At least 70,000 forced off their land in Ethiopia, rights group reports
Published: 18 Jan 2012
Posted in:  Ethiopia
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Toronto Star | 17 January 2012
Ethiopia is selling off huge swathes of its fertile land to international investors, forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes in the process, Human Rights Watch reports.(Photo: MICHAEL TSEGAYE/BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO)

By Rick Westhead

Ethiopia has forced at least 70,000 people off their land so it can lease fertile fields to foreign investors, a move that has left some locals starving in barren, remote villages, an international human rights group says.

Human Rights Watch, in a report released Tuesday, accused the Ethiopian government of resettling tens of thousands of people in the first year of a three-year “villagization” program.

Security forces have “repeatedly threatened, assaulted and arrested villagers” who have resisted the move, the advocacy group said. It also reported police and soldiers have committed rape, killed livestock and burned the houses of some locals.

Africa has 60 per cent — or 600 million hectares — of the world’s remaining arable, uncultivated land and many foreign companies and countries are anxious to sign long-term leases for agricultural land there.

Ethiopia has been a willing partner. It is among the African countries that believe foreign investment is critical to helping trigger a great industrial leap forward, Human Rights Watch official Ben Rawlence said in an interview.

In Gambella, a poor region in western Ethiopia, the government has dedicated 42 per cent of the land to foreign investment, according to the Oakland Institute, a U.S. think-tank.

“Ethiopia is ignoring the reality of its own limitations,” Rawlence said. “According to their own constitution, it’s not supposed to happen this way. People who are moved are supposed to be consulted and compensated and moved voluntarily to a place where they are better off or at least the same. Now, they are being moved to less fertile land where they are more food-insecure than before.”

Aggressive agricultural investors in Ethiopia include India’s Karuturi Global and Saudi Star Agricultural Development, Rawlence said. Chinese companies have also invested in Ethiopia.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Karuturi denied the group’s allegations, saying some communities continue to use and occupy land within the company’s lease area without disturbance.

Ethiopia’s minister of federal affairs, Shiferaw Teklemariam, called the allegations “downright fabrications” of a “politically motivated” organization.

In a letter included in the Human Rights Watch report, he wrote that the agency “wilfully ignores the fact that more than 50,000 people are utilizing services from the newly built” villages.

The Ethiopian government has said 1.5 million people will be resettled by 2013. While Human Rights Watch said 70,000 have already been moved, Rawlence said the country claims it has already moved 100,000, figures that have not been confirmed.

“Ethiopia is talking about teaching these people how to farm properly, but there’s no way they can do that,” Rawlence said. “They just don’t have the capacity to look after so many people.”

Rawlence said the relocations are vexing foreign donors.

The World Bank and others donate $1 billion a year to Ethiopia’s provincial governments, he said.

Donors including Germany, Holland and Finland stopped contributing to the Ethiopian federal government after a flawed national election in 2005.

“Now they have themselves in a real tangle,” Rawlence said. “The donors have prided themselves about restarting aid, and doing it with the provinces to avoid the federal government, who they don’t trust, but this money is actually being used to relocate people.”

Rawlence said Canada, Norway and Sweden are among the countries that have pared aid to Ethiopia over the issue.

Human Rights Watch based its report on 100 interviews with residents in Gambella and in a refugee camp in Kenya, and on visits to 16 affected villages.
Source:Toronto Star