The UK government is providing financial aid to human rights abusers in Ethiopia through funding training paramilitaries, who perpetrate summary killings, rape and torture in the impoverished African country, local media reported.
Through its foreign aid budget, the UK government provides financial support to an Ethiopian government security force known as the “special police” as part of its “peace and development programme”, which would cost up to £15 million in five years, The Guardian reported. The Department for International Development warned in a leaked document of the “reputational risks” of working with organizations that are “frequently cited in human rights violation allegations”, according to the report. The Ethiopian government’s counter-insurgency campaign in Ogaden, a troubled region largely populated by ethnic Somalis is being enforced by the 14,000-strong special police. This is while police forces are repeatedly accused by Human Rights Watch of serious human rights abuses. Claire Beston, the Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, said it was highly concerning that Britain was planning to work with the paramilitary force.
By Graham Peebles
To many people land is much more than a resource or corporate commodity to be bought developed and sold for a profit. Identity, cultural history and livelihood are all connected to ‘place’. The erosion of traditional values and morality (which include the observation of human rights and environmental responsibility) are some of the many negative effects of the global neo-liberal economic model, with its focus on short-term gain and material benefit. The commercialization of everything and everybody has become the destructive goal of multi-nationals, and their corporate governments manically driven by the desire for perpetual growth as the elixir to life’s problems.
Land for profit
Since the ‘food crisis in 2008’ agricultural land in developing countries has been in high demand. Seen as a sound financial investment by foreign brokers and agrochemical firms, and as a way to create food security for their home market by corporations from Asia and the Middle East in particular.
Three quarters of worldwide land acquisitions have taken place in Sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty ridden and economically vulnerable countries (many run by governments with poor human rights records) are ‘encouraged’ to attract foreign investment by donor partners and their international guides. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and donor partners, powerful institutions that by “supporting the creation of investment-friendly climates and land markets in developing countries” have been a driving force behind the global rush for agricultural land, the Oakland Institute (OI) report in Unheard Voices (UV)[i].
Poor countries make easy pickings for multi-nationals negotiating deals for prime land at giveaway prices and with all manner of government sweeteners. Contracts sealed without consultation with local people, which lack transparency and accountability, have virtually no benefit for the ‘host’ country (certainly none for indigenous groups), and as Oxfam[ii] make clear “have resulted in dispossession, deception, violation of human rights and destruction of livelihoods”.
Ethiopia is a prime target for investors looking to acquire agricultural land. Since 2008 The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has leased almost 4 million hectares, for commercial farm ventures. Land is cheap – they are virtually giving it away, tax is non-existent and profits (like the food grown) are smoothly repatriated. Local people are swept aside by a government unconcerned with human rights and the observation of federal, or international, law. A perfect environment then, where shady deals can be done and large corporate profits made. In their desperation to be seen as one of the ‘growth gang’ and “to make way for agricultural land investments”, the Ethiopian government has “committed egregious human rights abuses, in direct violation of international law,” OI state.
Forced from home
Bordering South Sudan the fertile Gambella region (where 42% of land is available), with its lush vegetation and flowing rivers, is where the majority of land sales in the country have taken place. Deals in the region are made possible by the EPRDF’s ‘villagisation programme’. This is forcibly clearing indigenous people off ancestral land and herding them into State created villages. The plan has been intensely criticised by human rights groups, and rightly so – 1.5 million people nationwide are destined to be re-settled, 225,000 (over three years) from Gambella.
More concerned to be seen as corporate buddy than guardian of the people, the Ethiopian government guarantees investors that it will clear land leased of everything and everyone. It has an obligation, OI says, to “deliver and hand over the vacant possession of leased land free of impediments”, swept clear of people, villages, forests and wildlife, and fully plumbed into local water supplies. Bulldozers are destroying the “farms, and grazing lands that have sustained Anuak, Mezenger, Nuer, Opo, and Komo peoples for centuries”, Cultural Survival (CS)[iii] records: and dissent, should it occur, is brutally dealt with by the government, that promises to “provide free security against any riot, disturbance or any turbulent time”. (OI) ‘Since you do not accept what government says, we jail you.’” The elder told from Batpul village told Human Rights Watch (HRW) [iv]. He was jailed without charge in Abobo, and held for more than two weeks, during which time “they turned me upside down, tied my legs to a pole, and beat me every day for 17 days until I was released”.
Hundreds of thousands of villagers, including pastoralists and indigenous people are being forcibly moved by the regime, HRW reports, they are “relocating them through violence and intimidation, and often without essential services,” such as education (denying children ‘the right to education’), water, and health care facilities – public services promised to the people and championed to donor countries by the government in their programme rhetoric.
Murder, rape, false imprisonment and torture are (reportedly) being committed by the Ethiopian military as they implement the federal governments policy of land clearance and re-settlement in accordance with its villagisation programme. ”My village was forced by the government to move to the new location against our will. I refused and was beaten and lost my two upper teeth”. This Anuak man told the NGO Inclusive Development International (IDI)[v], His brother “was beaten to death by the soldiers for refusing to go to the new village. My second brother was detained and I don’t know where he was taken by the soldiers”.
To the Anuak People, who are the majority tribal group in the affected areas, their land is who they are. It’s where the material to build their homes is found it’s their source of traditional medicines and food. It’s where their ancestors are buried and where their history rests. By driving these people off their land and into large settlements or camps, the government is not only destroying their homes, in which they have lived for generations, it is stealing their identity. Indigenous people tell of violent intimidation, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in military custody, rape and extra-judicial killing. State criminality breaching a range of international and indeed federal laws, that Genocide Watch (GW)[vi] consider “to have already reached Stage 7 (of 8), genocide massacres”, against the Anuak, as well as the people of Oromia, Omo and the Ogaden region.
The Ethiopian government is legally bound to obtain the ‘free, informed and prior consent’ of the indigenous people it plans to move. Far from obtaining consent, Niykaw Ochalla in Unheard Voices, states that, “when [the government] comes to take their land, it is without their knowledge, and in fact [the government] says that they no longer belonged to this land, [even though] the Anuak have owned it for generations”. Consultation, consent and compensation the ‘three c’s required by federal and international law. Constitutional duties and legal requirements, which like a raft of other human rights obligations the regime dutifully ignores. Nyikaw Ochalla confirms that “there is “no consultation at all”, sometimes people are warned they have to move, but just as often OI found the military “instruct people to get up and move the same day”. And individuals receive no compensation “for their loss of livelihood and land”. In extensive research The Oakland Institute “did not find any instances of government compensation being paid to indigenous populations evicted from their lands”, this despite binding legal requirements to do so.
‘Waiting here for death’
The picture of state intimidation in Gambella is a familiar one. Refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, recount stories of the same type of abuse, indeed as do people from Oromia and the Lower Omo valley. Tried and tested Government methodology used to enforce repressive measures and create fear amongst the people. “The first mission for all the military and the Liyuu is to make the people of the Ogaden region afraid of us”, a former commander of the Liyuu police told me. And to achieve this crushing end, they are told “to rape and kill, to loot, to burn their homes, and capture their animals”. From a wealth of information collated by HRW and the OI, it is clear that the Ethiopian military in Gambella is following the same criminal script as their compatriots in the Ogaden region.
We were at home on our farm, a 17-year-old girl from Abobo in Gambella (whose story echoes many), told HRW[vii] “when soldiers came up to us: ‘Do you accept to be relocated or not?’ ‘No.’ So they grabbed some of us. ‘Do you want to go now?’ ‘No.’ Then they shot my father and killed him”; a villager from Gooshini, now in exile in South Sudan, described how those in his settlement “that resisted…. were forced by soldiers to roll around in the mud in a stagnant water pool then beaten”.
The new settlements that make up the villagisation programme, are built on land that is “typically dry and arid”, completely unsuitable for farming and miles from water supplies, which are reserved for the industrial farms being constructed on fertile ancestral land. The result is increased food insecurity leading in some cases to starvation. HRW documented cases of people being forced off their land during the “harvest season, preventing them from harvesting their crops”. With such levels of cruelty and inhumanity the people feel desperate as one displaced individual told Human Rights Watch, “The government is killing our people through starvation and hunger . . . we are just waiting here for death”.
And should families try to leave the new settlement (something they are discouraged from doing) and return to their village homes, the government destroys them totally, burning houses and bulldozing the land. “The government brought the Anuak people here to die. They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can’t even move back,” HRW record in ‘Waiting Here for Death’[viii]. People forced into the new villages are fearful of government assault, parents “are afraid to send their children to school because of the increased army presence. Parents worry that their children will be assaulted”. (UV)
In the face of such government atrocities the people feel powerless; but like many suffering injustice throughout the world, they are awakening demanding justice and the observation of fundamental human rights. “We don’t have any means of retrieving our land” Mr.O from the village of Pinykew in Gambella, told The Guardian (22/01/2013)[ix]. “Villagers have been butchered, falsely arrested and tortured, the women subjected to mass rape”. Enraged by such atrocities, he is bringing what could be a landmark legal case against Britain’s Department for International Development (DfiD). Leigh Day & Co, solicitors based in London, have taken the case, “arguing that money from DfiD is funding the villagisation programme”, that “breaches the department’s own human rights policies.” DfiD administer the £324 million given by the British government to Ethiopia, making it the biggest recipient of aid from the country. They deny supporting forced re-location, but their own documents reveal British funds are paying the salaries “of officials implementing the programme and for infrastructure in new villages”, The Daily Mail 25/05/2013 [x] reports. Allegations reinforced by HRW, who state that “British aid is having an enormous, negative side effect – and that is the forcible ending of these indigenous people’s way of life.” (Ibid)
In an account that rings with familiarity, Mr.O, now in Dadaab refugee camp, says he was forced from his village at gunpoint by the military. At first he refused to leave, so “soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) beat me with guns.” He was arrested, imprisoned in military barracks and tortured for three days, after which time he was taken to the new village, which “did not have water, food or productive fields”, where he was forced to build his house.
Government duplicity donor complicity
The government unsurprisingly denies all allegations of widespread human rights abuse connected with land deals and the ‘villagisation programme’ specifically. They continue to espouse the ‘promised public service and infrastructure benefits’ of the scheme that “by and large” OI assert, “have failed to materialise”. The regime is content to ignore documentation provided by human rights groups and NGOs and until recently had refused to cooperate with an investigation by the World Bank into allegations of abuse raised by indigenous Anuak people. The Bank incidentally that gives Ethiopia more financial aid than any other developing country, $920 million last year alone. Former regional president Omod Obang Olum oversaw the plan in Gambella and assures us resettlement is “voluntary” and “the programme successful”. Predictable duplicitous comments that IDI said “are laughable.”
An independent non-profit group working to advance human rights in development, IDI, has helped the Anuak people from Gambella “submit a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel implicating the Bank in grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian Government“. The complaint alleges, “that the Anuak people have been severely harmed by the World Bank-financed and administered Providing Basic Services Project (PBS)”. A major development porgramme which is described as “expanding access and improving the quality of basic services in education, health, agriculture, water supply and sanitation”, OI report[xi]. However IDI make clear that “villagisation is the principle vehicle through which PBS is being implemented in Gambella”, and claim “there is “credible evidence” of “gross human rights violations” being committed in the region by the Ethiopian military. Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that donors are “paying for the construction of schools, health clinics, roads, and water facilities in the new [resettlement] villages. They are also funding agricultural programs directed towards resettled populations and the salaries of the local government officials who are implementing the policy”. (Ibid)
IDI’s serious allegations further support those made by many people from the region and Mr.O in his legal action against the DfID. The Banks inspection panel have said the “two programmes (PBS and villagisation) depend one each other, and may mutually influence the results of the other.” The panel found “there is a plausible link between the two programmes but needs to engage in further fact-finding”. It is imperative the bank’s Inspection Panel have unrestricted access to Gambella and people feel safe to speak openly about the governments brutality.
All groups involved in land sales have both a moral duty – a civil responsibility – and a legal obligation to the people whose land is being leased. The Ethiopian government, the foreign corporations leasing the land and the donors – the World Bank and DfID, who, through PBS are funding the villagisation programme.
The Ethiopian government is in violation of a long list of international treatise that, in- keeping with their democratic pretentions, they are happy to sign up to, but less enthusiastic to observe. From the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and all points legal in between. Investors if not legally obliged, are certainly morally bound by the United Nations (UN) “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework,[xii] which, amongst other things, makes clear their duty to respect and work within human rights. Donor’s responsibility first and last is, to the people of Ethiopia, to ensure any so-called ‘development’ programmes (that commonly focus on economic targets), support their needs, ensures their wellbeing and observes their fundamental human rights.
To continue to turn a blind eye to widespread government abuse, and to support schemes, whether directly or indirectly, that violate human rights and cause suffering to the people is to be complicit to State criminality that is shattering the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, in Gambella and indeed elsewhere in the country.
[xi] Development Assistance Group Ethiopia, PBS, (accessed May 2013).
– See more at: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/29243-land-in-gambella.html#sthash.KSyJ2R3d.dpuf
Ethiopians Rise and Fight for Your land !!!
Mohammed Ali Al-Amoudi The criminal who sold Ethiopian farm land to the Saudis shows his true animosity to Ethiopia at last… by intriguing and revealing his true identity… He is showing rice sample to Saudis while the Ethiopians are starving to death. He became the agent of death for the starving Ethiopians … a wolf in goat skin the enemy of the starving Ethiopians… We demand intimidately the Soudis rather invest to help Ethiopians not to starve them by taking their fertile lands and immidately needed food for the 20 million strong starving hungry Ethiopians………… the coming new government which will be the government of the people in Ethiopia will not respect the land Grab Deal of Ali Al-Amoudi & Melese Zenawi regime in Addis Ababa… Be ware and be careful where you put your money in vain…
25 Years ago of Band Aide Ethiopia is Worst even today losing their land for the Grabber Amoudi…
India joins ‘neocolonial’ rush for Africa’s land and labour
India, once the colonial jewel of Britain’s empire, has been accused of ‘neo-colonialism’ in Africa where its business people have joined a race with China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to buy up agricultural estates and take advantage of cheap labour.
By Dean Nelson in New Delhi
Published: 1:46PM BST 28 Jun 2009
Indian farming companies have bought hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique, where they are growing rice, sugar cane, maize and lentils for their own domestic market back in India.
Its government has given soft loans as aid to support the overseas ventures in what has been described as a challenge to China and Saudi Arabia in the new scramble for Africa. China, South Korea, and a several Arab countries have led the way in creating new African mega-farms to outsource domestic food production and use cheaper labour.
Indian owner of Jaguar pledges revival of a style icon
Critics have described the development as modern “piracy” and “land grabbing” from countries that have in the past been blighted by famine and severe food shortages.
South Korea has bought just under 700,000 hectares in Sudan, while Saudi Arabia has signed a deal for 500,000 hectares in Tanzania.
India is now catching up fast with its government offering financial incentives for companies to produce food in Ethiopia and other African countries. Pulses, cooking oils and maize are in short supply in India.
More than 80 Indian companies have invested an estimated £1.5 billion in buying huge plantations in Ethiopia. The largest among them is Karuturi Global, one of the world’s largest producers of cut roses. It has signed deals for just under 350,000 hectares to create what it claims is the world’s largest agricultural land-bank. The Bangalore-based company, which has also bought farm land in Kenya, is growing sugar cane, palm oil, rice and vegetables.
Indian farming is dominated by small, family-run holdings, bullock cart transport, and legions of middlemen. The slow, cumbersome system is cited as the main reason why a large proportion of Indian produce rots before it ever reaches the market – the annual loss is valued at up to £6 billion.
So Indian companies see in Africa the possibility to build more efficient and far larger agricultural operations. This is an separate motivation from that of many Arab countries that buy African land to produce food that their homelands cannot.
Raju Poosapati, Vice President of India’s Yes Bank, which advises investors in Africa, said a government ban on non-Basmati rice exports had driven Indian companies to grow it in Africa to sell overseas. Indians are now eating more meat and that has led many companies to grow maize animal feed in Africa as there are no government incentives for Indian farmers to grow it at home.
Sharad Pawar, India’s agriculture minister, rejected claims that the government supported a new colonisation of African farmland. “Some companies are interested in buying agricultural land for sugar cane and then selling it on the international markets. It’s business, nothing more,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
Government documents meanwhile show the details of official support, and just of under £500 million in soft loans to encourage African countries to export food to India. New Delhi has also cut import duties for food produced in Ethiopia.
A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said more than 2.5 hectares of African land had been bought by foreign companies since 2004 and voiced concerns that poor villagers might be ousted to make way for investments. It also said it feared some of the deals may be open to corruption.
Devinder Sharma of India’s Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security said the companies buying up land to export food from Africa were “food pirates” and compared them with the English companies that shipped food from Ireland during the 19th century potato famine.
“There are 80 Indian companies trying to get land in Ethiopia, and it’s all to be imported back to India. The government of India has been encouraging them,” he said, and warned of danger if famine returned to Africa.
“If food is being shipped out and poor people are dying, what will happen? There would be riots,” he said.
A consortium of Saudi businessmen is to invest $266million (1 billion Saudi Riyals) buying land in Sudan and Ethiopia to produce food solely for export to Saudi Arabia…..
Saudi to buy large chunks of Ethiopian land
A consortium of five Saudi business men has pledged an investment of $266 million into agricultural projects in Sudan and Ethiopia. The projects will lease land in the two countries to produce food for export to Saudi Arabia. The Ethiopian portion of the deal was reached as part of a wide ranging programme of investments signed by Saudi agriculture minister Fahd Balghunaim and Ethiopian Finance minister Sufian Ahmed.
In Sudan, a Saudi Arabian firm Hail Agricultural Development Cooperation (HADCO) has leased 22,830 acres (roughly the size of the French capital, Paris) in the northern part of the country. The deal worth $45.3 million sees HADCO lease the land for 48 years to grow wheat and corn for export to Saudi Arabia and gives the firm an option to acquire a further 80,940 acres.
The investment deals are part of an initiative by the Saudi Arabian government to secure food security for the Kingdom by acquiring fertile land in neighbouring countries with sole aim of providing food supplies for the country.
This is part of a trend that has seen an increasing amount of “food Security” investments by Asian countries in Africa. In Madagascar the recent coup was triggered by amongst other reasons opposition to the deal between the former government and South Korea to lease land the size of Belgium to the Korean firm Daewoo to grow and export food back to South Korea.
Face of 1984 Ethiopia famine says food aid does not help
Television pictures of three-year-old Ethiopian Birhan Woldu’s emaciated face became the iconic image which moved the world to one of its greatest ever acts of charity.
By Mike Pflanz in Nairobi
Published: 6:41PM BST 22 Oct 2009
This is an image from television taken early November 1984 of Birhan Weldu after arriving at a relief station in Mekele, Ethiopia Photo: AP
But 25 years after Michael Buerk’s broadcasts from Ethiopia’s 1984 famine, Miss Birhan said the kind of food handouts which once kept her alive are today failing Africa’s poorest.
“Twenty-five years ago, my life was saved by Irish nursing sisters who gave me an injection, and food from organisations like Band Aid,” said Birhan Woldu, now 28.
“So it may seem strange for me to say now that to get food aid from overseas is not the best way.
“As well as being demeaning to our dignity, my education has taught me that constantly shipping food is costly, uneconomic, and can encourage dependency.”
Prompted by Mr Buerk’s BBC reports, and others in Canada and the US, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered international pop stars for the 1984 Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas and the Live Aid concert in 1985.
In total more than £150 million was raised in what was the largest international aid appeal until the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Miss Birhan’s comments came in a foreword she wrote for an Oxfam report released yesterday which urged urgent changes to international aid policies.
A focus on emergency aid wastes precious funding which should instead be targeted at preparing people in drought-hit areas for crises which are predicted to increase due to climate change, it argues.
Longer and more regular droughts have today pushed almost 23 million people across Africa’s east and north-east close to starvation once again.
More than seven per cent of all aid given to developing countries – ” including money intended to tackle corruption, build roads and improve health and education – is still in the form of humanitarian relief.
In Ethiopia, 91 per cent of humanitarian aid given so far in 2009 has been food. Only 0.14 per cent of aid is spent on preparing people for future droughts, Oxfam said.
“We know our vulnerabilities. We are a proud people,” Miss Birhan continued. “Let us grow our own food and help manage our own systems so we are not hit so hard when the next drought or flood comes.
“We need to approach disasters in a different way, that is more dignified and more sustainable than imported food aid.”
The government in Addis Ababa has been praised in recent years for its efforts to prepare its citizens for droughts.
But yesterday it was forced to ask for £75 million to help feed six million Ethiopians currently facing starvation. Three million of them are under-18 and most vulnerable to malnutrition, according to Save The Children.
Other survivors of the 1984 famine supported Miss Birhan’s statements.
“It seems to us that too often the money comes after a disaster is already here,” said Ebrahim Jemal, 30, now an aid worker with Care International, whose life was also saved with emergency food 25 years ago.
“By that time, we cannot say that we do not want the food. It will save us.
“But it is better for us, and cheaper for the West, in the long run if more money comes for early warning programmes or better roads or schools, to prepare us before a crisis starts.”
Ethiopia on brink of famine again as Midge Ure returns 25 years after Band Aid Midge Ure returns to the Ethiopian villages he helped save 25 years ago with Band Aid only to find malnutrition is once again killing children.By Nick Meo in Ayub
Twenty-five years ago, the farmers of Ayub village were reduced to living skeletons with bloated stomachs, certain of death. When emergency food rations turned up – seemingly by miracle – they fell on them without ever being sure how they reached the remote mountain hamlets. What most assumed was the mercy of God was in fact the work of a softly-spoken Scottish pop star, a man who had never set foot in Ethiopia, but who helped organise one of the most remarkable acts of charity in British history.
This week Midge Ure, the lead singer of Ultravox and the producer and songwriter for Band Aid, returned to Ethiopia to visit the villages which had been swept by terrible famine in 1984. What he saw did not please him.
The crops were again withered – and once more, local children are dying because of drought and malnutrition.
“It is desperately sad to see hungry children in Ethiopia again,” Ure, 56, told The Sunday Telegraph, as he toured an infant feeding centre where, in the past few weeks, four under-fives have died of diarrhoea and other hunger-related diseases.
Other babies were already painfully thin, and being fed on a vitamin-enhanced, sweet-tasting peanut paste called plumpy nut, which, it is hoped, will save their lives.
“Ethiopia has come a long way,” he said. “At least children here have been caught in time and the images aren’t like 1984, with mass deaths. But the fear is, if these people don’t get more help, that’s what we could see here again.”
His trip, to mark 25 years since Band Aid, was planned months ago to show how life had got better in villages which were a once a byword for terrible poverty. Clinics and schools have been built, and a rudimentary system of modest welfare payments has been set up to give a modicum of security to the poorest, who always perish first in a famine.
But Ethiopia’s rural population still depends on rain to grow crops, and now they have gone three years of drought in a row, just as they did during the early 1980s. As a result, villagers who survived 1984 and prayed it would never happen again are once more at famine’s edge.
Back then, those with the strength to do so in Ayub village dragged themselves ten miles to a place called Korum, where they found an isolated feeding station.
Thousands were saved there – but for many of those already in the latter stages of starvation, it was too late. They died in droves. The horrific scenes of filth and death were recorded for a television broadcast by the BBC journalist Michael Buerk that shocked Britain and inspired an extraordinary relief effort.
“The bodies of my neighbours lay in their huts, with their families either dead, or too weak to bury them,” said Shashe Fentau, 45, with a shudder of horror at the memory. We only survived then because of food aid.
“Now we have eaten all our stores and we are selling our cattle. It feels like the same thing is happening again. We are very scared. We have little to eat. In our village we know that hunger doesn’t kill you quickly. It is slow to take effect.”
Mrs Fentau, a mother of five, did not recognise the foreigner who turned up in her village last week with aid workers from Save the Children UK, asking questions about life and death in Ethiopia’s highlands. She had no idea that Ure may well have saved her life a quarter of a century ago.
It was after watching the harrowing BBC broadcast that he and ex-Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof galvanised a group of pop stars to form Band Aid and produced the single “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, which raised millions in famine relief donations.
The food they bought was sent to villages like Ayub, much of it hurled out of the backs of aircraft – the only way of getting it to mountain communities, which at that time had no proper roads.
Unlike 1984-85, when a million died, there are good roads now, while the Soviet-backed military regime has been replaced by a government which shows rather more interest in its peoples’ survival. Yet Ethiopia remains the fifth poorest nation in the world, according to last year’s World Bank GDP figures, and is once again at risk of mass starvation.
Ure arrived last week just as Ethiopia’s government issued an urgent appeal for donors to feed 6.2 million hungry farmers and their families. The World Food Programme estimates that 125,000 metric tonnes of grain are needed, at a cost of £54 million, to fill the gaping hole in the nation’s food supplies.
Aid groups fear the real number at risk may be more than double that – putting more than one in ten of Ethiopia’s 80 million people at risk – because another 7.2 million depend on a government welfare scheme that is only intended to tide peasant farmers over for a hungry spell before the harvest. This year, the crops lie withered in the fields in much of the country, including Ayub village.
Dressed in a baseball cap and casual shirt, Ure looked more like an aid worker than the flamboyant rock star whose hit Vienna re-defined the New Romantic sound of the early 1980s. He visited without an entourage or PR executives, flew the 8-hour journey from London in economy class and stayed in a run-down hotel in the highlands with no hot water that cost £13 a night. He brought with him his 14-year-old daughter, Kitty, so she could see what life was like in an African village.
“I first came here in 1985 on a transport plane and stayed for 12 hours,” he said. “I swore I would never return. I went to a feeding centre outside Addis Ababa for children who were supposed to be on the mend. Three babies had died that morning.
“It was full of skeletal children with extended bellies. It was horrifying – just too much to handle for a 29-year-old pop star.”
But on this trip, he spent his time speaking to farmers, experts and officials, discussing crop yields, deforestation, rainfall patterns, and rural demography with a knowledge well beyond that of the average celebrity doing their bit for charity. One other star, who visited Africa on a private jet to promote a disease prevention campaign recently, was unaware that malaria was transferred to humans by mosquitoes.
Ayub village is typical of the Ethiopian highlands, with thatched, round mud-huts ringed by cactus and thorn hedges to keep out herds of long-horned oxen. The animals wander dirt tracks, kept in order by small boys with sticks who take them out to graze.
Groups of smiling schoolgirls with braided hair and patched clothes walk past on their way to the local school building – a sign of progress. Despite its tragic past, the region has become a tourist attraction, with backpackers drawn by its beautiful mountain landscapes.
Ayub took years to recover from the disaster of 1984; since then the population has doubled, as it has nationally. But that has forced farmers to divide their land into ever-smaller plots for their sons, and to cut down the surrounding forests for fuel, destroying a source of forage they had relied on at times of hardship.
The landscape is still surprisingly green; yet most farmers suffer real hardship because the rains did not fall at the right time for their crops.
“When the rains don’t come, hope is lost,” said Teshome Laile, a 48-year-old health expert with Save the Children.
“The government does care about the people, unlike the old regime, but they don’t have enough resources, and the problem is big. Agriculture is not modernised, farmers are dependant on rainfall. So if rain doesn’t fall, farmers are in trouble.”
Mrs Fentau, a survivor of 1984, gestured at a sickly, thin crop of maize next to her hut, which had not received enough water to produce anything edible.
Ure admitted that the feeling of achievement he felt at visiting villages kept alive by Band Aid in the 1980s was tempered by the fear he could see in the eyes of farmers now.
“I think there is a good chance that a lot of people we have met survived years ago thanks to food paid for by Band Aid,” he said. “They are alive because people in Britain simply bought a record.
“But these lands are still desperately poor. What could really change things here is long-term development, if money could be raised for that. Saving lives is newsworthy. Long-term development is boring.”
Band Aid has raised £150 million since the record was released, and it still generates money every Christmas. Ure admits that it wasn’t his finest song – the singer Morrissey, a critic of Band Aid who claimed the project was self-righteous, once described listening to it as “torture”. Ure is more combative, however, over the claim that pop stars use charity work to promote their own careers.
“I do this kind of thing because I think it is important to try to help,” he said. “You don’t sell any more records by doing this, there is no ulterior motive. The charities ask celebrities to make these trips because they work in attracting public attention.”
He added: “It did its job and has a place in many people’s hearts. The money raised was a drop in the ocean really, but it still saved a lot of starving people. We made charity cool for a whole new audience – before Band Aid, giving had been a worthy thing, confined to do-gooders and Blue Peter.”
Today, though, he is doubtful that its success can ever be repeated, partly because he believes rock stars no longer have the following or influence that they had in the early 1980s.
“I performed at the Live 8 concert in Edinburgh four years ago and the attitude was very different. People came for a concert, not for a cause.”
“In 1984 there was something real and honest and genuine about what happened. People in Britain didn’t want to see people in Africa starving to death. They wanted to help – and thanks to them there are thousands of people in Ethiopian villages who are alive today.”
New York Times Magazine | November 22, 2009
By ANDREW RICE
Dr. Robert Zeigler, an eminent American botanist, flew to Saudi Arabia in March for a series of high-level discussions about the future of the kingdom’s food supply. Saudi leaders were frightened: heavily dependent on imports, they had seen the price of rice and wheat, their dietary staples, fluctuate violently on the world market over the previous three years, at one point doubling in just a few months. The Saudis, rich in oil money but poor in arable land, were groping for a strategy to ensure that they could continue to meet the appetites of a growing population, and they wanted Zeigler’s expertise.
There are basically two ways to increase the supply of food: find new fields to plant or invent ways to multiply what existing ones yield. Zeigler runs the International Rice Research Institute, which is devoted to the latter course, employing science to expand the size of harvests. During the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, the institute’s laboratory developed “miracle rice,” a high-yielding strain that has been credited with saving millions of people from famine. Zeigler went to Saudi Arabia hoping that the wealthy kingdom might offer money for the basic research that leads to such technological breakthroughs. Instead, to his surprise, he discovered that the Saudis wanted to attack the problem from the opposite direction. They were looking for land.
In a series of meetings, Saudi government officials, bankers and agribusiness executives told an institute delegation led by Zeigler that they intended to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations like Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. “They laid out this incredible plan,” Zeigler recalled. He was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world’s most famished continent, can’t currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets.
The American scientist was catching a glimpse of an emerging test of the world’s food resources, one that has begun to take shape over the last year, largely outside the bounds of international scrutiny. A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa. According to a recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land is the billion-acre Guinea Savannah zone, a crescent-shaped swath that runs east across Africa all the way to Ethiopia, and southward to Congo and Angola.
Foreign investors — some of them representing governments, some of them private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also feeds more Africans. (More than a third of the continent’s population is malnourished.) They’ve found that impoverished governments are often only too welcoming, offering land at giveaway prices. A few transactions have received significant publicity, like Kenya’s deal to lease nearly 100,000 acres to the Qatari government in return for financing a new port, or South Korea’s agreement to develop almost 400 square miles in Tanzania. But many other land deals, of near-unprecedented size, have been sealed with little fanfare.
Investors who are taking part in the land rush say they are confronting a primal fear, a situation in which food is unavailable at any price. Over the 30 years between the mid-1970s and the middle of this decade, grain supplies soared and prices fell by about half, a steady trend that led many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself. But in 2006, the situation reversed, in concert with a wider commodities boom. Food prices increased slightly that year, rose by a quarter in 2007 and skyrocketed in 2008. Surplus-producing countries like Argentina and Vietnam, worried about feeding their own populations, placed restrictions on exports. American consumers, if they noticed the food crisis at all, saw it in modestly inflated supermarket bills, especially for meat and dairy products. But to many countries — not just in the Middle East but also import-dependent nations like South Korea and Japan — the specter of hyperinflation and hoarding presented an existential threat.
“When some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency,” said Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development. Sitting in his office in Dubai, overlooking the cargo-laden wooden boats moored along the city’s creek, Hamdi told me his view, that the only way to assure food security is to control the means of production.
Hamdi’s agency, which coordinates investments on behalf of 20 member states, has recently announced several projects, including a tentative $250 million joint venture with two private companies, which is slated to receive heavy subsidies from a Saudi program called the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad. He said the main fields of investment for the project would most likely be Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with favorable climates that are situated just across the Red Sea. Hamdi waved a sheaf of memos that had just arrived on his desk, which he said were from another partner, Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a billionaire member of the royal family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, who has shown interest in acquiring land in Sudan and Eritrea. “There is no problem about money,” Hamdi said. “It’s about where and how.”
A long the dirt road that runs to Lake Ziway, a teardrop in the furrow of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, farmers drove their donkey carts past a little orange-domed Orthodox church, and the tombs of their ancestors, decorated with vivid murals of horses and cattle. Between clusters of huts that looked as if they were constructed of matchsticks, there were wide-open wheat fields, where skinny young men were tilling the soil with wooden plows and teams of oxen. And then, nearing the lake, a fence appeared, closing off the countryside behind taut strings of barbed wire.
All through the Rift Valley region, my travel companion, an Ethiopian economist, had taken to pointing out all the new fence posts, standing naked and knobby like freshly cut saplings — mundane signifiers, he said, of the recent rush for Ethiopian land. In the old days, he told me, farmers rarely bothered with such formal lines of demarcation, but now the country’s earth is in demand. This fence, though, was different from the others — it stretched on for a mile or more. Behind it, we could glimpse a vast expanse of dark volcanic soil, recently turned over by tractors. “So,” said my guide, “this belongs to the sheik.”
He meant Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, a Saudi Arabia-based oil-and-construction billionaire who was born in Ethiopia and maintains a close relationship with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s autocratic regime. (Fear of both men led my guide to say he didn’t want to be identified by name.) Over time, Al Amoudi, one of the world’s 50 richest people, according to Forbes, has used his fortune and political ties to amass control over large portions of Ethiopia’s private sector, including mines, hotels and plantations on which he grows tea, coffee, rubber and japtropha, a plant that has enormous promise as a biofuel. Since the global price spike, he has been getting into the newly lucrative world food trade.
Ethiopia might seem an unlikely hotbed of agricultural investment. To most of the world, the country is defined by images of famine: about a million people died there during the drought of the mid-1980s, and today about four times that many depend on emergency food aid. But according to the World Bank, as much as three-quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not under cultivation, and agronomists say that with substantial capital expenditure, much of it could become bountiful. Since the world food crisis, Zenawi, a former Marxist rebel who has turned into a champion of private capital, has publicly said he is “very eager” to attract foreign farm investors by offering them what the government describes as “virgin land.” An Ethiopian agriculture ministry official recently told Reuters that he has identified more than seven million acres. The government plans to lease half of it before the next harvest, at the dirt-cheap annual rate of around 50 cents per acre. “We are associated with hunger, although we have enormous investment opportunities,” explained Abi Woldemeskel, director general of the Ethiopian Investment Agency. “So that negative perception has to be changed through promotion.”
The government’s pliant attitude, along with Ethiopia’s convenient location, has made it an ideal target for Middle Eastern investors like Mohammed Al Amoudi. Not long ago, a newly formed Al Amoudi company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development, announced its plans to obtain the rights to more than a million acres — a land mass the size of Delaware — in the apparent hope of capitalizing on the Saudi government’s initiative to subsidize overseas staple-crop production. At a pilot site in the west of the country, he’s already cultivating rice. Earlier this year, amid great fanfare marking the start of the program, Al Amoudi personally presented the first shipment from the farm to King Abdullah in Riyadh. Meanwhile, in the Rift Valley region, another subsidiary is starting to grow fruits and vegetables for export to the Persian Gulf.
Al Amoudi’s plans raise a recurring question surrounding investment in food production: who will reap the benefits? As we drove down to the waterside, through fields dotted with massive sycamores, a farm supervisor told me that the 2,000-acre enterprise currently produces food for the local market, but there were plans to irrigate with water from the lake, and to shift the focus to exports. In the distance, dozens of laborers were bent to the ground, planting corn and onions.
Later, when I asked a couple of workers how much they were paid, they said nine birr each day, or around 75 cents. It wasn’t much, but Al Amoudi’s defenders say that’s the going rate for farm labor in Ethiopia. They argue that his investments are creating jobs, improving the productivity of dormant land and bringing economic development to rural communities. “We have achieved what the government hasn’t done for how many years,” says Arega Worku, an Ethiopian who is an agriculture adviser to Al Amoudi. (Al Amoudi declined to be interviewed.) Ethiopian journalists and opposition figures, however, have questioned the economic benefits of the deals, as well as Al Amoudi’s cozy relationship with the ruling party.
By far the most powerful opposition, however, surrounds the issue of land rights — a problem of historic proportions in Ethiopia. Just down the road from the farm on Lake Ziway, I caught sight of a gray-bearded man wearing a weathered pinstripe blazer, who was crouched over a ditch, washing his shoes. I stopped to ask him about the fence, and before long, a large group of villagers gathered around to tell me a resentful story. Decades ago, they said, during the rule of a Communist dictatorship in Ethiopia, the land was confiscated from them. After that dictatorship was overthrown, Al Amoudi took over the farm in a government privatization deal, over the futile objections of the displaced locals. The billionaire might consider the land his, but the villagers had long memories, and they angrily maintained that they were its rightful owners.
Throughout Africa, the politics of land is linked to the grim reality of hunger. Famines, typically produced by some combination of weather, pestilence and bad governance, break out with merciless randomness, unleashing calamity and reshaping history. Every country has its unique dynamics. Unlike most African nations, Ethiopia was never colonized in the 19th century but instead was ruled by emperors, who granted feudal plantations to members of their royal courts. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was brought down by a famine that fueled a popular uprising. His dispossessed subjects chanted the slogan “land to the tiller.” The succeeding Communist dictatorship, which took ownership of all land for itself and pursued a disastrous collectivization policy, was toppled in the aftermath of the droughts of the 1980s. Under the present regime, private ownership of land is still banned, and every farmer in Ethiopia, foreign and domestic, works his fields under a licensing arrangement with the government. This land-tenure policy has made it possible for a one-party state to hand over huge tracts to investors at nominal rents, in secrecy, without the bother of a condemnation process.
Ethiopia’s government denies that anyone is being displaced, saying that the land is unused — an assertion many experts doubt. “One thing that is very clear, that seems to have escaped the attention of most investors, is that this is not simply empty land,” says Michael Taylor, a policy specialist at the International Land Coalition. If land in Africa hasn’t been planted, he says, it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s used to graze livestock, or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion.
There is an ongoing debate among experts about the extent of the global land-acquisition trend. By its nature the evidence is piecemeal and anecdotal, and many highly publicized investments have yet to actually materialize on the ground. The most serious attempt to quantify the land rush, spearheaded by the International Institute for Environment and Development, suggests that as of earlier this year, the Ethiopian government had approved deals totaling around 1.5 million acres, while the country’s investment agency reports that it has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007, nearly doubling the number registered in the entire previous decade. But that’s far from a complete picture. While the details of a few arrangements have leaked out, like one Saudi consortium’s plans to spend $100 million to grow wheat, barley and rice, many others remain undisclosed, and Addis Ababa has been awash in rumors of Arab moneymen who supposedly rent planes, pick out fertile tracts and cut deals.
Of course, there have been scrambles for African land before. In the view of critics, the colonial legacy is what makes the large land deals so outrageous, and they warn of potentially calamitous consequences. “Wars have been fought over this,” says Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with Grain, an advocacy group that opposes large-scale agribusiness and has played a key role in bringing attention to what it calls the “global land grab.”
It wasn’t until Grain compiled a long list of such deals into a polemical report titled “Seized!” last October that experts really began to talk about a serious trend. Although deals were being brokered in disparate locales like Australia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Vietnam, the most controversial field of investment was clearly Africa. “When you started to get some hints about what was happening in these deals,” Kuyek says, “it was shocking.” Within a month, Grain’s warnings seemed to be vindicated when The Financial Times broke news that the South Korean conglomerate Daewoo Logistics had signed an agreement to take over about half of Madagascar’s arable land, paying nothing, with the intention of growing corn and palm oil for export. Popular protests broke out, helping to mobilize opposition to Madagascar’s already unpopular president, who was overthrown in a coup in March.
The episode illustrated the emotional volatility of the land issue and raised questions about the degree to which corrupt leaders might be profiting off the deals. Since then, there has been an international outcry. Legislators from the Philippines have called for an investigation into their government’s agreements with various investing nations, while Thailand’s leader has vowed to chase off any foreign land buyers.
But there’s more than one side to the argument. Development economists and African governments say that if a country like Ethiopia is ever going to feed itself, let alone wean itself from foreign aid, which totaled $2.4 billion in 2007, it will have to find some way of increasing the productivity of its agriculture. “We’ve been complaining for decades about the lack of investment in African agriculture,” says David Hallam, a trade expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization. Last fall, Paul Collier of Oxford University, an influential voice on issues of world poverty, published a provocative article in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that a “middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture” has clouded the African development debate with “romanticism.” Approvingly citing the example of Brazil — where masses of indigenous landholders were displaced in favor of large-scale farms — Collier concluded that “to ignore commercial agriculture as a force for rural development and enhanced food supply is surely ideological.”
In Ethiopia, Mohammed Al Amoudi and other foreign agricultural investors are putting Collier’s theory into practice. Near the southern town of Awassa, in a shadow of a soaring Rift Valley escarpment, sits a field of waving corn and a complex of domed greenhouses, looking pristine and alien against the natural backdrop. On an overcast July morning, dozens of laborers were at work preparing the ground for one of Al Amoudi’s latest enterprises: a commercial vegetable farm.
“For a grower, this is heaven on earth,” says Jan Prins, managing director of the subsidiary company that is running the venture for Al Amoudi. Originally from the Netherlands, Prins says he assumed that Ethiopia was arid but was surprised to learn when he came to the country that much of it was fertile, with diverse microclimates. The Awassa farm is one of four that Prins is getting up and running. Using computerized irrigation systems, the farms will grow tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, melons and other fresh produce, the vast majority of it to be shipped to Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Over time, he says, he hopes to expand into growing other crops, like wheat and barley, the latter of which can be used to feed camels.
Greenhouses being built at the Jittu Horticulture farm at Awassa in southern Ethiopia. (Simon Norfolk for The New York Times)
The nations of the Persian Gulf are likely to see their populations increase by half by 2030, and already import 60 percent of their food. Self-sufficiency isn’t a viable option, as the Saudis have learned through bitter experience. In the 1970s, worries about the stability of the global food supply inspired the Saudi government to grow wheat through intensive irrigation. Between 1980 and 1999, according to a study by Elie Elhadj, a banker and historian, the Saudis pumped 300 billion cubic meters of water into their desert. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had managed to become the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter. But then its leaders started paying attention to the warnings of environmentalists, who pointed out that irrigation was draining a nonreplenishable supply of underground freshwater. Saudi Arabia now plans to phase out wheat production by 2016, which is one reason it’s looking to other countries to fill its food needs.
“The rules of the game have changed,” says Saad Al Swatt, the chief executive of the Tabuk Agricultural Development Company, one of the kingdom’s largest farming concerns. Al Swatt’s company was one of those that met with Robert Zeigler about farming rice; he says that with government encouragement, he is looking at expanding into countries like Sudan, Ethiopia and Vietnam. “They have the land, they have the water, but unfortunately, they don’t have the system or sometimes the finance to have these large-scale agricultural projects.” Al Swatt says. “We wanted to export our experience and really develop those areas, to help people.”
About 10 percent of the more than 80 million people who live in Ethiopia suffer from chronic food shortages. This year, because of poor rains, the U.N. World Food Program warns that much of East Africa faces the threat of a famine, potentially the worst in almost two decades. Traditionally, the model for feeding the hungry in Africa has involved shipping in surpluses from the rest of the world in times of emergency, but governments that are trying to attract investment say that the new farms could provide a lasting, noncharitable solution. (“It’s better than begging,” one Ethiopian official recently told the African publication Business Daily.) Whatever the long-term justification, however, it looks bad politically for countries like Kenya and Ethiopia to be letting foreign investors use their land at a time when their people face the specter of mass starvation. And many experts wonder whether such governments will go through with the deals. Ethiopia, after all, was one of the countries that banned grain exports during the recent spike in world food prices. “The idea that one country would go to another country,” says Robert Zeigler, “and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”
The hyperinflationary spiral that caused the world food crisis had multiple causes. The harvests in 2006 and 2007 were the worst of the decade, hedge funds and other players in the commodities markets appear to have driven up prices and government subsidies for biofuels encouraged farmers to grow crops that ended up as ethanol. But the environment and demography are more lasting issues, and experts predict that prices, which have declined since their peak, are likely to stabilize significantly above precrisis levels. This represents a danger to the developing world, where the poor spend between 50 and 80 percent of their income on food, but it may also present an opportunity. If one good thing has emerged from the crisis, it’s a growing awareness of Africa’s unrealized agricultural potential. Because where there are appetites, there are profits to be made.
In late June, several hundred farmers and investment bankers came together in Manhattan to survey the landscape at a conference on global agriculture investment. The food crisis has served as a catalyst for the sleepy agricultural sector, spurring financial firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas agricultural projects, so the mood was heady for business, though depressing for humanity. There much talk of Thomas Malthus, the 19th-century prophet of overpopulation and famine.
“Beware of 2020 and beyond, because we think there could be genuine food shortages by that period,” Susan Payne, the chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, told the audience during a talk on Africa’s agricultural potential. She showed a series of slides citing chilling statistics: grain stocks are at their lowest levels in 60 years; there were food riots in 15 countries in 2008; global warming is turning arable land into desert; freshwater is dwindling and China is draining its reserves; and the really big problem that contributes to all the others — the world’s population is growing by 80 million hungry people a year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected population in 2050 — some nine billion people — agricultural production needs to increase by an annual average of 1 percent. That means adding around 23 million tons of cereals to the world’s food supply next year, a little less than the total production of Australia in 2008.
“Africa is the final frontier,” Payne told me after the conference. “It’s the one continent that remains relatively unexploited.” Emergent’s African Agricultural Land Fund, started last year, is investing several hundred million dollars into commercial farms around the continent. Africa may be known for decrepit infrastructure and corrupt governments — problems that are being steadily alleviated, Payne argues — but land and labor come so cheaply there that she calculates the risks are worthwhile.
The payoffs could be immense. In a country like Ethiopia, farmers put in backbreaking effort, but they yield about a third as much wheat per acre as do Europe, China or Chile. Even modest interventions could start to close this gap. One small example: the black soil I saw throughout the Great Rift region. Known as vertisol, it’s a product of volcanic activity and possesses the nutrients to produce enormous harvests. Because of its high clay content, however, it becomes sticky and waterlogged during the rainy season, which makes it very difficult to plow by traditional methods. With the addition of advanced implements, improved seeds and fertilizer, you can double the amount of wheat it yields. Ethiopia, like all of Africa, is full of such opportunities, which is one reason the World Bank says that investing in agriculture is one of the most effective ways to speed economic development on the continent.
Yet agriculture has historically been a tiny item in foreign-aid budgets. For years, governments, private foundations and donor institutions like the World Bank have been urging African governments to fill the spending gap with private investment. Now, at the very moment a world food crisis has come along, creating the perhaps fleeting possibility of an influx of capital into African agriculture, some of the same organizations are sending conflicting messages. The Food and Agriculture Organization, for instance, co-sponsored a report calling for a major expansion of commercial agriculture in Africa, but the organization’s director-general has simultaneously been warning of the “neocolonial” dangers of land deals. “We’re making them feel that it’s sinful,” says Mafa Chipeta, a Malawian who oversees Ethiopia and the rest of eastern Africa for the organization. “Why are we not saying, here is an opportunity?”
One focus of agricultural investment in Ethiopia is the region of Gambella, near the border with Sudan. The World Bank says it has more than four million acres of irrigable land. “It’s emerald green, the whole place is fertile and they have only 200,000 people down there,” says Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, head of an Indian commercial farming company. Earlier this year, Karuturi signed an agreement with the government to lease close to 800,000 acres on which he will grow rice, wheat and sugar cane, among other crops. Karuturi told me he doesn’t have to export the food to make money; there’s plenty of profit potential in the East African market. He has flown in John Deere tractors, agricultural experts from Texas A&M and commercial farmers from Mississippi to help him get things going. He says he’s raising $100 million in capital from private equity firms for the first phase of the project, which he estimates will ultimately cost well over a billion dollars. “Recently, I saw a lot of articles . . . where they referred to me as a food pirate,” Karuturi says. “This whole thing is so elitist, it’s ridiculous. They want Africa to remain poor.”
But the argument against enormous land concessions needn’t be based solely on appeals to human rights, environmental warnings or romanticism. It’s possible to be a believer in development without endorsing Paul Collier’s view that the small landholders stand in its way. In fact, there’s a whole school of economic thought that says that Collier is wrong, that big is not necessarily better in agriculture — and that the land deals therefore might be unwise not because they’re wrong but because they’re unprofitable. A recent World Bank study found that large-scale export agriculture in Africa has succeeded only with plantation crops like sugar and tea or in ventures that were propped up by extreme government subsidies, during colonialism or during the apartheid era in South Africa.
This record of failure is one reason that the government of Qatar, in addressing its food-security concerns, has chosen to concentrate on investing in existing agribusinesses rather than just acquiring land. That’s just one of many ways to invest in farming without removing the African farmers. On a bright Rift Valley afternoon, I went to see another option, a cooperative scheme under which a group of around 300 Ethiopians, working plots of 4 to 10 acres, were getting into export agriculture. During the European winter, they grew green beans for the Dutch market. The rest of the year, they cultivated corn and other crops for local consumption. The land had been irrigated with the help of a nonprofit organization and an Ethiopian commercial farmer named Tsegaye Abebe, who brought all the produce to market.
As a breeze riffled through a tall field of corn, a group of farmers, wearing sandals made from old tires, told me the arrangement, while not perfect, was beneficial in the most crucial respect: they weren’t toiling for someone else. Not far away, a Pakistani investor had taken over a government cattle ranch, once an area free for grazing, and had put fences and trenches in place to keep out the local livestock. The Ethiopians who worked there were miserable.
The farmers had heard rumors that foreign investors were eyeing still more Ethiopian land. Imam Gemedo Tilago, a 78-year-old cloaked in a white cotton shawl, shook his finger, vowing that Allah would not allow the community to remain passive. But that was a problem for the future, and the farmers had more grounded concerns. I noticed, driving down the rural paths that led to this farm, that the earth looked parched in places, and the cattle were showing their ribs through their dull brown hides. The worried farmers told me that this year, the seasonal rains were late in coming to the Rift Valley. If they didn’t arrive soon, there’d be hunger.
UN to regulate farmland grab deals
David Hallam of FAO taking a barrage of questions from journalists at an FAO media briefing on land grabbing in Rome on 17 November 2009. (Photo: GRAIN)
Financial Times | November 18 2009
By Javier Blas in Rome
The United Nations has started drawing up a code of conduct to regulate overseas investment in farmland, but the voluntary rules will not be ready for at least a year.
The code is the first attempt to control the growing trend of so-called “farmland grab” deals, which involve rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea investing in overseas farming to boost their own food security.
The trend gained prominence after an attempt by South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics to secure a large chunk of land in Madagascar contributed to the collapse of the African country’s government.
Diplomats are concerned that African countries, many of which face problems of chronic hunger, are giving away vast tracts of farmland almost for free in return for vague promises of job creation and spending on infrastructure.
The UN and the World Bank are walking a tightrope in drawing up a code of conduct, however, as they do not want to undermine all foreign direct investment in agriculture, which they believe can offer opportunities for development.
The difficulty was reflected in a declaration from the World Food Summit in Rome that aims to “facilitate and sustain private investment in agriculture” while seeking a study of “good practices to promote responsible international agricultural investment”.
Guidelines would be non-binding, UN officials said. They would focus on making sure that “existing rights to land …are recognised” and “investments do not jeopardise food security”, according to a World Bank draft policy paper seen by the Financial Times.
The code will also call for transparency in the process of “accessing land and making associated investments” and asks that “all those materially affected are consulted”. It also deals with guarantees about a project’s economic viability, social impact and environmental consequences.
David Hallam, deputy director of trade and markets at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, who is leading the work, said the aim was to transform “malpractices” into “win-win” scenarios for investors and hosts.
“It appears that there is political support for voluntary guidelines,” he said, adding that such a code was unlikely to be ready until late next year.
UN officials acknowledged that the delay could give investors time to secure farmland rights before the code of conduct came into force, but said discussion of the guidelines was already prompting a change in investors’ attitudes.
Campaigners protesting against the farmland deals complain that the code of conduct will not resolve the problem, arrive too late and lack teeth.
Devlin Kuyek of Grain, a non-governmental organisation that monitors farmland deals, said: “Win-win on land grabbing is a nonsense.”