Friday, March 22, 2013

Reprint: Land grab in Ethiopia ? Let’s sift facts from hidden agendas

Published in Ethiopian Herald | 19 March 2013 - By Metasebia Tadesse

Ethiopia has just leased arable but idle lands lying in the lowlands of the country for both domestic and export markets. If Ethiopia is to grow like the rest of developed nations, it has to expand its commercial agriculture, to earn hard currencies and generate jobs. This is the practice elsewhere too. While our critics call it land grab, we call it investment.

The recent spate of misinformation that Ethiopians are pushed off their lands because of commercial farming investment from countries like India has been fed by strident “land grab” campaigners, which is absolutely far from the truth.

Any credible media house is expected to be careful in reporting on such a sensitive issue, and should have exercised due diligence by weighing in the report of the seminar against the real scenario which could have been obtained from the embassy or from Indians who know Ethiopia very well. It is intriguing that the organizers of the so-called “India- Ethiopia Seminar on Land Investment” didn’t even bother to invite an official of embassy of Ethiopia in New Delhi or Indian investors who can give first-hand information on Ethiopia's land policy. The idea seemed to be to persist with misinformation and prejudices which have no mooring in reality.
Let me, therefore, put the facts straight. Ethiopia gives primary focus to ensuring food security of its citizens.To this end, the priority area is the enhancement of agricultural productivity at household levels. This implies that the bulk of the government's positive intervention in the area of ensuring food security involves helping millions of smallholder farmers in the country. The government believes that such a focus can best address legitimate needs of the bulk of the population.

Not only is the government focused on providing the necessary support and leadership to smallholders, but it has a clear policy that no small holding farmer will be dispossessed of his/her land for the purpose of foreign investors intending to engage in commercial farming. The facts can be cross-checked and verified: no farmer has been displaced from his or her land for any such purpose. In this regard it is worth noting that most criticism against the government had in the past largely been about the government‘s “over- protection” of smallholders and its reluctance to fully embrace massive commercial farming. Now, that the Ethiopian government has launched an ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan to double the nation's GDP in five years, the role of agro-investment becomes all the more decisive. Most of the companies will be involved in the production of highly needed cereals which will not only earn the nation highly needed foreign currency but also contribute to securing food security and food self—sufficiency in the country.

It is also the policy of the Ethiopian government that the large swathes of hitherto uncultivable land in very remote and inaccessible parts of the country should be made available to foreign investors interested in investing in commercial farming. The government wants to put to use these swathes of land for the purpose of augmenting its national goal of ensuring food security.

Here again, the focus of the GTP is that beyond scaling up the productivity of smallholders, more attention must be paid to raise the level of contribution of extensive and mechanized farming in the nations endeavour to extricate itself out of poverty. The majority of these lands are to be found in sparsely populated regions of the country where the risk of displacing local populations for this purpose is far too negligible. The areas being allocated for this purpose are totally inaccessible in terms not only of infrastructure development. but also areas which have hardly been inhabited by people. So in all fairness, all this talk about people being displaced for the purpose of land lease is unfounded at best and even deliberately contrived at worst.

The government of Ethiopia takes the issue of climate change and social impact seriously. The lands that are made available for investors are thoroughly studied in order to ensure that the investment projects’ impact on the livelihood of the local communities as well as their impact on climate is kept to the minimum possible.

Anyone familiar with the larger global picture can say with certainty that we don’t hear much fuss over similar projects in other parts of the world such as Latin America. One can therefore safely conclude that the noise about “land grab” in Africa has everything to do with the paternalism of some of the “activists" as well as with the identity of the investors who are currently benefiting from the deals. The hidden agenda becomes clear when we consider that the investors in land in Africa, including Ethiopia, are mainly from India, China and countries in the Middle East unlike in the case of say Latin America, where such projects are mainly owned by western investors. The inflated noise about land grab has also another face. It is a clear reminder of the condescending outlook reflected by many western institutions doubting the capability of African states to sincerely advance the interest of their citizens. One can't help thinking that the recent deafening noise about land grabbing by Indian investors is driven by a pre- determined design to deter investment from emerging economies like that of India.

While criticism has its just place in any democratic culture, let‘s ensure that facts are not replaced by fictions planted by vested interests who are trying to play the spoiler in the blossoming relationship between India and Ethiopia and India and Africa.

(Metasebia Tadesse is Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, New Delhi. This article was originally publised on India Writes Network (IWN))
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