Full Circle: Back to Land to the Tiller Implications of the Land Grab in Ethiopia – By Fekade Shewakena
If you are wondering why the government of Meles Zenawi is doing the secretive land deals with Arab and Asian tycoons and agribusiness corporations in secret and without any public discussion and scrutiny, (more…)
If you are wondering why the government of Meles Zenawi is doing the secretive land deals with Arab and Asian tycoons and agribusiness corporations in secret and without any public discussion and scrutiny, and why the officials are handling it in much the same way like thieves who sell their stolen stuff on street corners and dark alleys, you have asked a serious question and probably have almost gotten some of your answers. This is pure theft and burglary sugarcoated as investment – only in this case that the burglar has someone to open the door from inside. It is a dangerous venture that has little to do with solving Ethiopia’s economic problems but bound to negatively impact the country’s most strategic resources, land and water, and its posterity. It appears that we have reached a point where we are selling out our last belongings just like the desperate peasants I once saw in 1984 sell their last belongings for scrape as they fled their villages to escape an impending famine.
This land deal, now popularly known as “land grab” among other names, and becoming epidemic in desperately poor, irresponsible and corrupt African countries, is a neocolonial venture where land is being sold to foreigners at bargain prices. The “investors” are salivating over the cheap access to agricultural land, water and cheap labor which would definitely make them even richer in the lucrative food markets whose growing trends they are very aware of. This is in addition to helping them find a solution to the problem of serious food insecurity in their own countries. The Meles Zenawis of Africa are salivating over the quick cash that will go to temporarily solve their hard currency crunch and the opportunity of swelling their individual bank accounts. Those who likened these secret deals to the colonial scramble for African land, where some local chiefs signed and sold off tract after tract of land to colonialists under the influence of alcohol supplied by the colonialist and some glittering gifts, are not very far from an accurate description of these transactions.
The Ethiopian land grab, as we are gradually learning now, is such a huge undertaking, which according to various sources, involves millions of acres of fertile land, nearly the size of the former province of Arsi. The land for sale is spread across all regions of the country except Tigrai and the Somali region. Interestingly, this is being done in the dark, without a minimal of discussion, even a symbolic one, at least in that rubberstamp parliament, or on any national media. It is very ironic that an English newspaper in Addis Ababa named Addis Fortune, which also has an online version and hardly an opponent of the government, has to raise the more suspicious aspects of the land deal on its gossip column while also reporting on the same day about the activities of Shiek Mohammed Al Amoudi who is serving as a salesman to his wealthy Saudi friends that are heavily backed by Saudi Royal officials. I also saw an Amharic editorial on the Reporter the contents of which speak volumes about how the authors feared to directly talk about the land deal than the deal itself. But these papers should be commended at least for raising the issue.
I am sure the Ethiopian officials will sugarcoat this venture with such jargons as development needs, poverty alleviation, generating capital, and all the language of development they seem to have mastered. I am also sure many members and supporters of the ruling clique and its ethnic associates who are following the regime blindfolded would call me or any critic of this deal as anti-investment, anti-development or extremist, Tigre hater, as they often do when challenged with serious and substantive questions and criticisms. I know the drill. I am all for investment and opening the country to foreign capital. Our poverty is so real and tragic that I am not even romanticizing that my country, once a place where foreigners were asked to shake of their feet before they leave the country lest they take our sacred soil on their shoes, has come to this level of disgrace; nor am I troubled by the morally reprehensible thought that some of these investors are planning to grow barley to feed their camels when at the same time the children of the Ethiopia are dying of hunger. I believe this venture is distasteful on basic economic grounds and the long term problems it is bound to create.
I am one Ethiopian who feels deeply humiliated by the kind of poverty our people live under and the worsening spread of unmitigated hunger and famine. More importantly, I see the indicators and worry that the worst may be yet to come. So, I am not against investment in Ethiopia. But this secret deal is not an investment in Ethiopia’s interest by any stretch of imagination. For a starter, name me a country that has ever developed or solved a single major problem by selling itself to the highest bidder and I will buy you a pig that can fly.
Granted, some of the money may raise hard currency to buy fuel oil for the country for a year or two. Even some economy may trickle down to make a handful of people wealthy. But it may not also be worth the cost to be paid for the security of the farms which are likely to be targets of angry people that are being fenced off of their ancestral land. It is not difficult to predict that these people will organize and fight back or feed into some of the insurgencies that already vow to fight. In Madagascar, where the regime sold nearly half the country’s arable land for $12 an acre to a Korean agribusiness company, much more than what Meles is said to be ready to sell ours for, it did not take a long time before the people saw both their fortunes and their country going down the drain and rose in resistance, overthrew their government out of power and nullified the shoddy agreements. Responsible, intelligent, and patriotic citizens of that country saw the deal was incompatible with and dangerous to their fragile ecology and environment as well as the country’s posterity. I hate to see our problems solved though violence but I will be one Ethiopian who will not speak against any which may arise as a result of this theft.
A report cited here states that Shiek Mohammed Al-Amoudi is charged by the Saudi King to spearhead and facilitate the venture in Ethiopia and that the shiek has gained the support of Meles Zenawi. His agribusiness company has recently sponsored some 50 Saudi companies to attend an expensive promotional exhibition and party in Addis Ababa though his company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc. which is already producing rice for the Saudis. I have seen many people who hated the Shiek for being a supporter of the TPLF regime, for corrupting officials with generous gift, and giving extravagant parties. To be frank, I argued in his favor and considered all of those his rights. As a wealthy person he has every right whatever he wants to do with his money. But buying and selling our country is not one of them. Now this Shiek has crossed the line by turning himself into a salesman of our land to his fellow rich petrodollar swollen sheiks. It appears that he has crossed the Rubicon.
Who are this wealthy individuals and corporations and what drives them into this dangerous scramble on our land? These are basically people and entities from the oil rich Middle East and from rapidly industrializing East and South Asia. Most of the Asians are from countries heavily populated. They have virtually little land for extensive agriculture and a huge and growing population to feed. Most have chemicalized their soil to perdition over three decades of green revolution but have fortunately helped themselves to industrialization. The others are from wealthy oil rich Middle East and Arab Sheikdoms that are alarmed by the dwindling ground water in their own countries to support agriculture and a growing population to feed. More importantly they are attracted by the lucrative market and the rising trend of the cost of food products. Over the last several years, they have made their studies and consulted economists who delivered this “innovative” idea of land grab. That is when they began roaming the continent of Africa looking for corrupt and desperate governments that would sell agricultural land along with scarce water and cheap labor to meet their consumption needs. That is how they met the Meles Zenawi’s of Africa. Mr. David Hallam, deputy director at FAO, who I believe is privy to these transactions is quoted on a Washington Post Article as saying that the contracts being signed “ are thin” and “have no safeguards” adding that he sees “ statements from ministers where they’re basically promising (to the wealthy foreign companies) everything with no controls, no conditions”. This is from the mouth of an expert of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.
What is happening in Ethiopia is sad on another very important level. Ethiopia has an economic geographic advantage it potentially enjoys in the part of the world it is located. With its huge agricultural potential it is strategically located in close proximity to reap the benefits of exporting food to these oil rich but agriculturally poor customers most of which survive by importing their food. Their demand and Ethiopia’s potential for supply was a perfect match. In the past, Ethiopia had not had the opportunity to harvest this potential. It is a failure of all past governments including this one. Had Ethiopian rulers were wise and thinkers beyond their political shelf lives, they could have already exploited it. But this potential can be maximized only if we Ethiopians are the producers and sellers of our own agricultural products. What Meles Zenawi is doing now is putting this upside down. He, in effect, made our potential buyers the sellers of our commodity. He is helping them sit on both the demand and supply side of the equation. Have you heard of a saying in Amharic- “kemogn dej Mofer Yikoretal”. This is an economic suicide that no country with rational people living inside it should even think of doing. I think Ethiopians need to seriously discuss impending problem and create public awareness before it is too late and too costly.
Some points we need to understand clearly:
1. The idea of unused land, idle land or virgin land is a complete misnomer. True, there is a lot of uncultivated arable land in Ethiopia. That doesn’t make it unused or idle. Land must not necessarily be cultivated to be classified as utilized. The term I am comfortable with is underused or underutilized. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users. In areas where we have more land relative to the inhabitants in the area, it is often that the way of life of the population requires more land per person. Nomadic areas and food gatherers in west and southwest Ethiopia need more land per person to survive for the type of economy they practice. But even in situations where land is least economically utilized, if often helps keep the ecological balance in the area and the region. I should add that these lands are not used to their maximum potential mostly because of the wrong or misguided government policies and interventions and that seems to be where the central problem is located.
2. Second, for agriculture to prosper, it is not necessary that we have large scale commercial farms. Small holder farms of reasonable size can be economically as effective. If we are, for example, able to produce organic food products by small holder farmers, it is possible to get as much money or even better money than large scale plantations that use chemical fertilizers. In other words, you don’t need billionaire investors to cultivate the underutilized land. It is not difficult to find some 50 Ethiopians that will amount to one Arab millionaire investor. The problem is that the government policies are faulty and unattractive to Ethiopians. There was a time in the early seventies where fresh graduates from Haramaya University were able to start farms in the Awash valley with loans from government banks who did it with brilliant success. Does anybody remember AMBASH, a farm operated by a group of young graduates of Agriculture from Haramaya College? If it was possible thirty five years ago, it should be more possible today.
3. The land currently under intensive cultivation which is mostly overused and becoming unproductive, as in northern and north central Ethiopia, needs to rest and remain fallow for many years if we want the soil to regenerate and become supportive again. We also currently farm a lot of marginal lands that should not be cultivated at all. Farm lands are running uphill in most parts of Ethiopia as farmers try to bring more and more land to cultivation in response to population pressure. This is a big rational for resettlement programs and developing underused arable lands. Selling more existing underused land apparently means more pressure on existing peasa