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The Green Green Gold of Ethiopia

by GRAHAM PEEBLES

Ancestral land that for generations has served as home and livelihood for hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Ethiopia is being leased out, on 99-year renewable contracts at nominal sums to foreign corporations. The land giveaway or agrarian reforms as the government would prefer to present them began in 2008 when the Ethiopian government, under the brutal suppressive Premiership of Meles Zenawi invited foreign countries/corporation to take up highly attractive deals and turn large areas of land over to industrial farming for the export of crops. India, China and Saudi Arabia were all courted and along with wealthy Ethiopians have eagerly grabbed large pieces of land at basement prices; rates vary from $1.10 to $6.05 per hectare (HA), comparable land in India would set you back $600 per ha.

A total of 3,619,509 ha, the Oakland Institute (OI), a US based think tank, estimate has been leased out. Land made available by the forced re-location of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people under the government’s universally condemned Villagization progamme, which aims to forcibly re-locate over 1.5 million people from their homes.

India corporations have taken the lion’s share, acquiring around 600,000 ha concentrated in Gambella and Afar, split between 10 investing companies. The term ‘investing’ implies benefits for Ethiopia, which is misleading; ‘profiteering’, or ‘exploiting’ sits closer to the truth of these land deals, as the OI make clear, “taking over land and natural resources from rural Ethiopians, is resulting in a massive destruction of livelihoods and making millions of locals [farmers and pastoralist communities] dependent on food handouts”. With small scale farmers being evicted from their land, prices of staples such as Teff, used by millions throughout Ethiopia to make Injera (bread), has rocketed in price, according to Ethiotribune 22/5/2012, increasing fourfold since 2008.

Corporate expansionism: small change big profits

In line with its ambitions of diversity and world food dominance – Karuturi Global, the world’s largest grower of roses, leads the Indian charge, leasing 311,700 ha in Gambella. Not satisfied with this, GRAIN (an international NGO, working to support small farmers) report Mr.Karuturi “wants to set up farming operations [throughout Eastern and Southern Africa] on more than 1 million [ha]” – too much never enough in corporate expansionism.

Almost a quarter of Gambella’s 25 million ha has been earmarked by the federal government for agricultural ‘development’. Karuturi, whose profits “rose 55.13% to Rs 1.21 crore [10 million] in the quarter ended June 2012”, took their chunk without even seeing it, paying only $1.10 per ha. For the Indian giant it is, John Vidal in ‘Land Grab Ethiopia (LGE)’ says, “the sale of the century”. ‘Green Gold’ is how Mr. Karuturi in GRAIN (‘Who’s Behind the Land Deals’), describes his 300,000 ha of Ethiopian soil, “for which he pays $46 per ha per year including water and labour and expects at least $660 [per ha] in profit per year”. (Ibid)

In addition to paddy, Indian farmers are being sub-contracted to grow maize, cereals, palm oil and sugarcane amongst others. All of which are destined for export, either to India or Europe, where companies farming in Ethiopia (and other Sub-Saharan African nations), benefit from lower import duties applied to developing countries, notwithstanding the fact that the land is leased to, and the crops produced and sold by, multi million-rupee rich companies.

Another major Indian company leasing land in Gambella is the decidedly green sounding BHO Bioproducts. Following the corporate rhetoric, BHO Chief Operating Officer Sunny Maker told Bloomberg in 2010 that, they have “plans to invest more than $120 million in rice and cotton production”, which, by 2017, should “generate about $135 million a year from sales divided equally between domestic [Indian] and international markets.” He added that the “incredibly rich fertile land”, will all be “cleared within the next three years”. Cleared yes, violently, indiscriminately and totally; villages, people, forests, woodland, all destroyed, burnt, relocated, displaced, desecrated. The governments promise to such prized investors is that the land is handed over stripped of everything and everyone. Dissent is not allowed and dealt with brutally should it occur, as Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of OI makes clear. “The repression of social resistance to land investments is even stipulated in land lease contracts, [it is the] state’s obligation to ‘deliver and hand over the vacant possession of leased land free of impediments’ and to provide free security ‘against any riot, disturbance or any turbulent time.”

The ‘rich fertile land’, lovingly cultivated at the hands of the men and women who have farmed it for generations, is unlikely to be nurtured so carefully by Indian (or indeed Chinese or Saudi Arabian) corporations with their thirsty ‘GM seeds’ (Ibid). For as Oxfam in their detailed report ‘Land and Power’ diplomatically point out, “investors short time scales may tempt them into unsustainable cultivation, undermining agricultural production.”

The devolution of development

Land is a prime cut asset in the commercialisation of everything, everywhere, and the “rich fertile land” in Ethiopia is cheap, even by Sub-Saharan African standards. Along with long-term leases, the government offers a neat bundle of carrots, including tax incentives and unrestricted export clauses, incentives that the OI state “deny African countries economic benefits” from land deals that the Ethiopian regime wraps up neatly in its complete disregard for the human rights of the indigenous people. Government indifference encouraging corporate irresponsibility – and they need little encouragement. Businesses hardly seem to be grabbing the land, so much as accepting it as a gift, parceled up and ready to be torn open.

In exchange for such attractive deals, the Ethiopian government has been extended, the OI reports “a $640 million line of credit… over five years to boost sugar production in the country’s Lower Omo region”. Not a philanthropic gesture, more a sales trap by India’s EXIM (export and import) Bank, who stipulate, “Ethiopia must import 75% of the value of the credit line in the form of Indian goods and services.”

The government-owned sugar plantations in the Lower Omo are themselves attracting a great deal of concern and criticism from human rights groups, who highlight the environmental and human damage being perpetrated. Government acts of violence and abuse, in the various land deal regions, are justified under the overused and misleading title of ‘development’; a term appropriated by the international monetary machine – the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) primarily – misunderstood and distorted by government development agencies, acting in line with foreign affairs policies by promoting national self interest and perverted by the corrupt ideologically-blinkered governments of developing nations.

An undeveloped ideological trinity whose actions have drained the 21st century sacred cow and its stable mate ‘growth’ – dry of any true and relevant meaning. Far from supporting human and or social development the “unfair terms and near give-away prices [of land deals]… are hindering development…. Foreign corporations and the World Bank are pressuring African leaders to give them exemptions from taxes, import and export duties, and local labor laws – not to mention water and mineral rights that could be worth billions”, the OI confirm.

More concerned with sitting at the top table and cultivating the right international allies than with doing their constitutional duty and serving the needs of the people, the Ethiopian government is in danger of giving away, and for peanuts, it’s ‘rich and fertile’ land to overseas companies who have no interest in Ethiopia, it’s environment, its culture and even less in its people.

Increasing hunger

Hunger and poverty stalk the land of both Ethiopia and India. 12 – 15 million people survive on food aid in Ethiopia, which ranks bottom of the World Hunger Index at 76. India, with the highest rate of malnourished children in the world, where 25% (around 270 million) of the world’s hungry live, despite the fact that, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), “the country grows enough food for its people”, it comes in 65th of the hungriest nations, below Niger and the Sudan – neither of which, to my knowledge, boast 61 billionaires and 200,000 dollar millionaires unlike India. And whereas “most countries have made consistent progress in reducing hunger, India has seen hunger rise over the last decade compared with the late 1990s.”(Ibid) This so-called economic miracle nation refuses to feed it’s own people.

Food insecurity, the WFP makes clear is caused not by lack of produce, but by an unwillingness to share the Earths bounty equitably. The states in India with the greatest numbers suffering from hunger and malnutrition, WFP records “include Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh”; these are the states where the poorest (Adivasi – indigenous and Dalit) people in the country and quite possibly in the World happen to live. The poor are dying of hunger not because India cannot feeed everyone, as the United Nations report on regional cooperation makes crystal clear, “the root cause of hunger across the sub-region and the world today is not a lack of food. It is the economic and social distribution of that food which leaves populations undernourished and hungry.”

Men women and children living in dire poverty starve to death, in India, Ethiopia and throughout the world. They starve and die for want of the food that is rotting in warehouses, food served up to rats or destroyed by the Indian government, because it is cheaper to burn it than to distribute it to those in need. As Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (26/01/13) said, “globally, a third of all food produced is wasted, and… if one could avoid this waste it would be possible to feed all the hungry people [in the world] and have food to spare.” Food to spare!Such is the inhumane ethos that underpins market fundamentalism, that allows men women and children, young and old to starve – simply because the do not have the financial means to feed themselves. Shame on governments Indian and the rest, that allow such inhumane injustice to prevail, as a wise teacher said, “throughout the world there are men, women and little children who have not even the essentials to stay alive; they crowd the cities of many of the poorest countries in the world… My brothers, how can you watch these people die before your eyes and call yourselves men”.

The commercialization of the countryside in India and Ethiopia, which is displacing large numbers of small-scale farmers and concentrating crop production in the hands of multi-nationals, is intensifying existing levels of hunger. Substantive agricultural reform and real development would see the army of skilled small scale producers, with generations of local knowledge and love of the land, supported with the needed capital and technology, given access to markets that corporations bring. Such an agrarian revolution, ethically founded, environmentally healthy and socially sustained, would build long-term food security and feed the hungry.

Soft targets easy profits

India as the WFP makes clear, has no domestic need for food produced by the overseas industrial farms that are causing such far-reaching damage, to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people of Ethiopia as well as the natural environment. The movement in Ethiopia mirrors what is taking place to a much greater degree in India. The government has shifted all support away from Indian farmers and is supporting the transfer of land from the rural poor to large companies – wealthy government benefactors, causing the displacement of millions (60 million to date, according to Arundhati Roy) of indigenous people.

Corporations are targeting countries Oxfam 7/02/2013 makes clear, with “poor governance”, that “allow investors to secure land quickly and cheaply…. [They] “Seem to be cherry picking countries with weak rules and regulations”. Needy nations like hungry people make easy targets for multi-national man, whose pockets governments are desperate to nestle inside. The driving force behind such destructive land developments, undertaken by corporations obsessed by an insatiable desire for growth and world leading economic development, is, as Oxfam suggests, profit and profit alone.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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