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The Ethiopian Land Giveaway:
'What is yours is mine, what is mine is my own'
By Graham Peebles
June 07 , 2012

It is a colonial phenomenon: appropriate land for the needs of the colonists and to hell with the indigenous people. Might is right, be it 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 for long been the object of Western domination, control and usury – this was so under the British, the French and the Portuguese of old. Now the “new rulers of the world” – large corporations from America, China, Japan, the Middle East, India and Europe – are engaged in extensive land acquisitions in the developing countries. The vast majority of available land is in sub-Saharan Africa where, according to a report by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, “80 per cent [of worldwide land] … that is potentially available for expanded rain-fed crop production” is thought to be. Huge industrial agricultural centres are being created, producing crops for the investors’ home market.

Meanwhile, indigenous people, subsistence farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land, the natural environment is levelled, the land is purged of wildlife and small rural communities that have lived, worked and cared for the land for centuries are destroyed. The numbers of people potentially affected by the land grab and its impact on the environment is staggering. The UN report states: “By 2020, 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. It is also the result of three main consequent pressures.

  1. Food insecurity, especially in the Middle East and on the Asian continent;
  2. Growing worldwide demand for agro-fuels; and
  3. 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. According to a report by the Oakland Institute, “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 per cent”. Land, not as home but as a chip to be thrown upon the international gambling table of commercialization.

Ethiopia for sale

Everything has a price. This applies even to the people and land of a country, sold into destitution by governments motivated by distorted notions of development at bargain basement prices and with 99-year leases. In some cases the land is literally given away. As the Oakland Institute report states, in Mali one investment group was able to secure one million hectares of fertile land for a 50-year term for free. Elsewhere two dollars per hectare (roughly equal to two Olympic-size athletic grounds) is the going rate. According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, “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.”

The Ethiopian government, through the Agricultural Investment Support Directorate, is at the forefront of this African land sale. Crops common to the area, such as maize, sesame and sorghum, as well as wheat and rice, are grown for export to Saudi Arabia, India and China rather than for the benefit of Ethiopians.

The Oakland Institute research “shows that at least 3,619,509 hectares 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 to requirement but this is disingenuous nonsense. Large areas of land are in fact already cultivated by smallholder subsistence farmers and pastoralists using land for grazing, all of which are unceremoniously evicted. Villages are destroyed and indigenous people expelled from their homeland and forced into large-scale village programmes.

Level growing field

Along with the land grab goes the appropriation of water sources. Investors are allowed to do what they will with the land they lease, including diverting rivers, digging canals from existing water sources, building dams and drilling bore holes. The Oakland Institute report quotes the Saudi Star Company as saying that “water will be [the] biggest issue, and numerous plans are being established (including the construction of 30 kilometres of cement-lined canals and another dam on the Alwero River)”.

In Gambella, where unbelievably a third of the region is available for foreign take up, the government in 2011 offered more than 2,500 square kilometres (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land to Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global to lease for 50 years for the equivalent of 1.16 US dollars per hectare. Compared to the average price of 340 dollars per hectare in the Punjab district of India, it is no wonder that the chief executive of Karuturi described “the incentives available to the floriculture industry in Ethiopia as “mouthwatering”, including low air freight rates on the state-owned Ethiopian airlines, tax holidays and no customs duties. Up to 60,000 workers will be employed by Karuturi, which is paying local people less than one dollar a day – well below what the World Bank regards as extreme poverty.

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”. This will be compounded by the transfer of vast areas of land used for the cultivation of traditional staples, such as teff, to other crops, a matter that is responsible for the price of teff quadrupling in the last four years.

According to a Friends of the Earth International report, "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 realized when local smallholders are encouraged to farm their land and given financial support, machinery and the necessary technology. As the charity Oxfam reports, “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.”

In other words, 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 somewhat ambiguous. As a legacy of the socialist dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the government technically owns all land. However, there is protection in law for indigenous people. Article 40/3 of the Ethiopian constitution 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.” Paragraph 4 of the same article of the constitution says that “Ethiopian peasants have the right to obtain land without payment and the protection against eviction from their possession”. In regard to pastoralists affected by the land sell off, Paragraph 5 says that “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, states (Article 26/1): “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” Paragraph 2 states: ”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 states:

    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.

Paragraph 2 of the same article says: “Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.” The law, it would appear, is clear. But what is needed is for the international community, in particular the donor countries, to demand that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) implement and respect it.

Land and people

The Ethiopian people are not being consulted or democratically included in the decisions to transform their homeland. This contravenes the Ethiopian constitution, which states (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”.

These are 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 10 generations. Speaking to the Guardian, he insisted that the Saudi Star Company 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 said, adding: "This land belonged to our father. All round here is ours. For two days' walk."

Well, that was the case until the government leased some 10,000 hectares to the Ethiopian-born Saudi oil millionaire, Sheikh Al Amoudi, 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." With the company draining the wetlands, the fish will probably be gone soon, too.

Sheikh Al Amoudi plans to export over a million tonnes of rice a year to Saudi Arabia. To ease relations with the regime of Meles Zenawi and, as the Guardian states, “to smooth the wheels of commerce, Al Amoudi has recruited one of Meles’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 that the Meles regime will hand over the land free of any “encumbrances”, i.e. people and property – in fact, anyone living or using the land to graze their livestock or pastoralists.

According to the Independent newspaper, “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.” This, it would appear, is seen as a price worth paying by the Ethiopian government and those multinationals appropriating the land.

Graham Peebles
Email: graham@thecreatetrust.org
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Graham Peebles is Director of the Create Trust, a UK registered charity supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need
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