25 March 2011, GAMBELLA - Ethiopia has little time for critics of its large-scale land-leasing policy, insisting the millions of dollars of foreign investment will create jobs, improve domestic agricultural expertise and reduce both poverty and the country’s chronic food insecurity.
The policy, part of a five-year Growth and Transformation Plan, has led to the cheap leasing of thousands of square kilometres of what the government says is mostly under-used or uncultivated land. Officially, land in Ethiopia is government-owned but occupants have customary rights.
Detractors complain of forcible relocation of local pastoralist populations, poorly paid work on the new farms, environmental degradation and a failure to deliver on promises of better infrastructure.
“I know [this] is a very controversial and hot issue at the global level. As far as Ethiopia is concerned, we don’t see it as a threat because it is smallholder agriculture, which is the driving engine of the agricultural development in this country,” Minister of Agriculture Tefera Deribew said at a recent press conference.
“We want to expand large-scale farming in areas where we have ample arable land without affecting farmers living in those areas. It will definitely support the development of smallholder agriculture,” he said.
The ministry’s head of agricultural investment, Esayas Kebede, told IRIN: “We hope that big commercial and intensive farms will solve the shortage of food in Ethiopia,” where 2.8 million people are expected to require foreign food assistance in 2011.
In at least one of the deals, a 10,000 hectare rice farm in Gambella leased by Saudi-Ethiopian investor Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi, 40 percent of production will have to be sold on the Ethiopian market.
But rice, and many of the other crops set to be produced on such farms, is not widely consumed in Ethiopia.
The government and investors further maintain that the relocation of thousands of people in rural areas is unconnected but part of an entirely separate and voluntary “villagization” project designed to improve access to basic amenities.
“We haven’t evicted pastoralists from their farmland or prevented them from accessing the river,” Birinder Singh, head of marketing and logistics of Karuturi Agro Products, told IRIN.
This Indian company has leased some 100,000 hectares of land in Gambella, a sparsely populated region in the west of Ethiopia where hundreds of mostly foreign companies are investing in agricultural projects.
“That [eviction] is not our intention. We would like to hire as many people as we can on our farms and would like to be competitive in the global market,” Singh told IRIN.
For the complete article, please see IRIN.