By Jenny Vaughan (AFP) –
GAMBELLA, Ethiopia — When the Ethiopian government asked Thwol Othoy if he wanted to be resettled, he agreed, attracted by promises of a better life – a clinic, school for his children and land to farm.
But he now struggles to feed his family. After moving from western Ethiopia to the tiny town of Abobo in the Gambella region, he was allocated less than half his previous two acres on which he used to grow maize.
“The food is not enough,” said Thwol, 35, sitting by his thatched hut, barefoot and in tattered shorts with an open shirt exposing his bony chest.
Thwol and his family were moved off government-owned land under the east African nation’s two-year-old commune programme, which pools scattered rural residents into new communities, ostensibly to provide them better access to services.
But some rights groups and observers fear the programme has another goal: to shove farmers aside for eager — and often foreign — investors who cultivate land for crops that will be exported to fuel rocketing food demand in China and other developing nations.
“Livelihoods and food security in Gambella are precarious, and the policy is disrupting a delicate balance of survival for many,” Human Rights Watch said in a January report.
The government aims to resettle 1.5 million of its approximately 82 million people by next year. Officials say there is nothing sinister about the plan.
“Any society that’s scattered, there’s no way you can hear their voice or ensure social and economic services,” Federal Affairs Minister Shiferaw Teklemariam said. “It is better to (create) organised set-ups.”
Ethiopian land is wholly owned by the socialist-leaning government, which leases it out to companies and individuals for farming or livestock grazing.
In the Gambella region — dense with vegetation and blessed with regular rain and a large river — 200,000 people, or just over half the region’s entire population, are due to be resettled over the next three years. Close to 90,000 people — or 20,000 households — have already been moved.
The fields along the river in Gambella are vibrant green and brim with rice husks, but in Kir, a nearby resettlement village, resident Obuk Ojulu said the land was not as fertile and that he had to rely partly on state grain handouts.
“Where we were before, there was good land,” said Obuk, 25. “Here it is not good.”
Kir has a small clinic, though its supplies are usually low and a nearby school has no teachers, just rows of kids flipping idly through tattered and outdated textbooks.
Regional agricultural department head Ahmoud Oto denied food shortages and insisted villagers are better off.
“Previously, where they were living, they were not benefiting from services,” he said. “Now they are beneficiaries of clean water, health and education.”
Human Rights Watch has accused the government of pushing communities off the land to make way for investors, who already occupy 500,000 hectares (2,000 square miles) of land in the region.
As incentives, the government offers tax breaks, pools of cheap labour and long-term leases of fertile land at affordable rates.
An additional 1.2 million hectares (4,600 square miles) is earmarked for agricultural investors in Gambella over the next three years.
Authorities insist investment boosts development by creating jobs and spurring economic growth, but Human Rights Watch senior researcher Ben Rawlence said residents’ needs are being overlooked.
“Everybody wants better access to services, the problem is how it happens,” he told AFP by phone from London.
“The right of development is not just the right of the state to bulldoze land. It’s also the right of the people to choose how they want to develop.”
Human Rights Watch warns the resettlement programme is reminiscent of the “collectivisation” drive by the authoritarian military regime in the 1970s that forcibly relocated 13 million people — often violently — but ultimately failed because no services were provided. Thousands died as a result.
Milkesa Wakjira, processing coordinator for the Ethiopian-owned Saudi Star company, which rents a 10,000-hectare (40-square-mile) plot near Abobo, defended the leasing of land.
“This is not a question of land grabbing,” he said, standing before a sprawling green rice paddy as tractors trundled by. “If the land belongs to the government, no one is in a position to grab it because if the government wants the land, they can take it back.”
Wakjira said the community welcomes the new jobs and the company’s efforts to pave the area’s jumbled dirt tracks. Saudi Star has also given two cars to the local district and donated 200 beehives to local farmers.
But more than 50 percent of the rice Saudi Star grows here is exported, mainly to Saudi Arabia, Wakjira said.
Opening its doors to foreign investors is part of the government’s ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan, which aims to boost Ethiopia’s economic growth and reach middle-income status by 2015.
The International Monetary Fund says Ethiopia’s economy is growing at a rate of 7.5 percent, though the government pegs growth at 11 percent. The country’s main exports are livestock, coffee and agriculture.
Despite the scarcity of food and land, Thwol says he will tough it out in Abobo for now.
“School is here, clinic is here and small water is here,” he said.
Even though his plot of land has shrunk, he prefers to be near these services, no matter how under-resourced they are.