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Ethiopia drives farmers off their land

It’s Christmas time, and the old favourites are being wheeled out, including Band Aid’s Do they know it’s Christmas, which in 1984 brought together top musicians in response to the terrible famine then raging in Ethiopia. No-one who saw the Michael Buerk’s reports for the BBC will ever forget them.

Now Ethiopia is one of Africa’s booming economies with a current annual growth rate of 8%. Addis Ababa, itself hosts one of the world’s biggest charity events. The Great Ethiopian Run harnesses the national passion for running to raise money for those in the countryside whose lives have not been improved by the boom.

In the next phase of economic expansion, the government of Meles Zenawi plans to lease 100,000 hectares of land over the next five years to global agribusiness. Companies include Saudi Star, owned by the Saudi royal family, which plans to grow water-hungry crops like rice and sugar.

The Ethiopian government claims the land is empty and unused and that inward investment will improve infrastructure and lift people out of poverty. But In reality this is an enforced land requisition, complete with repression and bribery. Ten people have already been killed in protests.

In a BBC report from the south west of the country, one of those protesting against the plans, explained how the land has been used by Ethiopia’s pastoralists, criss-crossing it with their animals in annual cycles, literally from time immemorial.

He told reporter Ed Butler: “There is no empty land in Gambella without a history. Village areas have been cleared and villagers have been bribed to sell their own farm. They can’t sell the land, it’s not theirs. That land is ancestral land.”

Ethiopian writer Dr Magn Nayang argues that it is possible to achieve modernisation WITHOUT handing over land to the global food companies who are “arguably the greatest generators of poverty, and consequently social and political instability in the world today”.

He recalls how farmers in the 1990s were encouraged to plant coffee, and as a result the price of coffee fell as the market was flooded and the incomes of more than 25 million coffee growers, including Ethiopians, were devastated.This is what happens when you drag farmers who want to stay on their land forever, into the capitalist farming model without the kind of state subsidies enjoyed by European and American farmers. Dr Nayang puts is succinctly:

According to the economic theory of commodity industries, rising production and falling prices continue until profits are so low that investment capital moves elsewhere. The Karuturi Global, the Saudi Star, and the likes are bound to move somewhere else, once they deplete the long-term fertility of the soil. However, poor farmers do not have this option. In fact, poor farmers typically keep trying to expand production even when costs exceed prices in desperate attempts to maintain their incomes and stay on their land.

Agricultural commodity prices are soaring – cotton is up 100% over the year; soybeans 27% and wheat has also increased dramatically. Food prices are rising across the globe. This is partly due to demand from the growing economies of China, India and Brazil. But it is also a result of the US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, where money pumped into the economy is finding its way into speculation on commodity prices.

In the meantime, marginal land is being despoiled by intensive farming, water wasted on inappropriate cash crops – and at the end of the day the agri-corporations will move on leaving a desert behind them.

To protect the land, the farmers and the world’s food supply we need a new concept of commonwealth – a local and community-based framework for land use. It would reject the idea that the land belongs to the state, or to anyone – whilst protecting the rights of farmers to go on farming it and having agreed rights over it.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
16 December 2010

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