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Ethiopia evicts farmers as starvation grows

The Ethiopian government is evicting up to 90,000 of its own people from their land to lease to foreign investors to grow crops for export. And they are doing this at a time when 4.5 million Ethiopians in the south-east of the country face starvation.

Survival International has charted the government’s theft of the country's most productive farmland, using so-called “nationalisation of land” to further the interests of a corrupt élite.

Along the Omo River in south west Ethiopia, Malaysian, Italian, Korean and Chinese firms are operating agri-businesses. The government is clearing as much as 245,000 hectares for vast state-owned, sugar-cane plantations. The self-sufficient, and efficient, Omo Valley people who have lived for centuries on small-scale mixed farming – the most sustainable kind of farming - are being forced out. Threats, jailings, beatings and rape are used to silence opposition.

The government deems the Omo valley people 'backward' and in need of modernisation. In other words, from independent farmers they will become landless labourers - either working for foreign interests or building a series of dams. This is an ecological disaster in the making that will deprive the land of its annual irrigation.

Survival International’s Director, Stephen Corry, said:

The Omo Valley tribes people are neither ‘backward’ nor need ‘modernising’ – they are as much a part of the 21st century as the multinationals that seek to appropriate their land. The tragedy is, forcing them to become manual labourers will almost certainly lead to a drastic reduction in their quality of life and condemn them to starvation and destitution like so many of their fellow countrymen.

The Ethiopian Minister for Mines clarified his government's investment policy when he said that the country's deposits of gold, silver, copper and other metals and minerals are "totally open" to foreign investors, with "no restrictions" at all.

China is seizing the opportunities on offer - some might call it a simple buyout. China's trade with Africa will exceed $110bn (£71bn) in 2011 and in Ethiopia they are creating a huge construction boom and increases in food and other exports.

Ethiopia is a capitalist success story, with GDP rising from $6.88bn in 1994 to $28.53bn in 2010. The annual growth rate is 8% but the impoverishment of the majority is the price being paid. Half the country's 72 million people live on less than $1 a day. Children as young as eight labour in government-owned sugar cane plantations, managed by Indian agri-businesses, who pay the equivalent of $0.83 a day. Newly-landless Omo Valley people who don't find work will be forced to move to the capital, Addis Ababa – dubbed “the world's biggest slum city” – in search of work.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cynically defends these rapacious policies and says those who accuse foreign companies of land grabbing are ill-informed, saying: “We do not want to admire the beauty of our country while we starve.” Zenawi and his EPRDF party are a corrupt élite who stole the 2005 election. In a wave of protests, 30 people were killed and 80,000 students rounded up; many oppositionists are still in jail.

This opposition movement, driven temporarily underground, will re-emerge as Africa's peoples set out to complete their struggle for liberation from colonialism with a struggle for democracy. But to succeed it will need outside assistance and what happens now in Egypt - Africa's second most populous and politically now most advanced country – is absolutely crucial to all of Africa.

The establishment of a popular democracy in Egypt, based on People's Assemblies, could rush aid and support to democratic struggles elsewhere. The future of Africa is not in the hands of the Chinese government, the World Bank or the aid agencies - it is to a very great extent, in the hands of the Egyptian masses.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
28 July 2011

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