By ARGAW ASHINE, NATION Correspondent – August 13 2009–Ethiopian government has defended its plan to offer 2.7 million hectares of farmland to foreign companies despite millions of citizens who need food aid from the international community.
According to Ethiopia’s Agriculture Ministry officials, the country delineated around 2.7 million hectares of land, available for foreign companies from Middle East and East Asia countries.
The government will hand over 1.7 million hectares of arable land to the foreign investors before the coming harvest season.
World’s top oil producing countries including United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and giant economies like India, China and South Korea are queuing in Addis Ababa to start big commercial farming to feed their own people.
The competition among “land grabber” states has become fierce, with the overall number of companies applying for land in Ethiopia reaching 8,000. However, only 2,000 foreign companies, including medium size agricultural projects, have already secured farmland.
India leads the “land grabbing” race and so far Indian agricultural investment has been more than $2.5 billion. India’s total investment in Ethiopia was $300 million three years ago and has now grown to $ 4.3 billion. It is double the amount of Western aid offered to Ethiopia.
Departing Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Gurjit Singh, believes Indian investment will reach eight to 10 billion dollars in the coming few years.
“I don’t think this is the end of the story, but just the beginning” He added.
Currently, more than 5.2 million people need emergency food aid from international community in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Another eight million rural poor are also supported by regular productive safety net aid scheme.
Esayas Kebede, Director of Agriculture Investment Support office argued that large scale foreign commercial farming is a way to end poverty and hunger.
“We have abundant land and labour but we don’t have a finance and technology to feed our people” Esayas said.
“Its not land grabbing; we are looking to generate foreign currency to support our development effort. It’s better than begging” He added.
Esayas downplayed the size of land allocated for the investors. He said the size was small compared to the entire country’s arable land, which is estimated at 74 million hectares.
So far, only 17 million hectares of land is being used by Ethiopian farmers.
Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is also enthusiastic. After welcoming a Saudi agriculture delegation recently, he said: “We told them [the Saudis] that we would be very eager to provide hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land for investment.”
Some critics, including Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO, warned against “neo-colonialism” but others say the investments can boost economic growth in Africa.
Ethiopia’s ruling party Ethiopian People Democratic Front (EPRDF) is now reconsidering its firm ideological land use policy and is now allowing private investors to farm, along with the more than 14 million Ethiopian peasant farmers.
The ruling party will meet to revisit the proposed land-use policy shift on the upcoming annual meeting next September.