Back to the Land, Warily

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NEAR CHERANGANY, Kenya -- In the fertile Rift Valley region last week, convoys of army trucks began returning thousands of farmers to their fields.

Deep in the rolling green hills, the new arrivals -- some willing, some not -- pitched white tents alongside abandoned rows of dried-up corn. Protected by police armed with AK-47s, they began clearing weeds and hoeing the dirt.

"The government has told us to come back to cultivate our land," Theresa Matei said as the sun set on her first day back at the farm -- land that local militiamen had chased her from in January. "They gave us two blankets, just only two. And they've given us seeds, but no fertilizer. We will see what happens next."

The advent of farming under armed guard in Kenya is the result of this country's recent post-election political crisis colliding with a global food crisis that has already driven up the price of corn -- the staple of the Kenyan diet -- about 30 percent in recent months as the cost of fertilizer has nearly tripled.

After Kenya's disputed presidential election in December, local militiamen drove hundreds of thousands of farmers from their homes across this western region, leaving thousands of acres abandoned as the farmers languished in camps for the displaced.

At the same time, most active farmers are planting only about half their fields because of the high price of fertilizer, so that altogether, at least one-third of Kenya's farmland is idle.

Independent Kenyan agricultural experts predict that current stores of corn will be gone in a matter of weeks and that the next big harvest, beginning in October, will produce only half the usual yield. This will leave Kenya dependent on imported food, the cost of which is skyrocketing as global demand far exceeds supply.

Faced with a cascading disaster, officials are approaching the task of resettling the displaced farmers with a new -- some say reckless -- urgency.

Realizing that many of those displaced may be terrified of returning to the farms where they were attacked, the government has begun providing armed escorts, along with seeds and hoes. In a deal with the government, a Kenyan bank will soon provide loans to small-scale farmers.

Some experts say, however, that the initiative will barely begin to address a deeper problem that the political crisis has only exacerbated: a chronic corn deficit that has worsened each year as Kenya's population has risen, leaving the country increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of the global marketplace.

"Kenya has been caught with its pants down," said James Nyoro, executive director of the Tegemeo Institute, an agricultural research organization in Nairobi, which is predicting a "major food crisis" by August.

Both Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and newly appointed Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who agreed to share power after a bitter election both claimed to win, have urged people to return home. Officials responsible for the resettlement program did not return calls seeking comment.

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