Land Grabbing in Ethiopia

Land Grabbing and Violations of Human Rights in Ethiopia

Malkamuu Jaatee, Anywaa Survival Organization

28 January 2016



Land grabbing is classically known as the seizing of land by a nation, state or organization, especially illegally or unfairly. It is recently redefined as a large scale acquisition of land through purchases or leases for commercial investment by foreign organizations (6). Both micro and macro scales of land grabbing can result in displacement of indigenous communities and disappearance of their identities over time, because land is not only a fixed asset essential to produce sufficient amount of crop and animal to secure supply of food, but it is the foundation of identities (language, culture, & history) of communities living on the land.

Changes to land use without consultation of traditional owners of the land – mainly by forceful displacement of indigenous peoples, can, in the long-term, result in the disappearance of human communities traditionally identified with that ancestral land. Both expansion of amorphous towns & cities, without meaningful integration of indigenous peoples and large-scale transfers of rural land to investors, are the major political strategies of the current government of Ethiopia under the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) or the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to achieve the target of the systematic eradication of rural communities living around cities and at vicinity of agro-industries, mainly in Oromia and Southern (Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and Omo) regions. Conflicts arising from land grabbing have become very complex wars disturbing the daily lives of the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia, because the peoples are undemocratically represented by the regime.

Conflicts arising from land grabbing have become very complex wars disturbing the daily lives of the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia, because the peoples are undemocratically represented by the regime.

The allocation of farmland to investors has been going on in Ethiopia since at least 1995. The years between 2003 and 2007 were the boom years for cut-flower exportation to Europe. Demand for land by foreign investors began to increase sharply since 2006. More than one-third of the land allocated to investors in the ten years period was given out in 2008. Year 2008 was a mad rush of investors to get access to land with many applicants requesting large tracts measuring more than 10,000 hectares (21). About one million hectares of land was transferred to 500 foreign investors in the period between 2003 and 2009. The largest foreign holding is Karuturi Company of India, which has been given 0.3 million hectares of land in Gambella and 11,000 in Bako district of Oromia (21). In 2009 and 2010, about 0.5 million hectares was allocated to investors. The land transferred to investors between 2004 and 2008 was 1.2 million hectares (27).

The land transferred to large-scale investors, without including land already allocated, has been planned to increase from 0.5 million in 2011 to 2.8 million hectares in 2013, and to 3.3 million hectares in 2015 (15 & 16). Total land transferred to investors will measure about 38% of land currently utilized by smallholders (21). Therefore, at least 7 million hectares of agricultural land was transferred to investors between 1995 and 2016. In addition the long-term plan to expand Addis Ababa city administration at 200 kilometers radius was secretly designed by the regime until the hidden plan has made public in 2014.

The impact of land grabbing in Ethiopia is manifested through five interconnected factors that the regime has designed to sustain its military, political and economic powers in order to protect its brutal and savage governance system for the next quarter or half a century. Analytical evaluation of effect of current land grabbing policy indicates destabilization of livelihood assets of rural communities of Oromia and Southern Ethiopia through the following five factors: aggravation of poverty, increase of food insecurity, intensification of conflicts, degradation of ecosystem quality, and deterioration of human rights conditions (13). This review focuses on the human rights violation and its political implications.

1. Deterioration of conditions for basic human rights in Ethiopia

The TPLF regime is escalating its violations of human rights through the implementation of a very dangerous policy of land grabbing in Oromia and Southern Ethiopia. The regime has killed at least 180 innocent Oromo civilians in the last two months (mid November 2015 to mid January 2016), while the Oromo people peacefully protesting against the unfair land use policy. Thanks to the founders of media technologies, reports of human rights violations are daily circulated around the globe at high intensity and are known to the international communities. The regime is accustomed to kill unarmed civilians since it has illegally controlled the capital city of Oromia, Finfinne (Addis Ababa), on May 28, 1991. Between 1994 and 2010, OSG (the Oromo Support Group, a UK-based human rights organization) has reported 4185 instances of extrajudicial killings, and 944 disappearances of civilians suspected of supporting groups opposing the government, a majority of them from the Oromo people (19). The capacity of human rights organization to access data of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in Ethiopia is at most limited to 10% of data recorded by the OSG, because carrying out politically motivated extrajudicial killings in darkness is common in the security system of the regime. Therefore, the number of civilians murdered by the regime, between 1991 and 2016, can be above 56,000 (fifty six thousands) based on a conservative estimation of the recorded extrajudicial killings in Ethiopia.

The violations of civil rights during the process of land grabbing include both direct and systematic crimes against humanity. Human rights violations directly carried out by the regime include physical mistreatment like beating, raping, detaining, torturing and killing during the forced evictions of rural communities from their ancestral land. Survival’s director, Stephen Corry, said that, “The Ethiopian government and its foreign backers are bent on stealing tribal land and destroying livelihoods: they want to reduce self sufficient rural communities to a state of dependency, throw all who disagree into prison, and pretend this is something to do with progress and development” (24). Systematic violations of human rights mainly involve limitation of accessibility to basic human needs through the destruction of livelihood assets of the people. Outcomes of violations of the legitimate rights of indigenous people to access ancestral land are as follows: increase of population living in extreme poverty; reduction of subsistence crop and animal production; unsafe drinking water and shortage of food; poor health conditions; increase of internal displacements and refugees; financial disability to access basic needs; and reduction to the status of forced manual laborer.

The direct human rights violation practices of the regime in Oromia and Southern (Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and Omo) regions of Ethiopia demonstrate atrocities of the land grabbers. For example, human rights violations in the lower Omo valley are characterized by arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings and mistreatment, governing through fear and intimidation, and violations of economic, social and cultural rights (11). The government and its police force are cracking down, jailing and torturing indigenous people and raping women in the Omo region that the people do not oppose the land grabs and an interviewee said, “Now the people live in fear – they are afraid of the government” (23). In a report based on more than 100 interviewees in May and June 2011, a victim from Gambella said, “My father was beaten for refusing to go along [to the new village] with some other elders, he said, ‘I was born here – my children were born here – I am too old to move so I will stay,’ but he was beaten by the army with sticks and the butt of a gun, he had to be taken to hospital, and he died because of the beating” (10). About 200 Bodi, 28 Mursi and 20 Suri tribes men and women of Omo region are in jail, and the indigenous people now fear that the security forces may start killing people and they said, “The arrests are a show of force, to intimidate us not to oppose the land grabbing policy: ‘we lived here in peace, in the heart of our land, the place where all of our cattle were grazing during both the rainy and dry seasons; but now, in this place there is a plantation owned by a rich Malaysian company who trained 130 soldiers and armed them with 130 machine guns by the government: if our people oppose the land grabbers, the soldiers are ready to kill us” (22). Since mid November 2015, the regime put Oromia under a martial law. The Oromo people of all age (children, youth, and elderly) and all classes (schoolchildren, university students, peasants, teachers, medical staff, engineers and other civilians) are indiscriminately targeted by the brutal and savage governance of the regime. The special military (Agazi) and the federal police forces of the regime have wantonly killed hundreds of Oromo civilians since April 2014. The regime has declared war on the Oromo people in order to maintain its illegal occupation of Oromia.

The then head of the TPLF regime, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, rejected the critics of land grabbing as ill-informed and he said, “We want to develop our land to feed ourselves rather than admire the beauty of fallow fields while we starve.” Also the head of the government agency responsible for land leasing (Mr. Essayas Kebede) said, “Ethiopia benefits in many ways from land deals that we will receive dollars by exporting food; the farms provide jobs; they import know how; they will help us to boost productivity; and therefore, we will improve food security” (20). However, the institutionalization of corruptions will effectively limit the distribution of investment benefits to the poor people of Ethiopia. For example, between 2000 and 2009, Ethiopia lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows. The illicit money leaving the economy in 2009 was US$3.26 billion, double of the amount in 2007 and 2008, and greatly exceeds the US$ 2 billion value of total exports of Ethiopia in 2009 (8). Even though the peoples of Ethiopia try, by any means, to fight poverty, the possibility to defeat evil system is full of challenges. The global shadow financial system happily absorbs money that corrupt public officials, tax evaders and abusive multinational corporations siphon away from the peoples of Ethiopia (8). Therefore, the implementation of global land grabbing policies directly limit socio-economic development of the rural communities to access primary human needs – mainly sufficient food, pure & safe water, and adequate house, cloth, & medical services.

Human rights violations directly carried out by the regime include physical mistreatment like beating, raping, detaining, torturing and killing during the forced evictions of rural communities from their ancestral land.

The right to feed households and family is realized in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa with the right to access agricultural land to produce sufficient food through crop and animal productions. Failure of African governments to protect & guarantee sustainable use of land & water, to produce food by subsistence peasants, constitutes a violation of the right to food, because assuring long-term supply of food is part of their obligations in relation to the right to food. The right to adequate food exists when every individual, household or family has achieved physical & economic access to adequate food at all times or means for its procurement. Agricultural investment policy of the TPLF regime encourages export oriented crop production. For example, the Saudi Star produces rice in Ethiopia and export to the Middle East. Karuturi marketing & logistics make no secret of the fact that the investment is commercial that the company will sell its agricultural products to those who pay most (20). But, at least 80% peoples of Ethiopia are very poor to access food economically to buy it, if it is available. Agricultural companies mainly focus on production of commercial crops, because investment on agriculture in remote areas is profit oriented. Therefore, the investment on the production of local stable food crop is very marginal. For example, the investment of Indian agro-companies on food crop is less than 10% (25). The violation of land accessibility rights of rural communities has resulted in increase of starvation rate through dramatic reduction of subsistence crop or/and animal productions. Therefore, the land grabbing policy of the TPLF regime will increase food insecurity.

The right of rural communities to access agricultural land is the most important factor to achieve primary standard of living, because agriculture is the foundation of the livelihood assets of rural communities. Access to land is an essential element of the right to an adequate standard of living and the realization of the right to work (art. 11 and art. 6 ICESCR). Land grabbing leads to forced displacements and refugees. The right to adequate housing is the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity (3). The right to housing is directly linked to the right to be protected from forced evictions. For example, the forced displacement of 270,000 indigenous peoples from the western Gambella and Omo regions to new villages by the government of Ethiopia details the involuntary nature of the transfers, loss of livelihoods, deteriorating food situations, and ongoing abuses by the armed forces against the affected people: and that many of the areas from which people are being moved are leased by the government for commercial agricultural development (10 & 11). The violation of the rights to live somewhere in peace is defined as the permanent removals of individuals, families, and/or communities from their homes and/or lands that they occupy, on either a permanent or temporary basis, without offering them appropriate measures of protection (4). Rural communities of the Omo Valley of South Ethiopia are neither ‘backward’ nor in need ‘modernization,’ they are as much a part of the 21st century civilization as the multinationals that seek to appropriate their land; but forcing them to become manual laborers will certainly lead to a drastic reduction in quality of their lives, and condemn them to starvation and destitution like many of their fellow countrymen’ (23). Despite some instances of income improvement by export opportunities, the expansion of world agricultural trade has failed to translate into better living conditions for most of workers on farm in the developing world (12).

Governments and private investors assume rural community accessibility to the job market compensates for the loss of land and livelihoods. However, income derived from daily wages never replaces livelihood assets of rural community, which are constantly and directly derived from land use. For example, some peasants were employed as casual laborers (day laborers) by the coffee plantation following eviction from their land and they received about 1$ per day for a fixed amount of work that they have often completed in two days work (1). Large shares of commercial agriculture jobs are characterized with very poor working conditions mainly very low payment, low-skilled daily work, seasonal fluctuation, without health insurance, very high risk of accidental death without insurance, violence, harassment, and employment of underage children. A young boy is digging up weeds kneeling in the middle of a sugar cane field in blistering temperature of 40 C º, while an Indian worker stands over him to make sure he does not miss any and Red is eight years old and earns 73 pence for one day work, i.e. less than the cost of using pesticides (20). Children attending primary school are significantly decreased in areas of land grabbing. Deputy Head of a school (Tigaba Tekle), near the Karuturi farm said that only 5 out of 60 students are sometimes attending a class, because most of them are working at agricultural fields of Karuturi (20). Land commercialization will never establish sustainable and safe employment opportunities for rural peoples of Oromia & Southern regions, because colonial governance system never takes into consideration security and dignity of oppressed peoples. Therefore, unsustainable and unsafe employment conditions can not compensate loss of livelihoods of rural communities forcefully evicted from ancestral land.

2. Political function of land grabbing policy of the TPLF regime

Governance authorities of imperial, military, and TPLF regimes are highly centralized with absolute land ownership right to sustain rule of dictatorship through chains of colonial agents at regional, provincial, and local levels of Ethiopia. Gebar land tenure system in the South as well as the Rist tenure system of North Ethiopia during imperial regime shows some resemblance to the current land tenure system and with some reservations also it resembles that of the military regime, with the exceptions that the communal Rist system is replaced by the organs of state, i.e. the peasant associations. Land grabbing is the major source of military, political, and economic powers of successive regimes of Ethiopia. Government of Ethiopia (the TPLF regime) is owner of the land, but the rights of individuals and communities are ‘holding (use) rights’ (Proclamation No. 456/200550). Though ethnic equality is now legally recognized, in practice, emergent regions are still politically marginalized and permitted less autonomy, partly due to the federal development strategy, which requires central control of local land resources and changes in livelihoods (14).

Centralization of land governance politics of successive regime of Ethiopia is manifested through the following five levels of land use rights: owner-ship, management, sanction, full accessibility right, & limited accessibility right (Table-1). Land tenure politics of both imperial and military or TPLF regimes are generally sharing similar political goal, i.e. manipulation of land use rights to maintain monopoly of governance powers. The commercialization of land has served as a political advantage for the state, because it enhances greater concentration of authority in the hands of the governors. A woreda (district) or an urban administration shall have the power to expropriate rural or urban landholdings for public purpose where it believes that it should be used for a better development project to be carried out by public entities, private investors, cooperative societies or other organs, or where such expropriation is decided by the appropriate higher regional or federal government organ for the same purpose (Proclamation No. 455/200558).

Table 1: Two types of land use rights in Ethiopia since 1889
Table-1: Two types of land use rights in Ethiopia since 1889

The TPLF regime is intentionally violating the land accessibility right of rural communities of Oromia and Southern Ethiopia to achieve political goals of maintaining its brutal & savage governance system. The regime has already institutionalized practices of human right violations through manipulation of constitution. It formulated politically motivated proclamations to limit humanitarian activities of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) using charities proclamation and to crash political opponents through manipulation of anti-terrorism law in order to protect its monopolistic ownership of military, political, and economic powers (18). The regime is not hesitated to practice arbitrary arrest, long detention, or extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands, and torturing peoples suspected to be supporters of opposition political organizations to sustain fears in civil societies. The regime is systematically escalating the level of insecurity by aggravating poverty, expanding borders of food insecurity, manipulating conflicts, degrading safety of ecosystem, and escalation of violations of human rights in order to produce the poorest of poor peoples mainly in colonized regions of Ethiopia. Thus it is intended to use victims of poverty as political animal through manipulation of land use right. The regime easily regulates support of rural communities for the opposition political parties by threatening subsistence livelihoods of about 80% of 95 million people. The rural communities are directly controlled by the regime and they cannot freely vote opposition political parties during election, because they will be deprived of land use right if they do so.

The regime […] uses food aid as an instrument to achieve political objectives, and to protect its governance powers.

The very existence of governance powers of the regime is possible only with external aids. Foreign aid was essential for birth of the TPLF regime and it is also very essential for growth and expansion of the regime, as oxygen is essential for lung. During the 1974 – 1991 financial, material, & technical supports of the international donor communities were channeled through political NGOs organized by the TPLF to areas under its control to support both military and emergency programs (17). The aids were resulted in increase of peasant-based supports, legitimacy expansion among the civilian population, use of aid resources to support organizational structures, and quantitative capability in feeding the armies (26). Since 1991, the regime received very huge sum of financial aids. It received at least a sum of US $ 50 billion in development aid as of 2015. However, majority of peoples in Ethiopia remained in the most wretched poverty, despite decades of development aids. The regime is manipulating foreign military and development aids as instrument to suppress peaceful transfer of governance powers since 1991 through marginalization of legitimate opposition political parties or fronts. The government of Ethiopia used donor-supported programs, salaries, and training opportunities as political weapons to control the population, punish dissent, and undermine political opponents—both real and perceived, that the local officials deny these people (i.e. supporters of opposition parties) to access seeds and fertilizer, agricultural land, credit, food aid, and other resources for development (9). Policies of aggravating poverty through destruction of livelihoods of rural communities are systematically implemented by the regime to sustain political manipulation of aids, because either emergency or development aids are political instrument of the regime to enforce political support. Therefore, increasing level of poverty is tactical increase of enforcement of peoples electing the regime.

The regime is frequently manipulating food aid distribution to crash supporters of political opponents. It uses food aid as an instrument to achieve political objectives, and to protect its governance powers. Land grabbing policy of the regime is systematically intended to increase size of people dependent on food aids in order to secure political support using food aids. For example: “Despite being surrounded by other communities which are well fed, a village with a population of about 1700 adults is starving. We were told that in the two weeks prior to our team’s arrival 5 adults and 10 children had died. Lying on the floor, too exhausted to stand, and flanked by her three-year-old son whose stomach is bloated by malnutrition, one woman described how her family had not eaten for four days. Another three-year-old boy lay in his grandmother’s lap, listless and barely moving as he stared into space. The grandmother said, we are just waiting on the crop, if we have one meal a day we will survive until the harvest, beyond that there is no hope for us (2).” The affected families were supporters of opposition political party participated in 2010 election in Southern Ethiopia. The regime intentionally increases climate of insecurity and fear in society that for those depend on food aids they must support the ruling party in order to survive threat of systematic assassination. Therefore, political loyalty to the ruling party (the TPLF/EPRDF regime) governs the existence of rural communities of Ethiopia.

3. Conclusion

The review indicates the genocidal plan systematically designed by the TPLF regime using the unfair land use policy as a tool in Oromia and Southern Ethiopia to achieve the political goal of complete ownership of the land through silent eradication of the indigenous communities in the long-term. “Genocide Watch considers Ethiopia to have already reached Stage 7, genocidal massacres, against many of its peoples, including the Anuak, Ogadeni, Oromo, and Omo tribes” (7). The people of Oromia in particular, and all oppressed peoples of Ethiopia in general, are struggling to reverse this policy of systematic genocide waged on them by successive regimes of Ethiopia.

International and local human rights organizations have frequently produced reports of violations of constitutional rights of peoples of Ethiopia… However, the defenders of successive regimes of Ethiopia have not paid attention to any of the independent reports.

The effort of human rights organizations to defend victims of the evil policy of land grabbing in particular, and the politically motivated human rights violations in general, are full of challenges, because the transformation of the global business into unfair economic development is mostly to the advantage of the strongest. Both international and local human rights organizations have frequently produced reports of violations of constitutional rights of peoples of Ethiopia by the TPLF/EPRDF regime since early 1990. However, the international communities and defenders of successive regimes of Ethiopia have not been paid attention to any of the independent reports.

The United Nations in particular, and the international community in general, should actively engage in establishing independent commissions of justice both at regional and global levels to investigate negative effects of unfair land grabs that threaten the existence of indigenous human communities in order to enable victims of land grabbing to access fair justice. I would like to close with a song of King David. “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgement among the `gods`: How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless, maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” (Psalm 82: 1 – 5)

Article source: Finfinne Tribune

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