PART III. Meles says no land grab in Ethiopia—Not today, not tomorrow!

23 Aug

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

Dispossessing and displacing people to settle them down

Last March, when the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal returned from Gambela after documenting the destruction that has befallen the population there, he saw State Minister of Agriculture Wondirad Mandefro and confronted him with the facts. The state minister’s first reaction was a scoff followed up by denial, saying not a single person was moved. When the journalist persisted that he had seen “evidences of many displaced, worried and frightened people”, the vice minister simply said, “…It is their choice…Either to choose to have these basic services come to the villages…it is based on their willingness. But of course, they have to abandon their previous ways of life. [Otherwise] you cannot provide any basic services to the community.”

When I heard the word ‘either’ in the video, I was waiting for the ‘or’ end of it, which did not come out, perhaps aware that it would lead to giving away everything that has been cause for the problem to start with. This situation is limited to Western Ethiopia, to minority population and settlers from other parts of the country under the previous regime and during the past two decades. However, Kassahun Zerrfu of the Gambela office for investments in March 2011 told John Vidal, “It is a coincidence that the investors are coming at the same time as the villages are being relocated.”

Their intention, the officials claim, is to bring people where they could be provided with governmental services. The problem is, however it appears that government has chosen to submerge these people into the 21st century with utmost speed. The urgency is certainly there, in a country where profound poverty and backwardness are its defining features. Also undeniable is the fact that the regime has been in search of records of achievements to rally behind it the distrustful Ethiopian population. What it does not realize is that, as in so many other areas, where heavy-handedness has proved to be its hallmark policy instrument, these have worsen its unpoopularity it cannot now willingly advance within the people its expressed causes.

The prime minister litigates farmland grabbing in theory, while ignoring the reality on the ground

It is with the above in mind that I watched Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s interview and his responses to the different questions raised by Vickram Bahl. The prime minister was dismissive of both the international concerns and also that of a sizable number of Ethiopians at home and abroad about the danger and consequences of farmland grab in the country. Nevertheless, the problem once again is that his responses do not address the charges out there. This failure has only allowed the allegations against, misgivings and distrusts of the regime to linger, although it appears the Meles regime might not mind it, since it realizes it cannot survive and thrive without enemies.

Perhaps for the uninitiated, the prime minister’s response may appear forceful and logical. But I doubt it if the real thing could be lost on Vickram Bahl. As a seasoned journalist, I am sure he understands that the conditions that could backfire on the Meles regime and investors could not be undone by denials and dismissiveness. After all, in Gambella human dignity has been breached; the human rights of those populations have been violated. The fact that the government behaved cruelly towards its citizens in front and on behalf of foreign investors leaves these people vulnerable for future abuses by the guest farmers. Even if the locals complain against any injustices, with a single call to local and federal officials, the investors can scoff at them since they have pocketed the law and the officials. I do not want to speculate where this would lead to.

In spite of official denials that there is landgrab in Ethiopia, however, the concerns of many at home and abroad have not been silenced. At the international level, there are strong concerns over the traditional issues of human rights, minority issues—as those minority populations have been invisible to successive Ethiopian governments—and exploitation of poor Africans by international capital have persisted. There is also concern about the future of global food security, at a moment in history when the owners of capital, especially rich governments and its speculative side, have targeted large tracts of agricultural lands in developing countries to monopolize food production. Where would that leave the billions of small producers in developing countries?

Here is how the prime minister sees the whole question of farm landgrab, with no reference to what actually is happening in Western Ethiopia:

    “I think there is some misplaced fear of the so-called ‘land grab’, stalked by people who should know better. Of course, we are aware of the history of land grab in Africa. It happened at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. The land grab in Zimbabwe, for example… South Africa…People who should know better about the circumstances of this land grab are now transposing this onto the rest of the continent in a completely different environment. In the case of Ethiopia, for example, as you rightly indicated, private ownership of land is not allowed. All land is publicly owned and, therefore, the possibility of ‘land grab’ simply does not exist.

    “Secondly, what we are doing is putting all unutilized land in this country and we have a lot of unutilized land in the lowlands…What we have done is to build infrastructures in those areas and therefore open up the area for investments both by domestic and foreign private sector on the basis of a clearly set out lease arrangement. That is a win-win arrangement. It is not a land grab. And, therefore, we are very comfortable with the fact that we have put in place all the necessary guidelines, environmental and otherwise, to make sure that everyone benefits from this exercise.

    “Small-scale farmers have all the property rights they need, except the ability to buy and sell land. And that provides more protection to the small-scale farmer from being dispossessed in one form or another. This is the best policy for us in Ethiopia.”

    He then amplified the above to justify his dismissive conclusion and denial of reality, above, arguing:

    “First, these agreements that we are signing with Indians as well as other foreign companies are precisely designed to make sure that everybody benefits. Once people begin to see the results of the investments in terms of job creation, availability of foreign exchange, availability of various agricultural products in our markets and so on, they will see the benefits for themselves and it will be completely irrational for them [his critics] to try to shoot themselves on the foot. And so the benefit of the investment, in my view, will be its ultimate protection.

    “And secondly, we have a constitutional order here. The constitution clearly states you do not disempower you do not grab property from anybody. There is a rule of law here and it is firmly entrenched in our system. That provides additional and, in my view, adequate protection to all investments, including agricultural investments…”

Why the prime minister’s point of view is unhelpful

It is essential to put here a few things in their proper perspective, especially in regard to the claim the federal government has given “a clearly set out lease arrangement” how farmland lease should be handled, as follows:

First, let alone in 2004, when the government first started leasing out lands secretly, which was exposed by FAO, IFAD and IIED in May 2009 (International Land Deals in Africa), not even in 2011 does Ethiopia have in place “a clearly set out lease arrangement,” as claimed above. Until late 2010, things in every region went the way each one deemed right or suited its situation. The country did not even know overall how much land had been committed. I am not sure it knows today.

No environmental standards were incorporated properly, although Environmental Impact Assessment Proclamation No. 299/2002 was issued in 2002, amended several times subsequently. The problem was seen more clearly in the course of the 2010 controversy, when local people in their helplessness protested in a spontaneous rally in Gambella the silence by local and federal governments against destruction of forest resources by foreign companies. The regional administration, the federal ministry of agriculture and the office responsible for environmental matters coalesced against the people, labeling them as regime leftovers of the previous regime, trouble-makers and terrorists (The Reporter, 5 May 2010). After all, the directives by the council of ministers were issued in late 2010.

It was the personal involvement of the federal president that tried to shine light on this problem, where Ethiopian laws, institutions and officials have kept silence—a situation where even he as president could not secure the actions he needed after two letters to concerned officials. The World Bank reports that in Ethiopia, less than 10 percent of state forest boundaries have been mapped, and very few claims to rights over forestland have been identified and registered. It concludes that this makes it difficult to protect public lands with high environmental value–because the state cannot fulfill its duties to the nation.

Secondly, in 2008 the government set up lead agency for farmland leasing and also a federal land bank above 5000 hectares from which investors could pick. Below 5000 hectares, it was left for the regions to decide. This then was endorsed by the 2010 directive issued by the council of ministers, basically outlining the administration of agricultural investment in farmlands, the focus of which is on investments. The regime’s priority consideration is foreign exchange, not the nation’s wellbeing.

Based on its case study, the World Bank also concluded:

    “In Ethiopia, few agricultural investment projects had an environmental impact assessment (EIA), as required by law. Key reasons were a lack of capacity and a rush to approve projects by the investment authority that precluded sectoral agencies from performing due diligence… The mandate of requiring or reviewing agricultural EIAs has been passed to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development or respective regional bureaus, which lack the technical capacity and motivation to make compliance with EIA regulations a priority. Often the definition of situations that require environmental assessments is not clear or open to manipulation…”

(Source: Rising global interest in farmland: can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? 2011).

    Incidentally, the government owned Agricultural Equipment & Technical Services (AETS) was hired in 2009 by wealthy investors such as Sheik Al-Amoudi in Gambela to clear natural forests. For those services, AETS agreed to be paid ETB 9,000 ($670, 2009 rate) per hectare, according to Addis Fortune of 12 October 2009. What is interesting here is that the government was later persuaded to sale the state-owned AETS and when it was put at the auction’s block twice, one of the tenders was Saudi Star, the company Mr Al-Amoudi owns. It offered ETB 171 million and ETB 149 million, much less than the minimum ETB 275 million bid. The fate of that company is still unknown or it would eventually be disposed of (Addis Fortune, 31 July 2010).

    Interestingly, this month AETS sued Saudi Star Agricultural Development, the rice plantation Sheik Al-Amoudi co-owns, for ETB 35.2 million for failure to pay for land the latter had cleared in the Gambella Regional State, according to Addis Fortune of 7 August 2011. While admitting it owned money to AETS, Saudi Star had asked for more time to pay the money, lest the court revisit the issue on 19 October.

    Secondly, out of the nine regions of Ethiopia by April 2010 only four regional states — Amhara, Oromia, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) and Tigrai — have almost finalized issuance of land certificates to peasant households, formally recognizing the rights of individuals to lands through the certificates. This means, five regional states—Afar, Somali, Benishangul‐Gumuz, Gambella and Harari—have not issued legislation how to ensure and protect the rights of farmers and pastoralists, or implement land-leasing arrangements.

    To the extent that the government could respect the certificates it handed out, it is mostly in these regions that there has been serious disenfranchisement of the farming and pastoralist population. In a very useful paper presented to the World Bank Conference on Land Policy and Administration in Washington DC from April 26‐27, 2010, Imeru Tamrat cautiously indicated his worries, “In the absence of detailed land administration laws in the other five regional states, it is not clear how the landholding rights given to peasants and pastoralists under the Constitution is being implemented within these regional states” (Imeru Tamrat, Governance of Large-scale Agricultural Investments in Africa: the Case of Ethiopia, 2010).

    Thirdly, if the federal government has set in place, as the prime minister claimed, “a clearly set out lease arrangement,” it should also have ensured protection of natural resources. That not being the case, too many natural forests have been destroyed, with the regions not knowing how they should handle lease agreements. There were also too many interventions by politicians on behalf of foreign investors, according to informal sources. For instance, by the admission of the former President of Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State Yaregal Aysheshum, commercial farmland demarcation was done by what he called “sheer guesstimation.” By this what he meant was that, other than natural landmarks or landscape delineation, no other measurement was taken, because of which many investor farmers were given excess lands beyond what is provided in their lease agreements. The federal government claims it is working to correct this situation. I would not be surprised, if as a nation, Ethiopia knows at this very moment how much land has been put in the hands of foreign investors.

    In Rising global interest in farmland: can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits? the World Bank indicates, “Compared to an average annual expansion of global agricultural land of less than 4 million hectares before 2008, approximately 56 million hectares worth of large-scale farmland deals were announced even before the end of 2009. More than 70 percent of such demand has been in Africa; countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Sudan have transferred millions of hectares to investors in recent years.” This does not give specific quantity, but the magnitude in Ethiopia is unmistakable.

    Fourthly, the lack of proper guidance by the federal government has also led to the destruction of huge masses of natural forests, without the culprits held accountable. This arose from failure to examine properly proposed investment projects in any given part of the country. The destruction in Gambela and Benishangul-Gumuz has been catastrophic. In that regard, nothing could match the horrors inflicted on the country by the British company Sun Biofuels, according to President Yaregal Aysheshum. Sun Biofuels was given land to start biofuels development in Benshangul-Gumuz. But, it changed its mind after destroying 80,000 hectares of natural forests. When the former president was asked why the company was not asked to pay for damages, he was not willing to give reasons ( Possibly, it could be the case of some senior government official(s) working as go between and threatening the regional president, not to take action.

    Fifth, the prime minister is convinced that renting out as much land as possible would benefit both investors and the Ethiopian people. He anticipates that it would make available more food and income and also sees it as beneficial employment. The World Bank disagrees with that expectation of betterment of life through the current practice of landgrab. The Bank states:

    “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.”

Rising global interest in farmland: can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?

With regard to the overall statement denying the existence of land grab, the following response seems to be in order. There are two things to consider here. For this, let us revisit the two interviews by him and his deputy in June 2011 and December 2010, respectively, with Vickram Bahl of ITMN television.

    Firstly, the two gentlemen were defensive. They chose to sublimate their controversial and illegal actions, even by the laws of Ethiopia, through objectives of existing national development goals. This is, because they know that no one in his right mind would be opposed to the state working to provide better life for its citizens. The reference here is to relocation of people to new settlements to set up villages to provide them with governmental services.

    The mistreatment of mostly minorities in Western Ethiopia by a regime that says it has come for the “equality of all nations and nationalities” is ironic and not any different from the previous regimes that have ignored or forgot these people existed. Much in the same way, today’s mistreatments have reduced them to invisibility. The interpretative emphasis by the prime minister and his deputy seems to hammer on the notion that land has moved from being public property, as entrusted in cthe ustody of the state in 1974, now has only become state property in full. Interpretatively, this smacks of the aphorism what ‘Caesar giveth, Caesar taketh Away’ at any time. Therefore, whatever the state has tried to do to benefit the people has come, without making room for popular participation, any possibilities to properly identify pros and cons of any goals from the perspective of the people. What should add clearer evidence that government heavy-handedness in Ethiopia is a perennial problem that this?

    Secondly, the prime minister and his deputy tried to emphasize constitutional safeguards, referring to the fact that land in Ethiopia has been public property for 36 years now, i.e., since the 1974 revolution. They have not, however, considered when they use force to throw out people by military means, which is equally illegal, is no different from land grabbing by force, as it used to happen under colonialism, or the imperial system in Ethiopia, or in some African countries after the onset of farmland grab in this 21st century.


At this stage in Ethiopia, therefore, the issue regarding land gab is more about state brutality in continually violating the human rights of humble and peaceful villagers, dispossession of citizens and destruction of pristine natural environments. As mentioned above, for the future there is also the land ‘give away’ for 99 years, i.e., which in essence means in perpetuity, endangering Ethiopian sovereignty in so many ways. It is a shameful and useless exercise that on balance would hardly benefit the country.

In his excellent analytical research on landgrab, LAND TO INVESTORS: Large-Scale Land Transfers in Ethiopia (2011) the noted Ethiopian land tenure expert Dessalegn Rahmeto concludes:

    “Finally, the government has not given sufficient consideration to different land-use options but has instead blindly put its faith on large-scale farming. There are a variety of sound land-use options that have been tried successfully in Africa and elsewhere which have been high foreign currency earners and also beneficial to local communities but without posing a threat to the environment, natural and wildlife resources. In the case of Gambella, for example, experts now in the field have suggested that if its extensive wildlife resources are properly managed and conserved they could provide immense economic and social benefit to the people and the Region and create high employment opportunities through a variety of sustainable schemes that do not damage the ecosystem and the wildlife but on the contrary preserve and support them (TFCI 2009). Such schemes include ecotourism, game ranching, controlled hunting, fishing, income from conservation-based schemes such as REDD, and improved livestock production programs. Experts even think that Gambella could be eligible for a world heritage status for its incredibly rich wildlife resources which, unfortunately, are now being threatened by ill-conceived agricultural investment programs.”

In their helplessness, the Ethiopian people are shocked by the vulgarity of farmland grab, violation of our country’s dignity and its environmental virginity. They strongly resent the actions of an arrogant political, military and economic power that neither has a sense of responsibility or proportionality.

Although the Melese regime has contributed in some ways to improving the country’s infrastructures, it has badly missed many good opportunities, both at home and abroad, to unite the country along a democratic path and do more in facilitating broad-based economic growth and national development of Ethiopia as common cause for everyone.

With bad temper and greed for power, it has unwisely lost the politics and psychology of nation building falling on the wayside because of its preference of political deception and corruption!

(Editorial corrections have been made to this article)

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