Ethiopian "sacred forests" sold to Indian tea producer

Native forests of Ethiopia's Gambella region (Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity/afrol News)

afrol News | 18 February 20111

afrol News, 18 February - Despite opposition from Ethiopia's President and environmental authorities, a rainforest area providing livelihood to an indigenous people has been leased out to make tea plantations.

In a seldom move, the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) has been able to acquire government documents describing the struggle of the Mazenger and other indigenous people to protect their ancient forest-covered lands along tributaries to the White Nile.

According to Obang Metho, who has read the Amharic-language documents, "the letters reads like a drama; showing a game of double-talk, manipulation and intimidation being played by this regime with the land, lives and future of the people."

The indigenous Mazenger people of Gambella only in early 2010 were made aware that their ancient lands and "secret forests" were to be leased to the Indian company Verdanta Harvests, who plans to clear their land and use it for a tea and spice plantation; destined for export. The Mazenger depend on the forests for everything; including hunting, gathering and beekeeping.

After hearing about this, the local people sent a team of representatives to the capital, Addis Ababa, where they were able to meet with President Girma Wolde-Giorgis - who mostly has representative powers. Telling the President that their livelihood would be destroyed if the lease went through, they won his support.

The documents include a letter from President Girma to the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia (EPAE), recommending the lease project be stopped. The authority investigated the case and on 6 May sent a letter to the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, saying that the short term benefit of leasing this land would not outweigh the long-term costs to the country and that the lease should not proceed.

Nothing however happened, until in November, the Governor of Gambella Region, Omot Obang Olum, announced that the 5,000 hectares of forests already had been leased out to Verdanta for 50 years. The Indian company had already paid government US$ 19,000 for the lands.

Governor Omot told locals not to interfere more with the project, which would provide them with roads, employment and income at the plantations. Further disagreement was labelled "anti-development".

In December, the Mazenger people again contacted President Girma, who again lent them support. In letters directly to the Minister of Agriculture, with a copy to powerful Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he literally ordered the Minister to stop this project from going any further because this land, with its abundant rain forests, should be protected.

However, President Girma again was ignored. In January, Governor Omot ordered the Mazenger villagers to change their leaders, appointing persons more sympathetic to the project.

Currently, the project is moving forward and the forests are being cleared. The Indian company is already in full control of the ancestral lands of the Mazenger people.

In current Ethiopia, which is seeking a "green revolution" to boost its economy, land leases to foreign companies are increasingly becoming a controversial issue. In the cases known so far, the leases have been known to benefit the national economy and further investments.

Little has however been known about how local interests and traditional land rights are affected by the "land grab". The files documenting the struggle of the Mazenger people in so far are unique.

By staff writer

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