Land Grab in Gambella By Ephrem Madebo

September 3rd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

It is inexplicable rather disgraceful that on one side western countries paint Africa as the bread basket of the world, but most western countries and their media talk about dictatorship, corruption and hunger in Africa [which actually is true]. (more…)

It is inexplicable rather disgraceful that on one side western countries paint Africa as the bread basket of the world, but most western countries and their media talk about dictatorship, corruption and hunger in Africa [which actually is true]. On the other hand, western banks and investment companies, university endowments funds, and large corporations buy large quantity of land from poor African countries and turn it into a breadbasket of the rich countries of the world. The technology and/or capital transfer analysis of the development model indicates that large foreign investment in the agricultural sector of poor countries helps agrarian economies to transform their agriculture and ultimately lead to economic development. However, empirical studies of the past few years clearly indicate that foreign investment companies are profiting from “land grab”, and “land grab” in developing countries has failed to deliver its promise of jobs, infrastructure, schools, and health facilities. In fact, the land grabs; due to investors’ recklessness and lack of control from the host countries have led to huge environmental and social problems in developing countries.

In the last 10 years, a strange phenomenon known as ‘Land Grab’ has ravaged the continent of Africa that has already been suffering from the failed growth models of the classical, neo-classical and Marxist schools. In Ethiopia and many other African countries, the Chinese, the Indians, and the Saudis are buying a huge amount of farmland to satisfy the food demand of their own population. Ethiopia is one of the reckless countries that denies ownership of land to its own poor peasants and sells the nation’s top level fertile land for a knockout price that wows the buyers themselves.

The last twenty years history of Ethiopia is full of many dull and eccentric moments, and no moment of that history is as dull as the TPLF’s silly moment of cheap land sale. The TPLF calls the cheap land sale a ‘land lease’, but from the point of view of the grabbers, this new phenomenon is called ‘land grab’, and from the point of view of poor the Ethiopian farmers, it is called ‘free land give away’. For over two decades, we Ethiopians have heard how weird Meles Zenawi and his gangs are. I think their recent economic policies; especially their land policy has left them naked that now we can see just how weird and wacky they really are. Ethiopia is a country that suffers the most from hunger and hunger related problems. Currently, more than 13 million people or about 15.3% its population depends on food aid from rich countries. But, ironically, the regime in Ethiopia is selling its most fertile land to foreigners whose only focus is to secure current and future food supply in their own countries.

Much has been said about the land grab in Ethiopia, and I believe there is a whole lot left to say. In Ethiopia land is not just an economic asset; in many parts of Ethiopia land has spiritual, cultural, ancestral, and sentimental values. Ethiopians, whether they are pastoralists or settled farmers, their livelihood has an important cosmic link to their land. Their past and current way of life is rooted in the land where they were born and have defined their humanity. For example, for the people of Gambella, their land of origin in the grass lands and forests of the Gambella area is not only the source of their sustenance; it is also home to their identity and culture. When one sells or leases this land against the will of the people, the item being sold is not just land, its culture and identity.

The land grab in Ethiopia generally has negative economic and social consequences, and these consequences differ from place to place within Ethiopia. For example, the land grab problems in economically forgotten Gambella are very different from other relatively better-off places. We all know that there was genocide in Gambella and the current human right abuse in the region is beyond imagination. Now on top of all these crimes and wicked acts, Zenawi’s regime is selling the most important cultural and economic asset of the Gambella people. These problems touch the life of every citizen in Gambella, and may have a far reaching political consequence if they continue unabated. Here are there areas that I thought were neglected or not even considered when a decision was made to sell Gambella’s land.

Eco-system in peril

The Ethiopian region of Gambella is home to Africa’s second-largest mammal migration, with millions and millions of animals [some of them endangered species] moving through its grasslands. The region is one of the most attractive places in Ethiopia with breathtaking sceneries and remarkable biodiversity. The Gambella National Park that hosts lions, African Buffalo, elephants, Roan Antelope, Lelwel Hartebeest, Olive Baboons and many others, was created in 1974 primarily to protect endangered species. Sadly, today, the reckless regime in Ethiopia is selling a major part of the Gambella National Park to Indian companies who are planning huge farms on a land designated to protect endangered species. The Indian company Karuturi has already started bulldozing the park endangering the environment and one of Africa’s great animal migrations.

I hope we all remember that some two years ago, the Ethiopian ministry of agriculture declared that, whatever the wildlife credentials of the Gambella National Park, the park had a huge agricultural investment potential. Today, sandwiched between the Indian Agro giant Karuturi Global on one side and Mohammed Al Amoudi’s Saudi Star on the other, the Gambella National Park that hosts the 2nd largest mammal migrations in Africa is quickly being transformed into a large foreign owned commercial farm jeopardizing the future of Gambella as a human habitat and the great migration.

Blind Investment Decisions

I remember, in the 1980s, Colonel Mengistu was the key decision maker behind every national and regional investment endeavors. Today, the Colonel may have been gone for over twenty years, but his brutality, stubbornness and ways of doing business are still the major parts of the ethnic regime in Ethiopia. National and regional economic priorities and alternative economic approaches mean little or nothing to both Mengistu and Meles. They make decisions on the fly and the outcome does not bother them as long as it meets their political goal.

Meles Zenawi has made many nonsensical political and economic decisions, and one of them is his decision to sell the nation’s fertile land to anyone that comes with dollar. His recent decision to sell 100k hectares of land in Gambella is a blind decision that totally failed to consider alternative uses of Gambella’s rich resources. For example, tourism wise, Gambella has the same potential as Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks in Kenya. Kenya’s tourism industry employs 11% of the nations’ work force and generates 21% of Kenya’s foreign exchange earnings. Ethiopia has the same, in fact, a much better tourism potential than Kenya. What we don’t have is far sighted leaders who invest in the future of Ethiopia. What angers the Ethiopian people is that such very attractive alternatives were not even on the table when decisions were made to sell Gambella’s land. The decision was all about money and selling land was the quickest way.

The cheapest fertile land on earth

One of the most bizarre and uncomforting issues about the land grab in Ethiopia is the price the Indian and Chinese companies are paying to acquire one of Africa’s most fertile land. In my very short and mostly anxious life, I have seen the price of goods and services go up and down, but I have never seen such rock bottom prices for a quality good that has limited supply. It is so amazing that Karuturi Global had not even seen the land when it was offered by the Ethiopian government. “It’s very good land. It’s quite cheap. In fact, it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India,” says Karmjeet Sekhon, project manager for farms in Gambella. “There [India] you are lucky to get 1% of organic matter in the soil. Here [Gambella, Ethiopia] it is more than 5%. We don’t need fertilizer or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow on it. By the way, with all of these natural amenities and rock bottom prices, Karuturi still enjoys a five years tax holiday.

Ethiopia is a classic example of Africa’s inability to feed itself, hence, many Ethiopians inside and outside the country argue that the government shouldn’t dispose its farmers and sell the land to Indian and Chinese cash crop growers when more than 13 million of its own people depend on food aid. Ethiopia has a great mass of arable land and many perennial rivers; moreover, it has a swarming population whose occupation is largely agrarian. Therefore, it is embarrassing when Ethiopia fails to feed itself, especially, when its government claims a seven years of continuous ‘double digit economic growth’. Actually, it is even more embarrassing to have a government that dispossesses land from its own citizens and sells it cheap to foreigners who are in Ethiopia to secure food for their own people.

According to the contract signed between the Indian company Karaturi and the Ethiopian regime, the annual lease rate per hectare is only 20 birr or about $1.17 which is less than the value of a small quarter pounder in Seven Eleven. The value of the contract is expressed in terms of birr, so every time the value of birr depreciates so does the amount of dollar Ethiopia receives from Karuturi. The contract expires in 2058 [after 50 years], and Karuturi pays 2million birr every year for a total of 100 million birr in fifty years (20 x100, 000). This may look like a huge sum of money, but it is only $5.8 million. Yes, fifty years, 100 thousand hectares of fertile land for only 5.8 million dollar.

Here is the most shocking part of the contract. Meles Zenawi and his puppets here in the Diaspora told us that one of the advantages of the land sale was that the party that buys land builds infrastructure, schools, health facilities, and residential areas. But, according to Article 3 of the contract, the lessee is not at all obliged to build infrastructure, schools, health facilities, and residential areas. In fact, it has clearly been stated in the contract that building anything on and around the farm is the right of the lessee not an obligation. This makes it clear that the sale of land to Indian and Chinese companies has nothing to do with technology transfer; it is simply the transfer of Karaturi farming from less fertile Indian fields to the more fertile lands of Ethiopia.

The architect of Ethiopia’s land grab policy is none other than Meles Zenawi, but we must not forget that there are many sold outs that perform the day to day activities of the land sale. In this article I will expose the name and picture of Zenawi’s henchman and the contractual document he signed with the Indian agro giant, Karuturi Global Limited. I want every reader to closely look at the contractual documents and see how shallow and un Ethiopian the TPLF regime is. May God bless Ethiopia!

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