Weaponized Agricultural Destruction during the War on Tigray

Weaponized Agricultural Destruction during the War on Tigray

Crop destruction during the war on Tigray

Throughout the past year of the Tigray genocide, invading Eritrean, Ethiopian, and regional Amhara forces have used several methods to destroy Tigray and its people. One of the most inhumane methods of destruction mobilized against the Tigrayan civilian population has been crop destruction. 

Crop destruction is defined as the deliberate destruction of crops or agricultural products to make them useless for consumption or processing. This is usually done by preventing the production of crops, burning, grinding, or applying chemicals.

In Tigray, invading forces have strategically targeted Tigray’s agricultural production, on which the population is heavily dependent, to weaken Tigray’s social, political, and economic structure. With more than 80 percent of the region’s population relying on labor-intensive, rain-fed agriculture for subsistence, the essentially nonexistent farming in Tigray since the beginning of the genocidal war has left millions without access to food.

Ethiopia’s deliberate efforts to “Let the people of Tigray perish with starvation.”

Abebe Gebrehiwot, Former Deputy Head of Tigray’s Interim Government, May 2021

Farming in Tigray during the genocide

Destruction of crops, farming supplies, and livestock

While farming preparations for the 90-120 day growing period typically begin in mid-April before “Kiremti,” Tigray’s rainy season (June-September), crops are usually harvested at the end of the rainy season between September and February. In the past year, however, Tigrayan farmers were unable to make use of the farming season. Though rainfall conditions in early 2021 were appropriate for a normal planting season, bird’s eye photographs taken in the region showed that in early May 2021, fewer crops than previous years were plowed. 

Telephone interviews conducted with key witnesses during the first year of the war revealed that Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces intentionally prevented Tigrayan farmers from plowing or cultivating their land. Some witnesses stated that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces would often say, “We are here fighting to die and you want to plow?” As reported by BBC in June 2021, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers told Tigrayan farmers, “You won’t plow, you won’t harvest, and if you try we will punish you.”

In many instances, the invading forces destroyed or stole farming equipment and seeds, leaving Tigrayan farmers without the required tools to farm.  “The Eritrean soldiers are not only disallowing farmers to plow but also burnt and destroyed their farm tools,” an agricultural expert in Tigray’s capital city Mekelle said.  “There are no farm inputs [seeds and fertilizers] available,” a staff member of Mekelle University added. 

In addition to the stolen crops and supplies, farmers in Tigray have also lost a majority of their livestock at the hands of invading forces. With several cattle, sheep, camels, and oxen being stolen or killed, farmers who had previously purchased them through difficult means are now left economically ruined. There have also been multiple reports documenting the experiences of  farmers forced to kill their own livestock to feed the invading forces. This has made the situation especially difficult for farmers and their communities because of the agricultural importance of livestock for plowing and fertilizing farmland. 

The above-stated information has been confirmed with satellite images showing invading forces burning crop fields, farm plots, and warehouses. In addition, reports of pillaging and destruction have also been made throughout the entire region. 

Weakening Agricultural Workforce 

The genocidal war on Tigray has left the region without much of its workforce. The Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces are targeting and indiscriminately killing working-age Tigrayan men in the region. Therefore, many of those left alive in rural villages are elderly men and women or children, all unable to undertake backbreaking farm work. Another contributing cause is the many young men who have gone to fight in the war—many of whom experienced the brutality of the invading forces and were victims of their atrocities.

According to witnesses in Tigray, “The number of youngsters joining the Tigrayan Defence Forces 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.” The war itself and the massacre of tens of thousands of working-age men has left more than 80 percent of the region’s population with insecure livelihoods.

 Man-made Starvation

Although the starvation in Tigray is the result of many strategically planned attacks on different sectors of the region’s socio-economic structure, a key contributor to the widespread famine is the Eritrean and Ethiopian armed forces’ destruction of crops and supplies. Partially due to the campaign of crop destruction in Tigray, the region is experiencing a severe famine that has become a hallmark of this genocide threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, primarily children, and vulnerable populations.

The Ethiopian government’s siege on Tigray is exacerbating the extreme food insecurity in Tigray, primarily through preventing food and medical aid from entering the region. As a result, humanitarian agencies estimate that more than 900,000 are in famine conditions, with over 2 million more on the brink of famine. These numbers were relatively accurate as of half a year ago, right before the complete siege on Tigray started. It is therefore very likely that numbers in famine are even higher today. 

The Ethiopian Government’s Response 

The Ethiopian government has played an active role in covering up the deliberate agricultural destruction in Tigray, along with all the other atrocities taking place. The Ethiopian government’s efforts to prevent Tigrayans from farming was acknowledged by Abebe Gebrehiwot, former deputy head of Tigray’s interim government, in May 2021. Abebe admitted that Tigrayan farmers were impeded from farming, especially around the towns of Shire and Hawzien. In addition, he described how vehicles transporting seeds were blocked from reaching areas beyond Kobo, south of Tigray. Abebe confirmed that these efforts were meant to “Let the people of Tigray perish with starvation.”

Immediate Action Needs to be Taken

In Article 8(2)(b)(xxv) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the prohibited act of starvation is defined as “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions.” 

The humanitarian crisis in Tigray is presently the world’s worst hunger crisis, and it is an entirely man-made catastrophe orchestrated by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. The international community  shall not ignore what is happening in Tigray and the crimes being committed through starvation. Instead, it must take a firm stand against the use of hunger as a weapon of war and genocide and immediately demand Ethiopia end its blockade on Tigray to save the lives of millions.

Luna – Omna Tigray Contributor, February 2022