Land, Water and Resource-Grabbing and Its Impact on Food Security in Africa
Editor’s note: Obang spoke about the Land, Water and Resource-Grabbing and Its Impact on Food Security in Africa at the 1st Africa Congress on Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa held in Bremerhaven, Germany, September 12-15 2012. This article is an abridged version of the speech.
As I speak about the relationship between land, water and resource-use related to food insecurity; particularly related to what I have called the “Second Scramble for African Land, Water and Resources,” I will not only be speaking of Africa as a whole, but I will be speaking as an insider—as someone who comes from this land and soil called Africa; in particular, from the Gambella region of Ethiopia in East Africa, which enables me to use my own experience as a microcosm of what is most at risk on the continent.
Yet, the issues of Africa are also global issues that will positively or negatively impact our global society. As global citizens, we will best flourish when we respect the rights of others for “no one will be free until all are free.” This is a fundamental principle of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), the social justice movement of which I am the executive director.
I come from a tiny, previously unknown, and now what some consider to be an endangered people group called Anuak, which means, “people who eat together, who laugh together and who share.” Anuak indigenous land stretches between eastern South Sudan and western Ethiopia, dividing the Anuak between two separate countries. When the civil war was going on in Southern Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees from every ethnicity, passed through our land, seeking refuge and peace. The Anuak of Gambella, Ethiopia would often supply food and water to the weary refugees as they fled war-torn Sudan.
Sadly, right now, the Anuak, nearly all small subsistence farmers, are becoming refugees in their own land as they are internally displaced from indigenous land their ancestors have possessed for centuries. They have become “disposable” people by a regime that wants their land, but not them, in order to lease it to foreigners and regime-cronies for commercial farms. They are not alone—millions of other Ethiopians and Africans from countries all over the continent are facing the same plight.
One of the greatest threats Africa has ever faced is the impact from this new phenomenon of land-grabbing. In many places, these land grabs are going on without any input from stakeholders and without any compensation for lost lands, homes, crops and livelihoods. Small farmers are ill-prepared for the sudden dispossession of their land and with it, the means to their livelihood. Lacking education or training for other jobs, some have become a source of cheap labor as they are left without alternative means for survival. These foreign investors, countries and regime cronies are often making secretive leasing agreements with authoritarian regimes that give them millions of hectares of land for next to nothing for periods of time as long as 99 years in some cases.
With the current concerns for food security, especially in a changing climate where our soaring world population is expected to reach nine billion inhabitants by 2050—only 36 years from now—unused and underutilized land, with access to water for irrigation, has become the new “precious commodity” sometimes called “green gold.” Add to that the ever-increasing global need for resources like minerals, oil, natural gas and commodities in general and where do eyes turn but towards Africa, a continent with great reserves of rich, untapped resources. This is what is driving the second scramble for Africa.
During the first scramble for Africa, foreign slave-traders trafficked African human beings with assistance from partners on the inside, Africans themselves, who wanted to profit from the betrayal of their fellow African brothers and sisters, especially those from competing tribes. Divide and conquer policies made it easier for outsiders to align with some African opportunists, the powerful among them, who then became complicit with these outsiders in the exploitation of other Africans. Colonialism, while making some genuine contributions to Africa, is still broadly considered one of the darkest of times in the history of humanity, marked by the ruthless, exploitive and dehumanizing pursuit of slave labor, economic profit and power from Africans and Africa.
This pursuit of Africa’s people as marketable commodities and of Africa’s many resources led to foreign-led minority rule, which was maintained through divide and conquer strategies, later adopted by African strongmen. The continent has not recovered. These African strongmen, with their “tribal-based groups” continue today. Even in Ethiopia, where colonial efforts failed, feudalism succeeded—with similar results. Whether colonialism or feudalism, both systems fed off of the manipulation of tribalism or its weaknesses. Now, “one-tribe-take-all” politics, with its “colonial” or “feudal” strongmen, has infected much of Africa and can be seen in the ethnic-based, one-party regimes typical of most dictatorships on the continent. Conflict never resolves as one group thrives—usually a minority of the population—while everyone else struggles.
If another group comes into power; the pattern is oftentimes repeated. Strong institutions for checks and balances do not exist or when they do, they are pseudo-institutions, controlled by those in power. These non-representative governments continue to epitomize what happened at the Berlin conference of 1885, held only a short distance from where we are today, when Europeans met to divvy up the continent of Africa based on their self-interests. No Africans were present. Now, modern-day African dictators are doing the same.
Thirsty for power, material wealth and privilege, and empowered by foreign and crony partners and heavy-handed militaries, they are divvying up the indigenous land and resources of the African people, without consulting the people or providing compensation for losses, as required under international law and many national constitutions. The people are disempowered, intimidated or “bought off.” The environment has never been at greater risk as short-term interests and quick-gain trumps the political will to give oversight to ecological concerns surrounding development projects.
From 2008 until now, some 204 million acres of land (approximately 80 million hectares) have been leased worldwide. The majority of it is in Africa. Within the African continent, Ethiopia is at the forefront of these land-grab deals. In Ethiopia, no place has been more affected than my own home region of Gambella, which has now become the epicenter of land-grabs in the world. Let me share with you how it happened and how these land-grabs are contributing to food insecurity in a place where people have not had to rely on outsiders to feed them until now.
In 2008, the authoritarian regime, led by the deceased Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, made a secretive deal with Karuturi Global Ltd, an Indian-run commercial agricultural operation. In that deal, they leased 100,000 hectares for fifty years, with the promise of 200,000 more hectares when they developed the first section; making it the largest commercial farm in the world. View on Karuturi Global and Ethiopia.
Most of the produce is destined for export to India or other international commodity markets. Some of the local Anuak have been employed by Karuturi, but wages are mostly below the World Bank’s established poverty level. In one year, from 2009 to 2010, the number of private investors in the Gambella region—mostly companies from India, Saudi Arabia, China and regime-cronies— mushroomed from close to zero to nearly 900. They include Saudi Star, owned by Sheik Mohammed al Amoudi, a half Ethiopian-half Saudi billionaire, who allegedly will be exporting the food to Saudi Arabia. This past year, armed insurgents, opposed to the land grabs, broke into their headquarters and killed a number of Saudi Star employees, an indication of potential for violence in some of these communities opposed to the expropriation of land from the local people.
A land study completed for the Ethiopian government in 1995 highlighted the value of the Gambella region as being a potential breadbasket of Ethiopia because of its fertile land and plentiful water in the lowlands of the Upper Nile headwaters. It was an undeveloped region of great bio-diversity, abundant wildlife and virgin forests. Around the same time, oil was found. Finding resources on your land is like finding cancer in your body—it threatens your life and future—especially in a country where the people are seen as impediments rather than valued; even more so if these people demand their rights under their own constitution and international law.
In 2003, the regime went after the oil. The first step was to silence those Anuak leaders who were most outspoken regarding having a say—a right within the Ethiopian Constitution—in the development of the oil reserves on Anuak indigenous land. Starting on December 13, 2003, armed Ethiopian Defense Forces, accompanied by civilian militias equipped by the regime with machetes, attacked and brutally murdered 424 Anuak leaders within a span of three days. The bodies were buried in mass graves. Women were raped and homes, clinics and schools destroyed; followed by over two more years of widespread perpetration of human rights crimes and destruction. I personally knew over 300 of those killed during this 3-day massacre; among them were relatives, classmates and colleagues in the development work I was doing in the area. The regime covered it all up and attributed it to ethnic conflict between the Anuak and another indigenous ethnic group. A Chinese company, under the auspices of PETRONAS of Malaysia, began drilling for oil at the very same time. As long as they were there, the human rights crimes continued.
Genocide Watch completed two reports, classifying it as genocide targeting a specific people group, the Anuak, and determining that those in the highest offices of the country were involved in its planning and execution. Human Rights Watch did two reports and found widespread crimes against humanity related to the oil drilling.
In 2007, when the drilling only produced dry wells, the troops were moved to southeastern Ethiopia and Somalia where many similar crimes were committed against civilians of the Ogaden region. Now, the Ethiopian government has announced that they will be partnering in the extraction of oil from the Ogaden region.
If you fast-forward to the present time in Gambella, it is now the grabbing of land, the forced eviction of the local people and the renewed human rights crimes perpetrated by the military against any resistance to the above that threatens the Anuak and other indigenous people. In 2011, we in the SMNE partnered with the Oakland Institute (OI) to complete a comprehensive study on the nature of these land grabs, “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Ethiopia.” It was part of a larger study done by OI and other partners of a number of other African countries.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch completed an investigation of the impact of these land grabs on the local people. They reported on the forced eviction of 70,000 indigenous people from their homes and farms in Gambella, with plans to eventually move a total of 245,000 people—three-quarters of the total population in the region. The regime has alleged that the resettlement moves were voluntary and motivated by the regime’s intention to better provide services such as clean water, medical care and schools; but in actuality, the people were forced to move to “villagization centers” where many people ended up living under trees and to areas where services, fertile land and access to water were far inferior, less accessible or non-existent.
Some of those who have been displaced are people I personally know, so when I am talking about the impact, I know many of their stories. I know that those forced off their land are now struggling to eat. I know about the huge areas of virgin forests that have been cut down to clear vast fields for planting. I know how vulnerable the rivers are to pollution from chemicals and fertilizers. These are rivers from which I used to drink or fish. I know how the wildlife will be jeopardized. I know how those who resist are beaten, killed, disappeared or arrested. This is not only happening in Gambella and in Ethiopia but wherever people have no rights and where others covet their resources or land. This is confirmed by the PBS documentary (View now) and another video done by the Guardian (View now).
This land-grabbing is life-grabbing. It should not be allowed and should not be accepted by decent human beings. We live on this globe called earth. It may look huge to us here, but from space, it is like a tiny bead that can fit into a hand. We are all in this together and we have to maintain it. We have a stake in it. When dealing with a human life, we should value it, putting “humanity before ethnicity” or any other distinctions that divide us from each other.
For a better world, it requires all of us to remember that “none of us will be free until our brother and sister—our fellow human beings in this world—are free.” Our humanity does not have boundaries. We have to preserve it, protect it and be part of it. Do not be bystanders. We have to reach out, take action, love our global neighbors and be the ones to do your share from wherever you are.
Obang Metho is Executive Director of the SMNE (www.solidaritymovement.org), a social justice movement of diverse Ethiopians that joint-sponsored with the think tank, Oakland Institute, to produce the Ethiopian portion of the comprehensive investigative report, Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa, published in June 2011. Obang is a human rights activist who has tirelessly advocates for human rights, justice, freedom and environment, enhanced accountability in politics and peace in Africa for over 10 years. He has been interviewed on many radio programs like BBC, CBC, World News Australia Radio, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Deutsche Welle Radio, Pacifica Radio, Special Broadcasting Service and Voice of America radio.