts University, USA), and two anonymous reviewers for insights and helpful
comments. We particularly thank the key informants who accepted and took risks to share their knowledge in dicult
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
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