Colonizing Ethiopia through land grab

EthiopianReview.com | March 3rd, 2011

By Fikre Tolossa

Land grab in Africa: The case of Ethiopia

(a speech delivered at the Commonwealth Club of California on March 1, 2011)

In the un-glorious past, European colonizers grabbed by force any African lands they had their eyes set on and did whatever they desired to do with the lands. Not only did they exploit the lands, but also the natives by paying them meagerly to till their own lost lands.

Now it is a sort of neo-colonialism. The land-grabbers are not Europeans. They are Asians, and even richer Africans; and they don’t employ military force to secure the lands. They pay the African governments.

At the root of the land grab lie global food shortage due to drought, population explosion, price hikes and lack of fertile, arable lands. This has immediate and long-lasting consequences.

The immediate consequence is that the owners of the lands will be dislocated with their ancient villages destroyed, and forced to till their own lands for a meager wage if they are lucky enough to get hired by the foreigners that have grabbed their lands.

The long-term consequence is that these fertile lands will lose their trees, topsoil, natural habitats and rivers, to be rendered barren as a result of exposition to chemicals latent in the fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. If any rivers and lakes survive evaporation, they are likely to be poisoned by toxic materials and become undrinkable and health hazard.

So far, those aspiring to acquire African lands are India, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and even Pakistan and Turkey. Libya is involved in Mali. India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt are present in Ethiopia. The governments of Sudan, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia too, are inviting such entrepreneurs to come and exploit their lands as if this a good thing to do. Ethiopia allows the exploiters to use Ethiopian lands for a maximum of 99 years. This length of time is scary!

Chief among the food producing firms that plan to exploit Ethiopia are the Indian Karuturi and Verdanta Harvests. An online Indian news source titled Prokerala states thus:

Ethiopia has offered to Indian investors 1.8 million hectares of farmland, equaling nearly 40 percent the total area of principal grain-growing state of Punjab, in what could give a big push to the country’s food security. The land offered by the East African nation, at the horn of the continent, equals 50 percent of the cultivable land of Punjab, often called India’s granary, accounting for 23 percent of its wheat and 10 percent of paddy output.”

Mr. Tefera Derbew, Ethiopian Minster of Agriculture said:

How much land will actually go to Indian investors depends entirely on the interest of the investors. If they come and take all the land, they are welcome. So far, we have transferred 307,000 hectares of land to foreign and domestic investors. Some 79 percent of this land has been transferred to Indian companies. This land is on 70-year lease. We are now proposing to transfer another 3.6 million hectares of land to investors from overseas. And I am confident that more than half of this 3.6 million hectares will go to Indians.”

Broadly speaking, Indian firms have interest in cultivating cotton, palm oil, rubber, oilseeds and horticulture. Such sort of products need heavy mechanized form of farming that involves concentrated chemicals and mono-culture.

The target regions in Ethiopia are the fertile lands of Gambella, Afar, Ogaden and Benshangul-gumuz in particular and all arable lands in general. The people that are earmarked for dislocation from Gambella alone are about 225,000, consisting of 45,000.00 families and 49 villages. They will be resettled not too far from the lands they have been dispossessed of, so that they will be an ideal resource for cheap labor, should the need arise. After having lost their vast lands, they will end up owning a tiny piece of land- 1.3 hectares per family. According to a reliable source, many Punjabi farmers are heading to Gambella and other regions for settlement. They and their descendants have every right to farm these lands and live on them for the next 70 to 99 years and beyond. Moreover, they will export every grain they harvest to India or to wherever they generate hard currency best. Nothing is left for Ethiopia farmers. From the perspective of the natives this is tantamount to neo-colonization whether the “investors” paid the Government or not.

That is how every colonization that we know of in history began. First come a group of people. They settle on the best land of the natives. They grow rich over the years. More and more people flow in following in their footsteps, claiming the utilization of the lands belonging to their kith and kin. They give birth to children. Their grandchildren multiply and take over more and more lands. They become stronger and stronger economically, and then politically; while the natives get poorer and poorer economically and become politically inconsequential. They will be citizens of that country by virtue of their births in it, but their loyalty and allegiance will be to the places of their origins. Eventually the natives become outcasts in their own countries. Besides being poor economically, they are devastated psychologically and culturally, feeling inferior to their colonizers. They end up being servants and maidservants of the colonizers. Ultimately, they are dehumanized, segregated and discriminated against. That is how colonies in Africa started and ended up. That is exactly what happened in South Africa, Uganda and Kenya, to cite only three examples. What makes the current colonization of Africa slightly different is that “This is colonization by invitation”, as a well-seasoned Ethiopian patriot put it. What Europeans couldn’t achieve by military might as in the case of Ethiopia, Asians are attaining by a bit of cash.

China too, has a huge vested interest in Ethiopia. The most populous nation on Earth next to India is China. These nations are densely populated. They seek for sparsely populated and fertile areas to settle their overcrowded peoples. The first step to achieve this is to acquire some lands as a foothold overseas. Once they secure a foothold, before the natives realize and notice it, they can grow astronomically in number and takeover the new lands, and even countries, gradually. Since they are emerging as superpowers, if necessary, they can use force of arms to attain their ultimate takeover. This situation is not as simple as the Ethiopian Government thinks. It is either unable to see the big picture and its grave implications, or it is deliberately turning a blind eye for temporary financial gains. Surely, it is only focused on the immediate hard cash it charges the land-grabbers at present. It proves that it is nonchalant to the well-being of future generations of Ethiopians. It seems to say like the selfish donkey, “may not a blade of grass grow after I am dead and gone!”

What is the Ethiopian Government’s rational behind allowing foreigners to get fertile Ethiopian lands and virgin forests? One of its arguments is that Ethiopia has a plenty of uncultivated lands. This, however, is a poor argument. A government that cares for the well-being of its people doesn’t give away its natural resources to foreigners simply because it has a plenty of it. Every good government should protect its national reserve bearing in mind future generations. Even though Ethiopians are not utilizing all their lands at present, there would come a time when they will do so due to population explosion and scarcity of arable lands. Even if this argument had any validity, the lands the so-called investors have targeted to utilize are not uncultivated lands. They want to take over lands that have already been cultivated by the dwellers. If not, why would they dislocate the native farmers from the places they have farmed and lived in from time immemorial?

The second argument of the Government is that the investors will create jobs for the natives and improve their livelihood by helping them to create infrastructures such as roads, schools, clinics and better housing. Judging by the settlement of Punjabi farmers in Gambella, the prospect of the natives to work there and benefit financially is null and void. The infrastructure will serve only those Punjabis more than any body else. After all, why should Punjabi farmers create jobs for Ethiopian farmers? The Ethiopian farmers were not jobless. They had a job all the year round for ages cultivating their own lands. Why should they lose their lands and jobs just to work for others on their own lands? Isn’t this absurd?

A third argument of the Government is that, conceding lands to Indian farmers will generate Indian technology transfer to Ethiopia including the construction of railroads and sugar factories. This argument too, is lame. The international food producing firms such as Karuturi and Verdanta Harvests are neither technology transferring agents nor have they any influence on any such entities. If the Ethiopian Government is after technology transfer, it should directly deal with the concerned entities that are engaged in this business, instead of “donating” arable lands belonging to millions of Ethiopians, to achieve this.

India has a population of 1.2 billion people. Yet she is not known begging for food from foreign countries to feed her people. Ethiopia, with only 80 million people, does depend on foreign aid for food as if her lands don’t grow food. India plans to farm Ethiopian lands to meet its shortage of food. Isn’t this ironical?

Officially, the investors are acquiring arable lands at a very cheap price; even cheaper than Indian lands. However, no one but the Government knows exactly how much money it receives from the investors in addition to the token or formal officially disclosed prices. Furthermore, it is not revealed where the money goes. Does it go into the Government treasury for national use or does it fill the pockets of a few high-profile individuals? Transparency and accountability are lacking terribly. No open debate is even permissible to discuss the merit and demerit of this phenomenon of this proportion, which can cause the dislocation of people, the devastation of top and bottom soils, plants, animals, rivers and lakes.

The Government of Ethiopia knows full well that the Ethiopian farmers will benefit nothing from the land grab. On the contrary, it is self-evident that they will be impoverished even more. So, why is it leasing arable lands and virgin forests at such an alarming rate? Why all this haste? Of course, at the heart of all this lies finance. When Ato Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was asked what the Ethiopian farmers would gain from the land grab, he was reported to have spoken point blank that the investors were not in Ethiopia for charity reasons. They were there for a return of their investments. As such, they were entitled to do whatever they liked with the lands they had acquired paying for them in hard currency.

Such a statement is not befitting the leader of a nation that he is supposed to protect. It is indeed disheartening and sobering. It is obvious that the Government of Ethiopia is not preserving and safeguarding the national reserve and natural resources of the country as long as the best bidders pay for them in hard currency that the Government needs terribly.

If Ethiopian lands are capable of being farmed and feeding millions of Indians, Saudi Arabians, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Turks, why shouldn’t they be cultivated by Ethiopian farmers to feed themselves and to export the left-over or the surplus harvest to earn hard currency? Is it because there aren’t any Ethiopian agronomists that can make this happen? No, I don’t think so. There are many capable Ethiopian farmers that can undertake this. Is it because of lack of finance? Maybe. This is where the Ethiopian Government should step in. The Government should encourage Ethiopian farmers and assist them financially and otherwise, with the same intensity it initiates foreign food companies to lease Ethiopian lands. Not only encourage them to farm, but farm organically.

The foreign firms, as stated earlier, will apply mechanized farming and infest the lands and waters with chemicals; thus contributing to the bareness of the earth in the long run, after a few bumper harvests. Indian farmers themselves have protested against the use of chemical fertilizers that have made their farms totally unproductive after a few bumper harvests. Non-the-less, Indians or any foreign investors for that matter, don’t mind applying lots of chemicals to Ethiopian soils to maximize profit and abandon them for fresh plots of lands, when they become useless, unless they are monitored closely. On top of this, they will practice monoculture by planting only one kind of product on a vast amount of land, such as cotton, tobacco, rubber, oilseeds and horticulture. If pestilence strikes, all of them will be devastated. The flower-beds that some Dutch companies have exploited in Ethiopia are not yielding anymore as in the past due to intensive exposure to chemicals that have become hazardous to the environment and the inhabitants. More and more Ethiopians are now afflicted by cancer because of exposure to such toxic chemicals.

If the Ethiopian Government would initiate Ethiopian farmers to launch organic farming in the form of mixed farming, nonetheless, they can use natural manure as fertilizers, grow among other plants leguminous seeds such as beans, peas and clover that generate nitrates in the soil, and that could be harvested twice in a year. The stems of these plants could be used as cooking charcoal, saving rain-causing trees from being cut for firewood, and protecting them so that they could in return protect soils from erosion and desertification. And if pestilence hits one of the plants, the rest will survive to feed the farmers, contrary to mono-culture, that causes the devastation of the entire farm.

Hence, the solution for Ethiopia’s underdevelopment in general, and the problem of her farmers in particular, is not to concede arable lands to foreign investors, but rather to empower Ethiopian farmers to preserve their own lands, cultivate them organically, harvest chemical-free foods, consume them first and foremost, and export the surplus to the very countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Israel that are out to farm Ethiopian lands and take the harvests home.

I urge the Government to stop conceding to foreigners the natural resources and the national reserves of the peoples of Ethiopia, and to begin helping Ethiopian farmers preserve and farm their lands organically. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any arable lands left in Ethiopia twenty years from now, resulting in more drought, famine, ecological disaster, and most of all, the annihilation of human life.

If the Ethiopian Government is not willing to reverse its decision, it should at least review thoroughly the terms of the concessions. First and foremost, it must shorten the duration of the lease not to exceed 15 years at a time unless the investors are Ethiopians or of Ethiopian descent. It could be renewable after that, upon a mutual agreement of both parties. Second, the Government should enforce a strict labor code pertaining to minimum wage scale, collective bargaining power, as well as medical and retirement benefits for both the skilled and unskilled Ethiopian employees that would work for the cultivators. Third, the Government should see to it that both skilled and unskilled Ethiopians are employed in these projects, since it claims that one of the reasons why it leases the lands is to create jobs for Ethiopians. As it now stands, the Punjabis seem to be keen on filling in the farms with their own workers. Most of all, the Government should see to it that the environment (soil, air, water, etc.) is protected against chemicals that would endanger nature, natural habitats and human life. In fact, it should encourage organic farming all over Ethiopia. Fourth, it should control the flow of human traffic, i.e., the number of foreign-born employers, employees and their families entering Ethiopia to settle on their farms. Such measures can temporarily minimize otherwise catastrophic damages that will compromise the very existence of Ethiopia.

(Dr Fikre Tolossa can be reached at: ftolossa@aol.com)