Tractors, Hybrid Seeds and Loaded Guns: Agrarian Transformation and ‘Entrenched Development’ in Fascist-occupied Ethiopia (1938-1941)

Early in 1982, Italian historian Alessandro Triulzi pointed out how historiography on the Italian experience in Ethiopia neglected the relationship between Italian rule and Ethiopian people and territory. A stream of literature has since then come out mostly on the diplomatic and military aspects of the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-6, and more recently on the cultural dimensions of the Imperial venture. With few exceptions, the way in which Italian colonisation developed on the ground and how Italian settlers interacted with Ethiopian populations and vice versa is still terra incognita to most historians.

This paper sheds new light on this issue by looking at the implementation of Italian agrarian development and demographic colonisation in the Ethiopian highlands. It particularly focuses on the activities of the ‘Ente Romagna d’Etiopia’, a parastatal institution designed to settle Italian farmers from Romagna – Mussolini’s home region – into the most promising lands of the Empire. Contrary to the original project, the settlement schemes of the Ente Romagna developed unevenly according to the scarce availability of State land in the densely cultivated highlands of northern and central Ethiopia. As the paper shows, while the masterplan of mass immigration and settlement was continuously deferred and slowly phased out, the Ente Romagna anyways found implementation in a network of enclaves of agricultural development that had a considerable impact on the political and agrarian system of the surrounding rural areas.