Although the author is now with the World Bank, he was a research fellow at the Energy and Environmental Policy Center, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, when conducting research for this book. He focuses on the Wollo region of Ethiopia, where, as he describes it, “to Wollo peasants, famine is as familiar as their villages” (p. 69). The book is based on surveys given to peasants in the Wollo region in 1987-88, participant observation, and examination of governmental policies. Appendices contain the texts of two questionnaires. One questionnaire was designed to understand the types of environmental degradation, the peasants' reaction to it, and the peasants' strategies in times of famine. The other was given to peasants affected by the government's resettlement scheme and was designed to determine the conditions under which they lived.
Alemneh (the Ethiopian family name) presents a case study documenting the ineffectiveness of governmental policies imposed from above with little consultation with the individuals most affected by the policies. He develops the theme that environmental degradation—and subsequently famine—is shaped by local and national social and political forces. He recommends alternatives throughout the book that, to be effective, must be developed with grassroots peasant participation. The government's role in a long-term solution is “central,” but the peasants must be a part of that decision making. The original survey research is a major strength of the book. Information about the observations and activities of peasants support Alemneh's message that peasant based policies are workable.