Ethiopia's Land Grabs: Stories from the Displaced

by October 17, 2013

Ethiopia’s remote Gambela region and Lower Omo valley are being rapidly converted to commercial agricultural investment centres. To encourage widespread industrialized agriculture in these areas, the Ethiopian government is depriving small-scale farmers, pastoralists and indigenous people of arable farmland, access to water points, grazing land, fishing and hunting grounds. It has also has been moving people off the land into government villages to allow investors to take over the land. Wealthy nations and multinational corporations are taking over lands that are home to hundreds of thousands of ethnically, linguistically, geographically and culturally distinct pastoralists and indigenous communities.

Anywaa Survival Organisation (ASO) recently had an opportunity to interview affected community representatives and leaders who fled these regions because of these government land grabs. A few of these “development refugees” gave in-depth accounts of violent tactics used against them (including rapes, intimidation, murder, harassment) as well as lack of consultation, compensation, legal redress and derogation of national and international laws intended to protect indigenous and pastoralists communities’ rights to own and use resources. These exclusive interviews, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, offer insights into the human costs of Ethiopia’s development policies.

There is a deep-rooted understanding among the lowland communities that land belongs to the community rather than to the government. During the interviews, the land-grab affected people dismissed the government justification that all land in Ethiopia belongs to the state, and strongly argued that the land grabbing policy was intended to deprive communities of their land-use rights, destroy traditional farming methods and knowledge, and displace them from their ancestral lands and natural environment.

Land grabs are happening in many parts of Africa, and the topic has received much attention and criticism worldwide. In Ethiopia, land grabbing undermines affected communities’ active participation in decisions about their lives, denies them access to key information about land deals, and abrogates their constitutional rights to free prior, informed consent, compensation, and legal redress. Land grab projects benefit newcomers migrating into the land grabs target areas. According to one refugee from the lower Omo valley; “Since land grabs started, no single local person has been employed even at security guard level. But thousands of migrants from other parts of the country have moved in and are benefiting from the project. The project forces local communities into exile where they will remain as refugees.”

Ethiopia, a country notorious for recurrent famine, drought, and high-level malnutrition, is coming under sharp criticism for its land grabs and treatment of people affected by these developments. The government’s widespread abuses of local people and its forceful eviction to implement its policies have gotten the attention of the world media, NGOs, researchers, and activists.  Yet, the authorities continue to ruthlessly implement the government's controversial involuntary settlement programme as a formidable weapon to free more lands and destroy local community livelihoods and the natural environment.

For those with the first-hand practical experience, describing the land grabbing destruction has serious emotional impacts. Okok Ojulu, a community leader and representative said:

Land in Gambela belongs to the community and it is only the community that makes the decision rather than someone from far away as Tigary to give away the community lands. The action is an institutional plunder and amounts to stealing the land from the people. God hates stealing. The government policy is to annihilate the people from the land. Those people remaining back home are as good as dead as government plan day and night to implement destructive policies. 

Another Gambela native, who wished to remain anonymous, summarized the land grabbing in his area:

Vast fertile land along the road toward Pinyudo, small Anywaa (or Anuak) town on the Gilo river bank was given to foreign investors and Ethiopian highlanders with close connection to the ruling political party, and cleared for commercial agricultural investment.

A similar concern was given by a lower Omo valley representative who also wished to remain anonymous:

We believe three-quarters of the people in the lower Omo valley will be displaced. Only a fraction of the local people will be employed in back-breaking daily labourer. Giving such large plots of land to private investors exposes traditional communities to serious food insecurity, conflict, and restricts their free movement with large cattle as they are used to in the past.

A Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi, with close links to the top-level Ethiopian leadership, has been allotted 10,000 hectares for a rice plantation. His massive project has done considerable damage to the local environment, which includes a national park and wildlife habitat, and local communities that have lived in their homelands for many generations. The investment barely provides economic benefits to local communities. Young schoolchildren do back-breaking labour on the plantation during school breaks. In most cases, the land grabbing project benefits Ethiopian highland communities employed at both skilled and non-skilled levels. It is not difficult to understand why the land grabbing  project in general has been branded as an “exclusive” one that is intended to displace local communities and force them to leave the area.

While the destruction caused by global land dealers differs by region, country and political system, in the Ethiopian context, the policy’s major impacts fall on pastoralists and indigenous communities. It is depriving local communities’ access to fertile arable farmlands along the Omo, Openo (Baro), Gilo, Akobo, and Alowero rivers, according to those who took part in the interview. “The policy is intended to create job opportunities for unemployed citizens from Amhara and Tigray,” asserted one community representative.

The government’s land grab efforts have had major impacts on various communities’ traditional way of life, culture, and natural environment. The continued human rights abuses employed to move people out of the land-grab areas, including arbitrary detention, arrests, forcible eviction, and even murder, have forced many in these communities to go into exile or resort to violence in self-defence.

These areas in the Ethiopian lowlands have a long history of marginalization and neglect, and have suffered various gross human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing and murder campaigns. In 2003, about 500 indigenous Anywaa (Anuak) were murdered in just three days in Gambela region, an area that is now a hotbed of land grabbing and involuntary resettlement (“villagisation”). The government uses villagisation to reinforce the land grabbing policy implementation to forcefully evict indigenous communities from their ancestral land in order to give away their lands for commercial investment. For instance, 73% of the indigenous population in the Gambela region are destined to be resettled to unproductive lands without an adequate social infrastructure.

The communities in lower Omo valley are known for their traditional land allotments which are respected and known to every community in the area. The government villagisation programme destroys this traditional settlement pattern and inevitably invites unstoppable conflict among the communities, both among the various ethnic groups in the area and with the government forces and newcomers.

A main government claim, perhaps to silence critics internationally, is the ability of the policy to contribute towards solving the nation’s food security problem and spur economic growth. Ethiopia now requires annual international food aid and financial support. In a country of about 85 million, with 85% of the population dependant on the agricultural sector, these controversial developments are having catastrophic impacts on the food security and economic stability of many communities.

The targeted areas have been food self-sufficient in the past and have supplemented their diets with wild foods found in the local environment. As these areas are converted to export farms, the food produced is reducing lands for food crops for local consumption. A Lower Omo community representative explained the consequences:

When a community no longer cultivates on their land, they will leave the area. I think this is the primary motive of the land-grabbing policy.

Other important elements in land grabbing that are buried and overlooked in a short-term financial gain, employment creation and economic growth, are what is lost. The area is being stripped of its rich community cultural customs associated with the natural environment, sustainable small-scale farming methods, environmental management knowledge and techniques. Pastoralist and indigenous communities in the Lower Omo and Gambela region have unique, knowledge-based abilities to protect and preserve soil quality, biodiversity, and their natural habitat. Land grabbing has undermined and destroyed these traditional systems and values. Commercial farming would restrict local communities’ free movement with large cattle herds and cease rotational agricultural farming methods practiced by local communities - the main reason for current high-quality of land and natural environment.

The community leader and representative from lower Omo valley said:

Holy sites, trees, traditional places preserved in the past by the community will be destroyed once commercial farming takes off. The ecological balance and natural environment will come under intense pressure exposing the community into serious natural catastrophic.

The Gambela and Lower Omo areas, which until recently had marginal economic value and were considered by the national government as uninhabitable, are infested by deadly malaria and have humid weather conditions. However, in a turn of fortune, high demand for agricultural goods worldwide and the government’s renewed efforts at land grabbing and villagisation have lured private investors and government-owned companies into these areas, resulting in the widespread eviction of communities from their ancestral homelands. A desire to open the door to foreign direct investment and seasonal job opportunities furthermore forces stable, food secure and subsistent small-scale farmers to abandon farming, fishing, hunting and cattle herding. The Lower Omo valley, a home for about 200,000 population, for instance, lost 640,000 hectares to land grabs. The community and its large cattle herds (which are a source of livelihood and pride for the people) was squeezed onto 100,000 hectares - the only remaining land for human settlement and local economic activities.

60% of Nyangatom people have crossed international borders to protect their livelihoods and are wondering with their cattle around Ethio-Kenya and Ethio-South Sudan borders to protect their livelihoods. The army in large numbers are dispatched into Mursi areas where the government have started digging a canal and they are terrorising the community.

The recent villagisation programme (involuntary resettlement), for example, reinforces the policy by eroding traditional boundaries, land demarcation, grazing, hunting and fishing grounds. Previously peaceful and harmonious societies with clear tribal land boundaries, land ownership, land allotment for different purposes, unique settlement patterns, traditional environment management practices – to all this the policy of land grabbing would cause tremendous suffering to cattle, diffuse traditional boundaries and cause tension and conflicts among the communities. A FARM AFRICA report, as quoted in the Human Rights Watch Report, identified access to water points and limited grazing space for large cattle herds in the area as sources of frequent violent conflicts

Government land deals produce almost no benefits to local communities, but exposes them to extreme poverty and food insecurity, restricts their free movement, access to grazing and water points, and confines them in settlement camps. As previously mentioned, the policy has a strong ability to depopulate the local communities from these areas and to settle them in government villages. The combined effect of all this social upheaval and loss of control over one’s life practically evicts them and sends them into exile in refugee camps.

Human rights abuses are a major source of concern associated with land grabbing and involuntary settlement. In particularly, government use of military force has been implicated in murder, rape and unlawful detentions. An interviewee has echoed this sentiment stating that:

The arrival of newcomers attracted by job opportunities has deprived local communities of equal access to fertile land, led to the destruction of holy sites, and caused tensions between local people and these migrants, who are so different from us in their ways. We fear it will ultimately create tension and, eventually, a conflict that the government will not be able to control.

With a staggering 5 million hectares of fertile arable land country-wide earmarked for commercial investment, government human rights records will continue to be a source of attention. If the methods, style and strategies used to silence indigenous and pastoralist communities remains the same, the programme will continue to undermine Ethiopia’s reputation, and create a growing conflict.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls for the Ethiopian authorities to put in place strict measures to protect the rights of the indigenous communities to use land in accordance with both national and internationally recognised legal norms. The villiagisation programme reomves small-scale farmers to unproductive settlement sites without adequate social and economic infrastructures: education and health facilities, roads, markets and milling facilities. In most instances, the government discourages communities from returning to their traditional homes and farmlands by destroying their crops and homes.

The arrival of commercial farming in areas such as the Lower Omo valley, where tribal communities have lived side by side respecting land usage and settlement patterns in the past, invites far-reaching conflicts in the area. As 86% of the land mass that communities used for farming, fishing, hunting and grazing are grabbed by investors in the region, and implementation of involuntary settlement of different communities is enforced by military personnel, tensions have mounted very high in the area.

The communities fear that the policy will erode rotational farming methods that take place three times in a year to secure grazing pasture for large cattle herds in the area. As the presence of private investors restricts various traditional communities’ free movement with their cattle herds, it creates tension and unstoppable conflict. A conflict over single cattle that might cross a private investor farm would engulf the entire region into turmoil.

Despite government pressure, some in the affected communities have rejected the government plan to move them away and preferred to die on their current land. They strongly believe that commercial agricultural farming will destroy the ecological system, natural environment, holy sites, wildlife, protected and preserved trees, and reduces the areas’ ability to attract tourists.

The intention of the government is to destroy the livelihoods of indigenous people along the international border and should be taken seriously. Successive Ethiopian governments have barely cared for dark skin Ethiopians but to discriminate against them on the ground of their skin colour.

Read the full interviews here: Ethiopia’s Land Grabs: Interviews with the displaced

Nykiaw Ochalla is a director and founder of Anywaa Survival Organisation-ASO, an organisation that believes in social justice and environment friendly sustainable development without prejudice; active participation of indigenous people in decision making processes that affected their livelihoods and their full enjoyment of development projects benefits implemented on their territories.