The new breadbasket of the world?

As swathes of their country’s land is leased, cleared and prepared for food production by foreign companies, Ethiopians are divided over whether this constitutes ‘agro-colonialism’ or much-needed development, writes MARY FITZGERALD Foreign Affairs Correspondent.

‘WHY ATTRACTIVE?” reads an Ethiopian government poster pinned to a wall at the rambling offices of the Gambella regional investment agency. Next to photographs of lush fields and a map showing huge tracts of land earmarked for investment comes the answer: “Vast, fertile, irrigable land at low rent. Abundant water resources. Cheap labour. Warmest hospitality.”

Gambella, a remote and sparsely populated region located where Ethiopia’s western tip borders southern Sudan, is in many ways an unlikely choice for investors. Its searingly hot, malarial lowlands, coupled with ethnic tensions that have at times erupted into violence, have given the region a somewhat forbidding reputation in Ethiopia.

But in the past year Gambella has become one of Africa’s biggest testing grounds for the growing phenomenon of land leasing, whereby investment firms and rich countries lacking sufficient arable land snap up huge swathes elsewhere to produce staple food crops. The trend has prompted accusations of “agro- colonialism” and “land-grabbing”, but some argue that it could hold the key to the continent not just feeding itself but also the world.

This new scramble for land is rooted in fears, amplified following the 2007-2008 global food crisis, that world food supplies may run dangerously low in the future. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected population in 2050 – some nine billion people, up from six billion today – agricultural production must increase by a yearly average of at least 1 per cent.

“Humanity has never come to the brink of such crisis before . . . if there is a potential catastrophe for mankind, it is related to food,” says Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, managing director of Karuturi Global, an Indian company which is the world’s largest producer of roses. Such apocalyptic calculations brought Karuturi, who runs flower farms in Kenya and Ethiopia, to Gambella as a prospective investor more than two years ago. He made an agreement with the regional government to lease 300,000 hectares – an area larger than Luxembourg – for 50 years at an annual rate of 20 birr (€1.12) per hectare to farm crops including maize, wheat, and rice. Karuturi predicts that, when operating at full capacity, the farm will employ 25,000 people and produce three million tonnes of cereal per year.

— Full Story (Irish Times)



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