NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Africa for Africans? State-sanctioned foreign “land grabs” in Ethiopia

Feker Tadesse, MPA

Coming back to Princeton from JFK airport, an Indian gentleman struck up a conversation with me, inquiring where I was from. When I told him I was from Ethiopia, he proceeded to talk positively about the recent developments in the country, particularly leasing of land to foreign investors. Relieved as I was that the mention of “Ethiopia” didn’t automatically prompt him to lament about droughts and famine, nevertheless I was hard pressed to share his optimism for what’s been dubbed “The Land Grab of Africa.”

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, recently expounded on what leasing land to foreign investors would mean to the country’s economy. His argument was simple enough: there was plenty of idle land in the countryside that communities had neither agricultural nor settlement use for. Hence, foreign investors would transfer technology, create jobs for the locales, and increase government revenue. Thus far, some regions such as Benishangul Gumuz have leased around 2 million hectares to Saudi investors.

Critics are quick to point out the irony of a country that is dependent on food aid leasing out masses of fertile land so that countries like Saudi Arabia can ensure national food security. Moreover, the premise that the land being leased is idle land is under strong scrutiny. Stories regarding displacement of local populations have been circulating in the media. Secondly, environmental degradation is a real concern, particularly with the introduction of intensive agricultural ventures like horticulture that leave the land no longer viable for agricultural purposes. Finally, the prime minister’s argument that the agricultural sector in Ethiopia will not grow unless large scale mechanized farms come to its rescue is far from convincing. There are countless studies that claim quite the opposite: increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers is by far a better strategy to tackle rural poverty.

Given that the “land grab” issue is fairly recent, there is a lack of clear information on what exactly is taking place on the ground. While the PM’s arguments make sense theoretically, if recent allegations, particularly those on displacement of the local population hold true, this can hardly be praised as a government’s initiative towards foreign direct investment.

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