The images are becoming familiar around the world. Dying children with aged faces, Holocaust-like camps where scarecrow human beings wait passively for bowls of gruel, stretcher-bearers setting out at sunrise to collect the night's harvest of corpses.

Triggered by these haunting images, questions of blame and responsibility are being asked abroad with growing outrage. Did nature cause this horror or did man? If it was man, why?

Here is the answer of Tamrat Kebede, a key official in Ethiopia's Marxist military government: "The tragedy we are witnessing, to the best of my assessment, is not a byproduct of any political system, but a byproduct of a natural calamity."

Here is the answer of an American diplomat who wants to remain nameless: "The government of Ethiopia created this mess by systematically destroying the nation's farmers."

The answer that can be pieced together from interviews with nearly a score of agricultural specialists who have come here from Canada, Australia, Italy, Sweden and several United Nations agencies is not nearly as one-dimensional as either the Ethiopian official or the American diplomat would suggest.

Drought in Ethiopia has been and continues to be extraordinarily severe, these specialists say. Lasting as long as a decade in some regions, scorching other regions that had been part of the nation's traditional breadbasket, drought has laid waste to north-central Ethiopia, turning much of the mountainous highlands there into a brown and uninhabitable moonscape.

There is widespread agreement, however, that misguided Ethiopian farm policy was a key ingredient in turning the drought into a famine.

The Marxist government here, these specialists agree, precipitated the famine by pursuing policies that destroyed the incentive of millions of peasant farmers to grow surplus food.

Like many African countries, Ethiopia is almost totally dependent on agriculture and on the willingness of the nation's 7 million peasant farm families -- on farms that average 3.5 acres -- to produce more food than they can eat.

During the past five years, agricultural observers say the farm policies of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam have eviscerated the individual farmer's work ethic. Mengistu has put his prestige behind state farms and producers' cooperatives, all of which lose money, according to the western economists.

Mengistu has referred to individual farmers, the nation's economic backbone, as backward and lazy.

Farm prices have declined in the past five years as the cost of fertilizer, the most important ingredient for higher food production, has doubled. When farmers did grow surpluses and managed to sell their grain, there often was no kerosene, clothing, soap, salt or sugar to buy.

The nation's scarcity of roads and tortured topography contribute to the problem. Three-quarters of Ethiopia's farmers live more than a half-day's walk from an all-weather road.

Under the revolutionary government's decade-old "land to the tiller" program, the most productive Ethiopian farmers have lived in fear that their farm land would be redistributed to other peasants or to farmer cooperatives. Agriculture experts say these farmers therefore had little incentive to make long-term investments in their land.

"Farmers say, 'Why should I break my back building an irrigation system or any other permanent structure, when next year I may be farming elsewhere?' " said Michael Stahl, an agronomist for the Swedish government who has more than 15 years' experience in Ethiopia.

Drought destroyed marginal areas of Ethiopian agriculture while, during the past five years, government pricing policies sapped the motivation of farmers in traditionally fertile regions to make up for the food shortfall, according to a consensus of agricultural specialists who offer advice here on how Ethiopia can recover. The United Nations says the famine has killed more than 300,000 Ethiopians and is now estimated to threaten 7.75 million.

The consensus, however, does not explain why Ethiopia, more than any of the other 26 drought-affected countries in Africa, has fallen so far or why so many people are dying. The toll is higher here, the specialists say, because the most populous central highlands teeters on the brink of agricultural disaster, even when there is no drought.

"The land has been mined, rather than maintained," said Giorgio Possio, an agronomist and agricultural economist for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "The present famine is not only the result of climatic change, but of a massive long-term degradation of the land."

Ethiopia, with a population of 42 million, is Africa's second most populous country. About 7 million people crowd farms perched on the spines of ridges 7,000 to 10,000 feet crisscrossing Welo and Tigray provinces. Most have been under continuous cultivation for centuries.

The population growth, at an annual rate of 2.8 percent, has centered in the highlands, where the weather is moderate and there is no malaria. This has forced the cultivation of marginal, environmentally fragile land.

The region has been stripped of trees and grass. Erosion has cut large trenches in the steep hillsides below cultivated fields. The loss of forest, grassland and tillable soil that acted as a sponge holding water between rains has reduced dramatically the meteorological margin of error for farmers.

"Rains must come at precisely the right time for crops to grow. If there is too much rain, seeds will be washed away. What 50 years ago was considered an average rainfall, could now be considered a drought year because the soil cannot store any water," said Possio.

These agricultural specialists, most of whom refuse to speak on the record for fear of displeasing the government and being thrown out of the country, agree that the government's only hope for recovering from famine is to revive the work ethic among those peasant farmers who till farms that are still capable of growing food.

The Mengistu rule, according to one prominent western economist here, recently "has recognized there is a need to provide private incentives to people."

Yet the government's 10-year plan commits Ethiopia to transforming half of the farm economy to state ownership by 1994. Now, state farms and cooperatives, while receiving between 70 and 90 percent of the government's agricultural investment, produce about 10 percent of Ethiopia's food. The specialists say the 10-year plan, if pursued, is a prescription for continued famine.

In the most affected parts of the central highlands, the specialists say, there should be no farming for at least a decade. The region, they say, will continue to be uninhabitable without a long-term conservation project in which peasants are paid with food to reclaim their land.

"Food for work in northern Ethiopia has come to stay," said Stahl, the Swede. "If one could agree to feed these peasants for 15 years, and let them work almost entirely on such things as farm-land terracing, tree planting and building water reservoirs, then the region has a chance. But the only way to convince these people not to try to grow food, which would continue to destroy the land, is to assure them that they will be fed."

While western food donors have responded in recent months with pledges of more than 300,000 tons of food, there is no precedent in Africa for such massive food aid to be continued over a period of many years.

The United States, by far the largest donor, is prohibited by law from permitting its food aid to be used in food-for-work programs.

These programs are considered "developmental," and are proscribed under a U.S. law that limits aid to countries, such as Ethiopia, that have nationalized U.S. property without making a "good faith" effort to pay for it.

Besides environmental degradation in the central highlands, there is also a rebel war there that interferes with famine-relief efforts and would be likely to obstruct any long-term reclamation programs. The government's answer is to move 1.5 million people south.