Land grabs: a personal reflection on Gambella, Western Ethiopia

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Ethiopia, a country renowned for its famines, is leasing land to foreign investors for food production, writes Dr Janice Proud. It sounds good, the motivation for Ethiopian government is positive, to bring in foreign currency to support economic development and to contribute to food security. However, the costs to the local population and the environment are high.

Nearly a third of the land in Gambella region, western Ethiopia, is up for grabs, having been classified as under-utilised. However the low lying tropical region, prone to both drought and flooding, is home to thriving populations: the Nuer who are pastoralists moving with the cattle and the Anuak who fish and grow crops as the flood waters recede. Their survival and their identity are tied to the land and the rivers that run through it.

Investors now farm the area on an industrial scale. One farm stretches for 80 miles growing rice, palm oil, maize and sugarcane mainly for export back to India. The forest has been cleared and burnt, wetland drained. There has been tremendous environmental devastation and it is still on-going as dams are built for irrigation and defences built to prevent the floods that wiped out the first maize harvest. But the local population then suffers as the flood waters are displaced and affect established towns in previously safe areas.
Tension is mounting in the area as decisions are made by central government without respect for or consultation with the local population. People have been cleared from their land through a process of villagisation, planned to facilitate access to education and health. But the promised services have been slow to arrive and the communities are too large for the capacity of the land, so people are left dependent on food support.

There have been benefits, new roads and bridges have opened up the area, the phone network now reaches the border with South Sudan. But the package offered to investors to secure the deals does not guarantee that crops produced will be available locally or nationally, so tensions will mount at times of hunger. Tension will also escalate as the movement of people with their cattle or to the river is further limited by industrial scale production and as more outsiders move in to work in the fields. Regional conflict could also be sparked if the flow of water into the Nile is reduced.

When I first heard talk of under-utilised land in Gambella I was concerned. When people were being moved without a harvest and left in barren land two hours walk from water I was horrified and angry; the Anglican Church trucked in and distributed food. I was equally horrified when I saw the forest being dug up and burnt, when people struggle to get wood to build their homes and their churches. But restriction on protest, particularly by foreigners, meant I had to keep quiet and not stir people up; to do so would risk being thrown out of Ethiopia, but worse the Anglican Church being closed down. Since then I have heard of fear, intimidation, imprisonment of those who protested, both locally and nationally. Some more intense agriculture would have brought benefits, but it should not have been done without respecting and involving local people.

Dr Janice Proud lived in Ethiopia for nine years with her husband, Bishop Andrew, the Bishop of Reading. She worked in agricultural research and with the Anglican churches in Gambella.

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