Oromo: Global Land Grab Makes The Poor Poorer
Ethiopian agricultural and economic policies continue to undermine and discriminate Oromo communities. As the race to secure foreign food resources continues in the background of the current global financial crisis, it is the world’s most vulnerable that continue to lose out.
Below is an article published by In These Times:
A 21st-century land rush is on. Driven by fear and lured by promises of high profits, foreign investors are scooping up vast tracts of farmland in some of the world’s hungriest countries to grow crops for export.
As the climate changes and populations shift and grow, billions of people around the globe face shortages of land and water, rising food prices and increasing hunger. Alarm over a future without affordable food and water is sparking unrest in a world already tinder-dried by repression and recession, corruption and mismanagement, boundary disputes and ancient feuds, ethnic tension and religious fundamentalism.
World leaders feel the heat. Calling food security concerns “extremely significant,” a 2009 U.N. report noted, “The acquisition of land internationally is one possible strategic choice to address the challenge.”
Fortunately for nervous rulers, the strategy of growing food abroad as shelter against the fires of revolution dovetails nicely with the goals of private and public capital. Governments drawing on sovereign wealth funds, and rich investors accessing state subsidies, have negotiated deals to acquire tens of millions of acres of farmland in Africa, South America and South Asia. When they export the food to their home countries, the valuable water used to grow the crops will ride along as a free bonus.
[…]The investors are negotiating land transfers all the way from the top, with heads of states, down to tribal chiefs and impoverished landowners. Water rights, tax breaks and waivers on labor and environmental standards often sweeten the deals.
When they cannot buy land outright at prices ranging from cheap (a few dollars an acre) to stolen (“You get a bottle of Johnnie Walker, kneel down, clap three times, and make your offer of Johnnie Walker whiskey,” in one transaction reported by the Oakland Institute), investors lease vast tracts for as long as 99 years and for as little as 40 cents per acre per year.
According to the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), some 2 billion people in the developing world depend on 500 million smallholder farms for their livelihoods. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, these small farmers produce about 80 percent of the food that local people consume.
But with spectacular speed, patchworks of plots that used to support local populations through subsistence farming and grazing are being amalgamated into massive industrial plantations. In Awassa, Ethiopia, a “plastic and steel structure already stretches over 50 acres—the size of 20 soccer fields,” writes John Vidal in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
[…]By 2009, deals were being struck for 111 million acres, with 75 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a World Bank report. A year later, the bank upped the total to nearly 140 million acres.
These “land grabs,” says Lester Brown, encompass “an area that exceeds the croplands devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States.” Brown, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1987 U.N. Environment Prize, is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute.
[…] “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries,” Ethiopian Nyikaw Ochalla told Vidal. The deals are done secretly. “The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”
As foreign investors pour in—from Arab princedoms, India, South Korea, China and other nations—hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are being relocated. Many, “viewed as ‘squatters,’ are forcibly removed with no compensation,” Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute, said in a press release.
Ironically, key targets of foreign agro-investment include the world’s hungriest countries: In Ethiopia, 13 million people receive international food aid and 41 percent are undernourished. The country’s massive transfer of physical wealth to foreign corporations is overseen by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. One of the parties he controls, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, owns at least five parastatal companies and has major stakes in the agricultural products market. A carefully worded 2009 World Bank report noted that in Ethiopia “there is an impression that endowment and state-owned enterprises benefit from privileged access to policymakers and resources and are consequently able to compete on unfair terms.”
Zenawi’s regime has granted control of 1.48 million acres to foreign entities. Since 2007 it has approved at least 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects and is now offering up at least 7.4 million acres, some leased for only 40 cents per acre per year, according to the Mail & Guardian.
[…]Compensation, when it occurs, can be paltry. In Ethiopia’s Gambella region alone, 45,000 families in 49 villages have been “dislocated,” Ethiopian-born writer and filmmaker Fikre Tolossa told the Commonwealth Club of California this March. “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: [3.2 acres] per family.”
Foreign investors are banking on a better outcome: up to 25 percent profits, buoyed by loose environmental and labor regulations common in desperately poor and corrupt countries. “Lack of transparency and of checks and balances in contract negotiations creates a breeding ground for corruption,” the FAO said, adding with understatement, “and deals that do not maximize the public interest.”
The terms of Ethiopia’s land deals and how they are enforced are subject to the will of Zenawi, who was “re-elected” last year by 99.6 percent, down from 99.9 percent in 2008. The U.S. State Department has accused his authoritarian regime of serious human rights violations, including politically-motivated killings and torture by state security services. Human Rights Watch charges that “development assistance is underwriting the Ethiopian government’s repression.”
The “land grab” in Ethiopia’s Gambella and Oromia regions has elements of ethnic cleansing, says Rashid Songolo, a spokesman for Oromo Liberation Front, an Oromo people’s movement in exile. Property held by Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, has been selectively sold to foreign developers, he told In These Times, “as a form of punishment and looting for those societies that sympathize with opposition political groups like OLF. The Oromos are being displaced and forced into refugee camps all over the world and into modern day slavery, because of the new 21st-century colonization.”
Evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch tends to support this charge. It described Zenawi’s EPRDF party apparatchiks, including militias and spies, as deciding, based on loyalty, who gets donor-financed fertilizer, seeds, food aid and jobs. The New York Times reported that one farmer said he was told: “Unless you join the EPRDF, you could die and your family will starve to death.”
[…]In areas with hungry people, inadequate roads and other infrastructural deficiencies, foreign capital is sorely needed to develop more rational farming operations that can promote prosperity, food security and jobs. And there is little doubt that monoculture industrial farming, genetically engineered seeds and input from pesticides and chemical fertilizers can more quickly create higher yields than small-scale subsistence farming. Properly managed, supporters of expo-agriculture argue, investment dollars can bring educational opportunities, healthcare and the possibility of safer, higher living standards to subsistence farmers and impoverished rural populations.
Some investors also believe they are serving humanity: “Unless food production is boosted 50 percent before 2050,” said Poorter’s boss, Emergent CEO Susan Payne, “we face serious shortages globally.” Her company, which “went on record in 2007 to identify food security as the next energy security,” invests in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and is aiming for an annual return of 25 percent or more.
But just as international development aid schemes, such as USAID’s, conform to the geopolitical strategies and economic goals of the dispensing country, private investment is shaped by an inner imperative: the need to turn a profit. Whatever the investors promise, or however decent they are as individuals, their bottom line is the bottom line.
“There is a real risk that the current scramble for land will transfer wealth from the poor and the marginalized to those who have access to capital and markets, with deeply regressive consequences,” warned UN Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter.
And as with many previous development plans, unintended consequences may pile up the human and economic costs. The investor country’s sought-after political and food stability may translate into instability in the host country, and that in turn may boomerang back on the investors and their backers. “This [land grab] is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat to global security than terrorism,” says the Oakland Institute’s Mousseau.
[…]A pro-Oromia website warned that the situation in Ethiopia offered the “potential for a catastrophic unrest and poses a huge security headache not only for the country but for the whole world.”
These targeted peoples decry the new “land grab” as a more sophisticated incarnation of old colonialism—driven today by a tangle of factors, including climate change, population growth, fear of social unrest, diminishing water and land, trade restrictions, erosion and pollution, the volatility of commodity prices and markets, speculation, the energy crisis, agro-energy/biofuel production, the global financial crisis, carbon trading and on and on.
[…]From either viewpoint, it is clear that the geopolitics of food scarcity has undergone a major shift. Land is the new gold and mining it for export food, extracting its water to incorporate into crops and taking advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental laws are now, as Brown puts it, “integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.”[…]
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