Ethiopia: Land grab fears for rural communities

A controversial new farms policy has led to a political clampdown in a remote lowland region of Ethiopia, the BBC has been told. Opposition activists claim that a number of arrests and the killings of 10 local farmers are as a direct result of the new policy. “You cannot speak freely about the land issue now,” one local man told me on condition of anonymity. “You can be arrested or even killed for this. “This is a dark period for all indigenous people living in the south-west of the country.”

Massive land lease

The government of Meles Zenawi is pioneering the lease of some three million hectares of land over the next five years, an area the size of Belgium. The policy is targeting massive lowland areas mostly in the west and south-west of the country. These are regions populated by smaller minority ethnic groups.

The government denies conducting any repression, and says instead that its policy is aimed at lifting local people out of poverty. Foreign investors in Gambella include Chinese, Indian and Saudi firms. The Saudis alone say they are hoping to produce as much as a million tonnes of rice per year, most of it for their own domestic market.

Birhani Fasaha, director of the Saudi Star Corporation, said the country’s planned investment in Ethiopia, as well as in a range of other African countries, is a response to Saudi Arabian fears about their own domestic food supply, following sharp rises in global food prices two years ago. “Saudi Arabia was importing all its food from India and Asia,” said Birhani Fasaha, “but the Indians withheld their rice in 2008, so the Saudis want an option.”

Ethiopia is just one of a number of African countries that have been targeted by foreign agricultural investors. Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sudan and Mali are among the others that have received considerable interest. Saudi Star aims to lease as much as 100,000 hectares of Ethiopian land within the next four or five years, I’m told, and it promises to bring clinics, schools, better roads and electricity supplies to Gambella in return. The current rental charge for this land is about $10 per hectare per year.

Ancestral land

Gambellan pastoral farmers Rural communities feel uninformed about how the land lease plans will change their lives. The Ethiopian government stipulates that foreign investors will have to satisfy domestic food needs before they can export. It also says it is only allocating idle land for investment. However, local protesters insist that all the land is already in use, mostly by pastoralists.

There are an estimated four million such farmers in Ethiopia, who often cross hundreds of miles a year to find fresh pasture for their cattle. “They use the land for different purposes – for agriculture, for hunting, sometimes just to gather fruits during famine,” one protester told me. “There is no empty land in Gambella without a history. “Village areas have been cleared and villagers have been bribed to sell their own farm. “They can’t sell the land, it’s not theirs. That land is ancestral land.”

Development opportunity

Because all land in Ethiopia’s quasi-socialist economy is officially government-owned, it has the right to lease it out largely as it sees fit. While some local farmers are being directly compensated, pastoralist farmers are not. The government believes that only massive foreign investment can help to transform the country’s rural economy, and provide the country with food self-sufficiency.

Some 13 million Ethiopians still depend on some degree of food aid. Abera Deressa, the government minister who helped design the latest agricultural development policy, says foreign investors should help boost agricultural output by as much as 40%. He believes that rural life in these areas must change.

“Pastoralists have enough land for their cattle,” Mr. Deressa told me, “but at the end of the day we are not really appreciating pastoralists remaining as they are. “We have to improve their livelihood by creating job opportunities. Pastoralism, as it is, is not sustainable. We want to change the environment.”

Mr Deressa told me how he hoped the investors would bring skills and infrastructure to some of the most neglected regions as well as thousands of jobs for the rural population. The minister said that opposition to the government was based on ignorance of the government’s proposals.

Complex problem

However, concerns about the land policy go beyond the rights of local farmers. Environmentalists say that many of these proposed farms infringe on Ethiopia’s protected game reserves, where an abundance of wildlife could now be at risk.

In Gambella most farms are being ear-marked for rice and sugar production, two extremely water-intensive crops. Yet the investors that I spoke to told me there were no limits being placed on the amount of water they could draw from the rivers, in regions already suffering from declining rainfalls. The issue of land lease is a complex one and there is much disagreement on the best approach.

Full Story : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11991926



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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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