Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ethiopian Land Grab

Human Rights Watch is out with a damning report today accusing the Ethiopian government of forcing its own citizens off of their land so that the plots can then be leased to foreign farming interests.  According to Human Rights Watch, as reported by Reuters, nearly 70,000 Ethiopians have so far been driven from their land, though as many as 1.5 million could eventually be displaced.  The land is being leased to foreign corporations, primarily firms from China and states in the Persian Gulf, who then export the foodstuffs grown in Ethiopia.  So far the Ethiopian government has leased an area approximately the size of the nation of Belgium to foreign companies.

Not surprisingly, Ethiopian officials dispute the HRW report, saying that the relocations are in fact part of a national “villagisation” program aimed at moving people from sparsely-populated regions of marginal farmlands to establish villages in more fertile parts of the nation.  The Ethiopian government also defends the policy of leasing land to foreign farmers, saying that it is meant to be a kind of technology transfer arrangement, where Ethiopia can learn modern, more-efficient farming techniques.  Of course the mass relocation begs the question of why foreign firms would be willing to lease what Ethiopia is describing as “marginal” farmland in the first place.

Such lease agreements aren't unique to Ethiopia though, other African nations have been leasing large swaths of their own lands to foreign farming concerns, chiefly from China, which has been investing heavily in Africa in recent years.  While African nations were originally attracted to China's “no-strings-attached” approach to foreign investment – as opposed to investment from Western nations, which increasingly is tied to political reform and good-governance efforts – a slow change has been taking place.  Some African nations are growing unhappy with the Chinese approach, where they not only underwrite a major infrastructure project, but also import much of the labor from China as well – African governments say that this prevents the type of technology transfer that Ethiopia is touting from occurring.  One sign of this changing attitude came last year when challenger Michael Sata won Zambia's presidential election by running on an anti-China platform.
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