Lives and Land Destroyed: Ethiopia for Sale

What’s yours is mine; what’s mine’s my own

It is a colonial phenomenon — appropriate land for the needs of the colonists and to hell with those living upon the land, indigenous and at home. Might is right, military or economic. The power of the dollar rules supreme in a world built upon the acquisition of the material, the perpetuation of desire and the entrapment of the human spirit.

Africa has long been the object of western domination and usury under the British, French, and Portuguese of old. Now the New rulers of the World — large corporations from America, China, Japan, Middle Eastern States, India, and Europe — are engaged in extensive land acquisitions in developing countries. The vast majority of available land is in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues  report, “The Growing demand for Land, Risks and Opportunities for Smallholder Farmers,”  states “the amount of land that is potentially available for expanded rain-fed crop production is estimated to be about 2 billion hectares, 80 per cent of which is located in sub-Saharan Africa (especially Western and Central Africa) and in South America”

Huge industrial agricultural centres are being created, off shore farms, production of crops for the investors’ home market. Indigenous people, subsistence farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land, the natural environment is leveled, purging the land of wildlife and destroying small rural communities that have lived, worked and cared for the land for centuries.

The numbers of people potentially affected by the land grab and its impact on the environment is staggering. The UN, in its report, notes that “by 2020, an estimated 135 million people may be driven from their land as a result of soil degradation, with 60 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone.”

This contemporary “land grab” has come about as a result of food shortages, the financial meltdown in 2008, and in light of the United Nations world population forecast of 9.2 billion people by 2050, three main resulting pressures:

1. food insecure nations – particularly Middle Eastern and Asian countries, seeking to stabilise their food supply;

2. to meet the growing worldwide demand for agro-fuels; and,

3. by the rise in investment in land and soft commodities, such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, corn, wheat, soya and fruit.

Often investors are simply speculators seeking to make a fast or indeed slow buck, by ‘land banking,’ sitting on the asset waiting and watching for the price to inflate, then selling.  The Oakland Institute in its report, “The Great Land Grab,” found that “along with hedge funds and speculators, some public universities and pension funds are among those in on the land rush, eyeing returns of 20 to as much as 40%.” Land not as home, but as a chip to be thrown upon the international gambling table of commercialisation.

Chopping trees, cutting costs

As well, we know everything and indeed everyone has its price. Even the people and land of a country, sold into destitution by governments motivated by distorted notions of development, where people, traditional lifestyles and the environment come a distant second to roads, industrialisation and the raping of the land. People too poor to hold on to their dignity, too weak in a world built and run on power and might, to protest and demand justice for themselves and their families and rounded, responsible husbandry for the environment. And the price of land?  Well, as one would expect, bargain basement, with 99 year leases the norm and various government incentive packages. In some cases the land is literally being given away. As the Oakland Institute (OI) states in “The Great Land Grab”:

In Mali one investment group was able to secure 1000,000 hectares (ha) of fertile land for a 50 year term for free. $2.00 a hectare (roughly equal to two Olympic size athletic grounds) is the going rate.

According to The Guardian (March 21, 2011):

The lowest prices are in Africa, where, says the World Bank, at least 35 million hectares of land has been bought or leased. Other groups, including, Friends of the Earth say the figure is higher.

Ethiopia for sale

The Ethiopian government, through the Agricultural Investment Support Directorate, is at the forefront of this African Land Sale. Crops familiar to the area are often grown, such as maize, sesame, sorghum, in addition to wheat and rice, all, let us state clearly, for export to Saudi Arabia, India, China, etc, to be sold within the home market,  benefiting the people of Ethiopia — not.

The Oakland Institute research shows “that at least 3,619,509ha of land (an area just smaller than Belgium) have been transferred to investors, although the actual number may be higher.” The government claims that the land available for lease is unused and surplus.  This is disingenuous nonsense. Large areas of land are, in fact, already cultivated by smallholders subsistence farmers and pastoralists using land for grazing, all of which are unceremonially evicted. Villages are destroyed and indigenous people expelled from their homeland and forced into large scale villagization programmes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report, “Waiting Here For Death,”  states:

The Ethiopian federal government’s current villagization program is occurring in four regions—Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar. This involves the resettlement of approximately 1.5 million people throughout the lowland areas of the country—500,000 in Somali region, 500,000 in Afar region, 225,000 in Benishangul-Gumuz and 225,000 in Gambella.

Imposed movement then, often applied with force, in order to provide pristine land, free of any inconveniences to the corporate allies.

Level growing field

There are five areas of prime, fertile land up for grabs. Gambella is the largest where unbelievably a third of the region (around 800,000 hectares) is available. Indian corporations have already snapped up 352,000 hectares and around 900 foreign investors have so far taken advantage of this giveaway. Afar, the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region, where 200,000 hectares has been leased or sold, Oromia, where three Indian companies have leased a total of 138,000 hectares, and Amhara, make up the reduced to clear rail.

With the land grab crucially goes water – and the appropriation of this vital resource, both surface and ground water. Investors are allowed to do what they will with the land they lease.  This includes diverting rivers, digging canals from existing water sources, building dams and drilling bore holes. The Oakland Institute, in its “Land Investment in Ethiopia” report quotes Saudi Star stating “that water will be their biggest issue, and numerous plans are being established (including the construction of 30 km of cement-lined canals and another dam on the Alwero River).” There are no controls imposed on foreign corporations whatsoever and no payment structure for ‘appropriating’ water is in place. These politically favoured investors are being offered carte blanche. Water supplies in Ethiopia are poor, even in the capital, where irregular mains flow is common in many neighbourhoods. There is water galore.  Ninety percent of the Nile flows through Ethiopia.  Distribution, though, is inconsistent.

In Gambella the government in 2011 offered huge areas of land to Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global for the equivalent of $1.16 per hectare, to lease more than 2,500 sq. km (1,000 sq. miles) of virgin, fertile land for more than 50 years. This cost compared to an average rate of $340 per hectare in the Punjab district of India.  No wonder, then, that the CEO of Karuturi described “the incentives available to the floriculture industry in Ethiopia as ‘mouthwatering,’ including low air freights on the state-owned Ethiopian airlines, tax holidays, hassle-free entry into the industry at very low lease rates, tax holidays, and lack of duties,” (Oakland Institute Report). Up to 60,000 workers will be employed by Karuturi, who are paying local people less than $1 a day, which is well below the level of extreme poverty set by the World Bank.

According to the Guardian (March 21, 2011) the company will cultivate  “20,000 hectares of oil palm, 15,000 hectares of sugar cane and 40,000 hectares of rice, edible oils and maize and cotton… ‘We could feed a nation here,’” says Karmjeet Sekhon, Karuturi project manager. Land and people for a few rupees, cushioned by a cocktail of sweeteners offered by the Ethiopian government, allowing the decimation of the environment and the destruction of lifestyles – generations old. And in a hurry. The Guardian found:

The [land] concessions are being worked [by Karuturi] at a breakneck pace, with giant tractors and heavy machinery clearing trees, draining swamps and ploughing the land in time to catch the next growing season. Forests across hundreds of square km are being clear-felled and burned to the dismay of locals and environmentalists concerned about the fate of the region’s rich wildlife.

Unstable supply of staples

Around five million people in Ethiopia rely on food aid and live with constant food insecurity that will only increase under the land grab bonanza. According to the Oakland Institute’s report, “commercial investment will increase rates of food insecurity in the vicinity of the land investments” and Open Democracy reports an interview with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for the Financial Times (August 7, 2008), in which he predicted that “large-scale farming could bring some employment, but not much. It would not solve the problem of food insecurity.”

Intensifying food insecurity is the transfer of vast areas of land used for the cultivation of traditional staples such as Teff and other crops. This is largely responsible for costs of Teff (used to make injera – the daily bread) quadrupling in the last four years. The Guardian (April 23, 2012) reports Friends of the Earth International:  “The result (of land sell offs) has often been … people forced off land they have traditionally farmed for generations, more rural poverty and greater risk of food shortages.” Food security will be realised when local smallholders are encouraged to farm their land, given financial support, machinery and the needed technology.  As Oxfam in its report, “Land Power Rights,” points out, “Small-scale producers, particularly women, can indeed play a crucial role in poverty reduction and food security. But to do so, they need investment in infrastructure, markets, processing, storage, extension, and research.”

Keep development small, for, of, and close to the people in need, and see them flourish.

Land rights, human cost, environmental damage

The land rights of the Indigenous people of Ethiopia are, as one would expect, somewhat ambiguous. As a legacy of the socialist dictatorship of the 1960s and ’70s, the government technically owns all land. However, there is protection in law for indigenous people. The Ethiopian constitution

Article 40, 3 states:

Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.

And 4:

Ethiopian peasants have right to obtain land without payment and the protection against eviction from their possession.

With respect to pastoralists affected by the land sell off, paragraph 5:

Ethiopian pastoralists have the right to free land for grazing and cultivation as well as the right not to be displaced from their own lands.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Ethiopia signed in 2007, making it a legally binding document, states in Article 26/1:

Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources, which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other- wise used or acquired.

And paragraph 2:

Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.

The declaration also outlines compensation measures for landowners, Article 28/1:

Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.

And Paragraph 2:

Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources 10equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.

The law, it would appear, is clear.  Implementation and respect for its content is required, and should be demanded of the ruling EPRDF by the donor countries to Ethiopia.

Land and People

People are not being consulted or democratically included in the decisions to transform their homeland. This contravenes the Ethiopian constitution, that states in Article 92/3:

People have the right to full consultation and to the expression of views in the planning and implementations of environmental policies and projects that affect them directly.

Hollow words to those being evicted from their land, like Omot Ochan a villager from the Anuak tribe whose family has lived in the forest near the Baro river in Gambella for ten generations. Speaking to The Observer (20 May 2012), he “insisted Saudi Star had no right to be in his forest. The company had not even told the villagers that it was going to dig a canal across their land. Nobody came to tell us what was happening.” He goes on to say, “This land belonged to our father. All round here is ours. For two days’ walk.”

Well, that was the case until the Government in their infallible wisdom leased some 10,000 hectares to their friend, the Ethiopian born Saudi Arabian oil multi millionaire, Sheik Al Moudi, (In 2011, Fortune magazine put his wealth at more than $12bn) to grow rice for his Saudi Star Company. Omot continued, “Two years ago, the company began chopping down the forest and the bees went away. The bees need thick forest. We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs too. But after the farm came, the animals here disappeared. Now we only have fish to sell.” And with the company draining the wetlands, the fish will probably be gone soon too. Sheik Al Moudi plans to export over a million tonnes of rice a year to Saudi Arabia. To ease relations with the Meles regime and as The Observer states, “to smooth the wheels of commerce, Amoudi has recruited one of Zenawi’s former ministers, Haile Assegdie, as chief executive of Saudi Star.”

Traditional land rights for people who have lived on the land in Gamabella and elsewhere for centuries are being ignored and in a country where all manner of human rights are routinely violated, legally binding compensations are not being paid.

Government drafted lease agreements with investors state the Meles regime will hand over the land free of any ‘encumbrances’ – people and property; anyone living or using the land to graze their livestock or pastoralists moving through. The Independent (January 18, 2012) reports:  “Ethiopia is forcing tens of thousands of people off their land so it can lease it to foreign investors, leaving former landowners destitute and in some cases starving.” The Government says any movement is voluntary and not enforced, a clear distortion of the facts. HRW confirms the government’s criminality:  “… mass displacement to make way for commercial agriculture in the absence of a proper legal process contravenes Ethiopia’s constitution and violates the rights of indigenous peoples under international law.”

A price worth paying, it would seem, to the Ethiopian government and those multi-nationals appropriating the land, seeing a market and capitalizing on the country’s need for dollars. Desperate in a world propelled by growth to maximize the value of every so called asset, even if it means prostituting the land, sacrificing the native people and destroying the natural environment.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.