Workers at an 11,000ha farm in Bako, Ethiopia, run by the Indian company Karuturi. The company also runs a 300,000ha farm in the Gambella as part of Ethiopian government effort to promote large-scale agriculture Photograph: Xan Rice/Guardian
by Keffyalew Gebremedhin
The question of land grab in Ethiopia and indeed in other developing countries would remain a topic of national and international conversations. The Ethiopian government is fully aware of this and has been fighting to influence its direction, although unsuccessfully to date. What it is doing is to deny traction to the criticisms against its policy of doling out Ethiopian lands to foreign investors.
What it should have done, which is right and proper is to begin to see reasonings by all sides in their proper light, especially the concerns of Ethiopian citizens. It has miserably failed to engage and convince citizens about the present and long-term implications of farmland grabbing. To date, we know that 3.6 million hectares have been put on offer for chicken feed to international investors. Seventy percent of foreign investors in agricultural lands in Ethiopia today are Indians, some of them such as Karuturi, who have shifted gears to tendering Ethiopian lands piece by piece to Indians specifically from the southern part of the country. The indication is that this would give rise to serious indignation by citizens at home and abroad.
What drives the government into this straightjacket is the hunger for power, not the national interests of Ethiopia. This has been ably dealt with by Ethiopia’s foremost economists and specialist in land tenure Prof. Dessalegn Rahmato in his Land to Investors: Large-scale land transfers in Ethiopia, 2011. Thus, he sees the rational for the government’s stubborn direction by its desire to redefine the agrarian structure of the country as well as the future course of agricultural production in Ethiopia in a manner that will increasingly marginalize the rural population to make them dependent on its handouts in return for their political support.
In the process, Prof. Rahmato says, this has alienated land from those who have customary rights and rights of longstanding usage, and transferred it, without consultation or consent, to investors from outside the communities concerned as well as from outside the country. For this, government has the advantage and possibilities because of its statutory right of ownership of land. In Ethiopia, by law the state has juridical ownership of the land and in contrast to peasant farmers and pastoralists that only have right of use. Whether government likes the interpretation or implications of this, it has made the Ethiopian state responsible for all the land grabbing in the country.
The question now is why does it have to go through this irresponsible path, already the rigmarole of which has caused its image within the populace and on the international media irreparable harm as unfeeling and uncaring for its own citizens. Because power has been TPLF/EPRDF’s goal. It enables it, according to Prof. Rahmato, to concentrate all authority in the hands of its public agents and local administrators, which ensures TPLF/EPRDF’s permanence in power.
Therefore, the government’s fierce defenses of the land grab policy have been consciously designed to consolidate its powers in rural Ethiopia, where 85 percent of the population is domiciled and is dependent on small-scale agriculture and pastoralism. That is why government reacts strongly with senseless denials of the dangers arising from the land grab it has been exercising and promoting. Often, its defenses are fired from the top by the prime minister and his deputy down to others in the lowest rungs of power within the party and administration–if at all they are distinct as they ought to be.
Echoing that tone, the very same responses were recently regurgitated by the public relations officer of the ministry of agriculture Wondimu Flate. As if to persuade environmentalists, he underlined, “Plots are transferred only after making sure that these and other procedures including environmental impact assessments are conducted.”
In terms of technological inputs, especially fertilizers and their distribution, there is a disheartening report from the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency (CSA). According to the Agency’s data from 2010, Ethiopia used 1.2 million tons of fertilizers. Of this amount, 433,515 tons was distributed in Tigray alone. Amhara and Oromia, the regions that have the most lands and agricultural activities received a total of 347,430 tons.
In addition, on the potentials of land grab for employment, I refer Mr. Flate to the above-mentioned World Bank report that this webpage had analysed in an article entitled http://transformingethiopia.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/part-ii-meles-says-no-land-grab-in-ethiopia…of 23 August 2011. It clearly concludes that there is nothing promising about land grabs in terms of employment creation, as shown here:
“Given the central nature of asset and employment generation through planned investments, the level and recording of information on planned (temporary or permanent) employment and physical investment is surprisingly limited. The patchy data that are available suggest that investments create far fewer jobs than are often expected (or promised, as discussed later) and that their capital intensity varies widely. For example, projected job creation ranges from less than 0.01 jobs/ha (for a 10,000 ha maize plantation) to 0.351 jobs/ha (for an outgrower-based sugarcane plantation) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Expected job creation in Ethiopia is similarly limited, with an average of 0.005 jobs/ha for cases where figures are given…Case studies point to high expectations in employment generation, which, at least in some cases, do not seem to be commensurate with the investment or the qualifications of the local populace. The extent to which assets are provided or local people gain access to knowledge and technology varies widely across investments. Most successful investments provide social services and encouragement for local entrepreneurship. As many of the projects considered began only recently, few positive impacts have yet materialized. Careful future monitoring as well as attention to the time profile of benefits and the distribution of risks will be important.”
For Prof. Ghosh, what is ignored in this unholy alliance between the government of Ethiopia and the Indian companies is water use. This refers to the quality of the agreement the Ethiopian government has signed with the companies. Ghosh revealed that in Ethiopia Indian companies are given agricultural lands carte blanche, since the agreements do not place any restrictions on both land and water use. For instance, this has enabled investing companies to do whatever they liked. For instance, the companies have ventured into opening canals and turning the direction of rivers.
This has already encroached in multiple ways on traditional rights of the indigenous populations, that for inexplicable reason have already been betrayed by their own government. In that, this corporate pattern of food production has already begun showing its dangerous features to the local people, which in the future is likely to affect the whole country. In that sense, the Indian professor says, land grab is a misnomer since what in reality it represents is a rush to grab surface and ground water and mineral inside the lands. This is consistent with historical experiences.
What are her fears and concerns for the future? As a concerned Indian, she opined, all Indians should be worried for these poor countries not only as a matter of international solidarity. But also because, if Indian companies are allowed to behave in such exploitative manner as all previous generations of colonialists had done toward local peoples and poor countries, they should also be concerned that there is no reason these investors and their corporations could not behave towards Indian citizens in the same manner in India itself.