Land grab fears for Ethiopian rural communities

Published on Food crisis and the global land grab, by Ed Butler, December 15, 2010.

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: … //  

… 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.

According to the World Bank, who commissioned a study into land lease, there is an estimated 45 million hectares of land that is either already under lease or has been requested for lease. And there are both positive and negative examples to be taken. The report’s author, Klaus Deinigerm, told me that the initiative has had a considerable success rate in Latin America.

However, in Africa, the picture is less rosy.

  • “Many of these projects do not perform, and that implies that possibly the arrangements are not optimal,” said Mr Deiniger.
  • “It’s very important to make sure that governments as well as civil society have the right tools in place to ensure that the investments do not cause harm and actually improve productivity.”

In Ethiopia in particular, Mr Deiniger does not believe that land lease is the best option for rural communities.

  • “It is an opportunity but it definitely won’t be the main development opportunity for its smallholder population… it can draw in some private investment but it needs to be done in a strategic way rather than letting investors determine the government strategy.”

Ethiopia and other countries, he said, have ended up with a very fragmented approach to land lease that fails to provide any infrastructure benefits and is in contradiction to smallholder rights. But back in Gambella, Ethiopia, it’s the political and social cost that is most concerning many local farmers. The ruling party, the EPRDF, is said to govern with an increasingly firm grip.

People in the country’s remote south-west fear that their pastoralist traditions, which have been a way of life for generations, could now be forcibly brought to an end.

  • “There is a fear that there will be no more culture within the pastoralist area,” said one man.
  • “We’re going to lose our culture and there will be nothing remaining for the next generation. I’m afraid this life may only be a story that we can tell our children.”

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