February 19, 2013
 Indian investors are forcing people off their land in Ethiopia
 How Ethiopians are being pushed off their land
Ethiopia’s leasing of 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) of prime farmland to Indian companies has led to intimidation, repression, detentions, rapes, beatings, environmental destruction, and the imprisonment of journalists and political objectors, according to a new report.
Research by the US-based Oakland Institute suggests many thousands of Ethiopians are in the process of being relocated or have fled to neighbouring countries after their traditional land has been handed to foreign investors without their consent. The situation is likely to deteriorate further as companies start to gear up their operations and the government pursues plans to lease as much as 15% of the land in some regions, says Oakland.
In a flurry of new reports about global “land grabbing” this week, Oxfam said on Thursday that investors were deliberately targeting the weakest-governed countries to buy cheap land. The 23 least-developed countries of the world account for more than half the thousands of recorded deals completed between 2000 and 2011, it said. Deals involving approximately 200m ha of land are believed to have been negotiated, mostly to the advantage of speculators and often to the detriment of communities, in the past few years.
In what is thought to be one of the first “south-south” demonstrations of concern over land deals, this week Ethiopian activists came to Delhi to urge Indian investors and corporations to stop buying land and to actively prevent human rights abuses being committed by the Ethiopian authorities.
“The Indian government and corporations cannot hide behind the Ethiopian government, which is clearly in violation of human rights laws,” said Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute. “Foreign investors must conduct impact assessments to avoid the adverse impacts of their activities.”
Ethiopian activists based in UK and Canada warned Indian investors that their money was at risk. “Foreign investors cannot close their eyes. When people are pushed to the edge they will fight back. No group knows this better than the Indians”, said Obang Metho, head of grassroots social justice movement Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), which claims 130,000 supporters in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Speaking in Delhi, Metho said: “Working with African dictators who are stealing from the people is risky, unsustainable and wrong. We welcome Indian investment but not [this] daylight robbery. These companies should be accountable under Indian law.”
Nyikaw Ochalla, director of the London-based Anywaa Survival Organisation, said: “People are being turned into day labourers doing backbreaking work while living in extreme poverty. The government’s plans … depend on tactics of displacement, increased food insecurity, destitution and destruction of the environment.”
Ochall, who said he was in daily direct contact with communities affected by “land grabbing” across Ethiopia, said the relocations would only add to hunger and conflict.
“Communities that have survived by fishing and moving to higher ground to grow maize are being relocated and say they are now becoming dependent on government for food aid. They are saying they will never leave and that the government will have to kill them. I call on the Indian authorities and the public to stop this pillage.”
Karuturi Global, the Indian farm conglomerate and one of the world’s largest rose growers, which has leased 350,000 ha in Gambella province to grow palm oil, cereals maize and biofuel crops for under $1.10 per hectare per year, declined to comment. A spokesman said: “This has nothing to do with us.”
Ethiopia has leased an area the size of France to foreign investors since 2008. Of this, 600,000 ha has been handed on 99-year leases to 10 large Indian companies. Many smaller companies are believed to have also taken long leases. Indian companies are said to be investing about $5bn in Ethiopian farmland, but little is expected to benefit Ethiopia directly. According to Oakland, the companies have been handed generous tax breaks and incentives as well as some of the cheapest land in the world.
The Ethiopian government defended its policies. “Ethiopia needs to develop to fight poverty, increase food supplies and improve livelihoods and is doing so in a sustainable way,” said a spokeswoman for the government in London. She pointed out that 45% of Ethiopia’s 1.14m sq km of land is arable and only 15% is in use.
The phenomenon of Indian companies “grabbing” land in Africa is an extension of what has happened in the last 30 years in India itself, said Ashish Kothari, author of a new book on the growing reach of Indian businesses.
“In recent years the country has seen a massive transfer of land and natural resources from the rural poor to the wealthy. Around 60 million people have been displaced in India by large scale industrial developments. Around 40% of the people affected have been indigenous peoples,” he said.
These include dams, mines, tourist developments, ports, steel plants and massive irrigation schemes.
According to Oakland, the Ethiopian “land rush” is part of a global phenomenon that has seen around 200m ha of land leased or sold to foreign investors in the past three years.
The sales in Africa, Latin America and Asia have been led by farm conglomerates, but are backed by western hedge and pension funds, speculators and universities. Many Middle East governments have backed them with loans and guarantees.
Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam, which is holding a day of action against land grabs on Thursday, called on the World Bank to temporarily freeze all land investments in large scale agriculture to ensure its policies did not encourage land grabs.
“Poor governance allows investors to secure land quickly and cheaply for profit. Investors seem to be cherry-picking countries with weak rules and regulations because they are easy targets. This can spell disaster for communities if these deals result in their homes and livelihoods being grabbed.”
Oxfam will be placing huge “Sold” signs on the Sydney harbour bridge, the Lincoln memorial in Washington and the Colosseum in Rome to mark its action day.
• This article was amended on 11 February 2013 to correct the figure given for the area of Ethiopia. The original said 1.14m sq miles. This has been corrected to say 1.14m sq km.
“It is not a land-grab, it is a life-grab. It is daylight robbery. But if we protest, if we speak the truth, we could end up in jail or worse.” Obang Metho was referring to the leasing of land to foreign companies in Ethiopia, spreading over nearly four million hectares. Nyikaw Ochalla joined in: “This is happening in the lands I grew up in, and it is my relatives and childhood friends who are being jailed, beaten up, and driven out; my childhood memories are being violated.”
Metho of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, and Ochalla of the Anuak Survival Organisation were speaking at the “Indian-Ethiopian Seminar on Land Investments” organised on February 5-6, 2013 in New Delhi. The seminar was put together by Indian civil society groups Indian Social Action Forum (Insaf), Popular Education and Action Centre (Peace), and Kalpavriksh, the research institution Council for Social Development, and the U.S.-based research group Oakland Institute.
The stories narrated by Obang and Ochalla were harrowing. The lands being leased by the Ethiopian government to companies from India, China, Malaysia, and other countries, were claimed by it to be “empty.” In actual fact these are areas occupied or used by pastoral and small farming communities, as also grasslands and forests with significant wildlife. Decisions are being taken in the country’s capital to give up these lands ostensibly to help the country produce food and generate revenues; the underlying message is that either there is no one there to do the job, or that local communities are simply not up to the mark.
Indian companies are among the biggest players in the land deals, with investments of over $5 billion, and leases over 6,00,000 hectares. Karuturi Global, a Bangalore-based agroproduce company has alone received 3,00,000 hectares. Claims by these companies and by the Ethiopian government that the deals are legal and entail no human rights violations, have been shown as false in a series of on-ground investigations. The Oakland Institute has meticulously documented the nexus of corporations, politicians, investors, and officials that has made the land-grab possible. It notes that there is no public consultation with local communities (much less their consent), many of whom find out that their pastures or fields have been sold off only when bulldozers arrive. Any form of resistance or even questioning is met with imprisonment, beating up, and even killing. Both private security companies and the Ethiopian government’s own forces are used to protect the
investors. And there is a total lack of environmental and social impact assessments in these deals.
It is also stated sometimes that what Indian companies are doing abroad, is not the responsibility of the government. But this ignores the various ways in which the Indian government facilitates and supports such deals, not only through diplomatic channels but also financially (even if indirectly). For instance the Indian Export-Import Bank has pledged $640 million of credit over five years for Ethiopia’s sugar industry, and the fact that Indian companies are getting the biggest deals for sugarcane plantations cannot be unconnected.
Obang and Ochalla were careful to clarify that they were not against India’s people, who they realised could not be supporting such land-grab; however, for the affected communities, “it is Indians who are doing this to us.” It is therefore important for groups here to question the intentions and actions of Indian companies and the Indian government agencies supporting them. Does their behaviour in Ethiopia meet the laws or guidelines under which Indian companies act within their own country? Does it meet international standards of human rights and environmental sustainability that India is a signatory to?
Over the next couple of years, the Ethiopian government plans to forcibly move 1.5 million people off their homelands and concentrate them into a few settlements in a process called “villagisation.” It claims that this will enable it to provide efficient and good quality services like drinking water, sanitation, schools, and clinics, which is not possible in the case of today’s scattered, small settlements. But Obang and Ochalla point out that all the relocation is taking place from lands targeted by investor companies, and that even where communities are saying they would much rather stay where they are with whatever amenities they have, they are being forcibly moved out.
The claim that such investments are a “win-win” deal for the Ethiopian people and Indian companies is also questionable. Much of the production (sugarcane, cotton, jatropha, etc) is meant for export, and local foodgrains which are the staple diet are not being grown. Very little local employment is created; there is no requirement by the Ethiopian government that companies have to hire locally. Nor is there any contractual clause by which the money generated is to remain within the Ethiopian economy. A handful of businessmen and politicians are the prime beneficiaries.
Obang and Ochalla were at pains to state that part of the blame for this sell-out is located within the country’s own history, in which sometimes adverse relations between different tribes have become entrenched in the political system. The country’s ruling elite are from a tiny minority belonging to one ethnic group, who can ignore the sufferings of other groups affected by land-grab. In this sense, it is the Ethiopian people themselves who have to resolve the problem. But there is also an important role for India’s people, especially in highlighting the role of their own companies and government, and facilitating greater awareness of what is taking place in the name of Ethiopia’s development.
What is happening in Ethiopia (and other African countries) is an outcome of India’s own aggressive push towards globalised economic growth. The growth fetish has led to situations of both internal and external colonisation, in which farms, waterbodies, forests, grasslands and other natural resources are all up for grabs.
It was an ironical coincidence that on the very days the consultations on Indian land-grab in Ethiopia were taking place in New Delhi, police action was under way to forcibly evict villagers in Odisha to make way for the Korean multinational Posco. Representatives of movements from Jharkhand, Karnataka and elsewhere told Obang and Ochalla that they were facing similar repression while resisting forcible takeover by the government or by corporations. The currently dominant model of “development” is pushing such violence across the globe, wherever dominant nation-states and giant corporations are eyeing land and resources.
In such a situation, people in India who care for human rights, ecological sustainability, and basic justice, have to raise fundamental critiques of “development” and centralised governance, and work towards radical alternatives that secure the rights of all people to food, water, shelter, energy, learning, health and livelihoods. Such alternatives are already demonstrated to be feasible at thousands of sites across the world, but it requires a mindset change for both the Ethiopian and Indian governments to facilitate the empowerment of local communities to adopt them, rather than paving the way for corporate takeover. Neither the founders of India nor of Ethiopia would have dreamt of a future in which development takes place at gunpoint.
(Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune.)