By Ed Butler Reporter
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.
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.”
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.
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.”