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Ethiopia: Are “Land Grab” Deals a Path to Food Security?

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

This post was commissioned as part of a Pulitzer Center/Global Voices Online series on Food Insecurity. These reports draw on multimedia reporting featured on the Pulitzer Gateway to Food Insecurity and bloggers discussing the issues worldwide. Share your own story on food insecurity here.

The push by multinational corporations and foreign governments in recent years to obtain fertile land in African countries such as Ethiopia, Madagascar and Tanzania has spurred debate over whether the move will lead to development or is simply a “land grab” that further threatens the continent's food security.

Worku Mengiste, a farmer in Ethiopia's Ghibe valley. Image by Flickr user ILRI (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Worku Mengiste, a farmer in Ethiopia's Ghibe valley. Image by Flickr user ILRI (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Land rush

There has been growing interest by foreign investors to buy or lease large areas of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa, either to grow food for their own countries or to export it for profit. The land rush has been triggered, says an article in South Africa's Mail & Guardian, by worldwide food shortages and food security concerns that followed oil price rises in 2008, water shortages and the European Union’s insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel come from plant-based biofuels by 2015. Others say population growth is also a factor.

Investors say these acquisitions will fuel development, but opponents call the move a “land grab” that will threaten Africa's own food security and livelihood. Stacy Feldman, writing for SolveClimate News, elaborates on the situation:

Researchers revealed that foreign companies are buying or leasing vast chunks of land in Africa and elsewhere for their own use. In fact, up to 50 million acres have been sold off or soon will be. That's equivalent to about 25 percent of all the farmland in Europe. Much of that land is being bought by emerging nations to raise crops for their growing populations. These countries – China, India, South Korea and oil-rich Gulf states – have land and water constraints at home. They got burned by [the 2008] global food crisis and are turning to Africa as a food security blanket.

In Ethiopia, farmland is being bought or leased on an immense scale. The country has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007 and land is being leased for approximately $1 per year for 2.5 acres, according to the Mail & Guardian. The country gave out 600,000 hectares (1.48 million acres) to foreign entities between 2004 and early 2009, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Meanwhile, Ethiopia remains one of the hungriest countries in the world. Earlier this year the Ethiopian government said some 2.8 million people are in need of emergency food aid in 2011. Forty-one percent of the population is undernourished. This paradox has angered some Ethiopians, including the women behind the blog Mitmita, who compare Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, to a goat:

Look at Prime Minister trying to convince everyone that he isn’t a land hording communist—it's a land giveaway! Are you a foreigner? Do you have cash? Well Melesocracy has a stimulus plan for you! The Mitmita Girls are quite familiar with a few project finance deals ourselves; from what we understand, in these intricate transactions, Third World governments in collaboration with First World financiers orchestrate what are tantamount to beads for Manhattan deals where like the Native Americans, ordinary Ethiopians are bilked out of inheriting our land because a man with an uncanny resemblance to a goat has sold it to the Chinese.

Tabor herb farm, Awassa, Ethiopia. Image by Flickr user Yigal Chamish (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Tabor herb farm, Awassa, Ethiopia. Image by Flickr user Yigal Chamish (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Hi-tech stimulus?

But proponents of these land deals, including the Ethiopian government, say it will bring capital, technology, agricultural knowledge, infrastructure and lots of jobs to impoverished rural areas where subsistence farmers use low-tech tools. One government official, reported Fred de Sam Lazaro in a piece for PBS Newshour that was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, says that Ethiopia has an abundance of land and barely five percent of it is being cultivated by the country's farmers.

Berhanu Kebede, Ethiopia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, said last month in The Guardian that the country must significantly develop mechanized agriculture to reach the development goals unveiled in Ethiopia's latest development plan, which aims for an average economic growth of 14.9 percent over a five-year period. A doubling of agricultural output, the plan says, will fuel that growth, and so the government has put aside 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land to be leased. The government says the country may not even need food aid within five years.

The blog Govindan Online, written by an former Indian diplomat, calls these land investments a welcome development:

Bringing in large areas of land under cultivation and building infrastructure will generate large scale employment even if these sectors are completely mechanized. Since land utilization in these continents is very low, compared to other continents, there is not going to be any ecological problems. It is also to be remembered that some European countries including Russia have sold/leased out land to foreigners with a view to increase local food grain production.

Speaking out against “land grabs”

Many farmers, land rights advocates, various reports and non-governmental organizations disagree. They call the situation a “land grab” that may lead to environmental destruction, displacement of small, local landholders, worker and resource exploitation, loss of livelihoods and food insecurity. Some say it's a new form of colonialism.

Many bloggers have also spoken out against the land grabs. Devinder Sharma, an Indian food and trade policy analyst blogging on Ground Reality, calls these foreign investors “food pirates.” Woldegb, commenting on Kebede's piece in The Guardian, says it is very unrealistic to believe that foreign investors can improve food security, and Nyikaw Ochalla, posting on Anyuak Media, refutes many of Kebede's claims.

Blog The Africanist says the deals will likely lead to violence and questions the logic of providing food aid to countries that are exporting food. Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, blogging on The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, points out that little has been mandated to protect the land and the interests of local communities and Ellen Albritton, blogging on CMH 365: Public Health and Social Justice, questions the ethics of benefiting from food grown in Ethiopia while Ethiopians starve.

RAH, commenting on a post on the blog Brown Condor, says there are four questions that should first be answered:

Number One: Will this adversely affect Ethiopian farmers in any major way?
Number Two: Will these foreign countries/companies abuse and or harm the land in any way?
Number Three: Will this drastically cut the water supply to downstream nations that depend on water from the Nile?
Number Four: Will all of this NEW REVENUE truly benefit the people of Ethiopia or just mainly the government?

The FAO says little is still understood about the impact of these international land deals. In response, the organization is drawing up a code of conduct to bring equitable shares for all parties in these deals. Perhaps such a code will help offset what the blog Yene Ethiopia believes is the government's shortsightedness in approving such land deals:

The Ethiopian government makes it seem as if 50 or 100 years from now everything will be as it were before the lease. After producing under highly mechanized, intensive farming, the land will no longer be productive. The sizes being given away are not benign. Is there a plan beyond selling the land that will ensure a generation from now these farmers’ children will not be landless laborers?…Why not empower these people? Help them build cooperatives? Give them favorable loans? Help them get mechanized? No, that would require actually governing and would be hard work.

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.


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