Ethiopia’s policy of leasing millions of hectares of land to foreign investors is encouraging human rights violations, ruining livelihoods and disturbing a delicate political balance between ethnic groups, a thinktank report has found.
The US-based Oakland Institute says that while the east African country is nowlauded as an economic success story, the report, Engineering Ethnic Conflict, “highlights the unreported nightmare experienced by Ethiopia’s traditionally pastoralist communities”.
A controversial “villagisation” programme has seen tens of thousands of people forcibly moved to purpose-built communes that have inadequate food and lack health and education facilities, according to human rights watchdogs, to make way for commercial agriculture. Ethiopia is one of the biggest recipients of UK development aid, receiving around £300m a year.
The Oakland Institute’s research, conducted in 2012 and 2013, focused on 34,000 Suri pastoralists who have lived in south-west Ethiopia for up to three centuries. Suri livelihoods consist of herding cattle, goats and sheep, shifting cultivation, and hunting and gathering.
But the recent introduction of large-scale plantations “has not only made important grazing lands unavailable to the Suri and devastated their livelihoods, but disturbed political order between the Suri and other local ethnic groups, escalating violent conflicts”, the report says.
The investigation was prompted by 2012 reports of violence at Koka, a foreign-owned 30,000 hectare (74,000 acres) plantation established two years earlier to produce palm oil, although it has since expanded to grow moringa trees and maize, with plans for rubber trees.
According to a Kenyan NGO, Friends of Lake Turkana, the government cleared grass and trees to allow Malaysian investors to establish the plantation. Water was diverted from the Koka river to these plantations, leaving the Suri without water for their cattle.
In response, the Suri took up arms and battled government forces, Friends of Lake Turkana said. Government forces killed 54 unarmed Suri in a marketplace in retaliation. There have been more killings and arrests since.
Based on interviews with victims’ families, officials and other witnesses, the Oakland Institute found that the plantation exacerbated tensions between the Suri and another ethnic group, the Dizi, seen as collaborating with the government. The first episode of violence in February 2012, in which three Dizi police officers were killed, occurred over police marking land for expansions of the plantation.
The institute accuses the Ethiopian government of manipulating these tensions, for example, by favouring the Dizi in employment. “According to field research, the increase in violent clashes between the Suri and Dizi can be linked to the intrusion of the Koka plantation and displacement of Suri from lands vital for cattle raising, one of their most important livelihood resources.”
A generation after the famine that was screened around the world, Ethiopia claims it is on track to meet most of the millennium development goals and become a middle-income country by 2025. But the report contends that the government puts foreign and political interests above the rights and needs of local populations, especially historically marginalised and neglected ethnic groups.
It also argues that the World Bank’s support of three phases of Ethiopia’s pastoral community development project implicates western funds in the coerced settlement of pastoral communities and the conditional – and coercive – distribution of food aid.
“The dramatic reconfiguration of land for foreign investment in the Koka plantation, as well as its alleged failure, illustrates the haphazard manner in which the government of Ethiopia implements its development strategy,” it says.
“While there have been reports of Suri returning to the plantation lands to take corn and sweet potatoes, the palm tree-lined land is no longer suitable for grazing. Although, presumably, investors are unhappy with the failure of their cheaply-leased land, the local impact has been the increase of local ethnic conflicts and the drastic altering of local livelihoods.
“As such, the Koka plantation is representative of the Ethiopian strategy of pursuing foreign investor-led development at the expense of local inhabitants.”
Felix Horne, Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Unfortunately, the Suri and other marginalised groups have no ability to voice their concerns over these developments on their land.
“There is little in the way of an independent media in Ethiopia that is permitted to cover this story, civil society that could advocate on these issues have been decimated by repressive laws, any criticism of government is met with harassment and detention. So what options are left for the Suri?”