The Ethiopian government under its “villagization” program is forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous residents from the western Gambella region to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities, Human Rights Watch said in a report Jan. 16. State security forces have repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested villagers who resist the transfers. “The Ethiopian government’s villagization program is not improving access to services for Gambella’s indigenous people, but is instead undermining their livelihoods and food security,” said Jan Egeland of Human Rights Watch. “The government should suspend the program until it can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people have been properly consulted and compensated for the loss of their land.”
The residents of Gambella, mainly indigenous Anuak and Nuer, have never had formal title to the land they have lived on and used. The government often claims that the areas are “uninhabited” or “under-utilized” —allowing authorities to bypass constitutional provisions and laws that would protect these populations from being relocated.
The Ethiopian government is planning to resettle 1.5 million people by 2013 in four regions: Gambella, Afar, Somali, and Benishangul-Gumuz. Relocations started in 2010 in Gambella, and approximately 70,000 people there were scheduled to be moved by the end of 2011. Under the Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State Government Plan, 45,000 households are to be moved during the three-year program. The plan pledges to provide infrastructure for the new villages and assistance to ensure alternative livelihoods. The plan also states that the movements are to be voluntary.
Instead of improved access to government services, however, new villages often go without them altogether. The first round of forced relocations occurred at the worst possible time of year—the beginning of the harvest—and many of the areas to which people were moved are dry with poor-quality soil. The nearby land needs to be cleared, and agricultural assistance—such as seeds and fertilizers—has not been provided. The government failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation.
Human Rights Watch says pastoralists are being forced to abandon their cattle-based livelihoods in favor of settled cultivation under the progam. Shifting cultivators—farmers who move from one location to another over the years—are being required to grow crops in a single location, which risks depleting their soil of vital nutrients. In the absence of meaningful infrastructural support and regular supplies of food aid, the changes for both populations may have life-threatening consequences, Human Rights Watch said.
The resident of one new village told Human Rights Watch: “We expect major starvation next year because they did not clear in time. If they [the government] cleared [the land] we would have food next year but now we have no means for food.” Human Rights Watch called its report, “Waiting Here for Death: Forced Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region.”
The “villagization” program is taking place in areas where significant land investment is planned or occurring. The Ethiopian government has consistently denied that the resettlement of people in Gambella is connected to the leasing of large areas of land for commercial agriculture, but villagers have been told by officials that this is a reason for their displacement. Former local government officials confirmed these allegations to Human Rights Watch.
From 2008 through January 2011, Ethiopia leased out at least 3.6 million hectares of land, an area the size of the Netherlands. An additional 2.1 million hectares of land is available through the government’s land bank for agricultural investment. In Gambella, 42% of the total land area is either being marketed for lease to investors or has already been awarded to investors, according to official figures. “The villagization program is being undertaken in the exact same areas of Ethiopia that the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agricultural operations,” Egeland said. “This raises suspicions about the underlying motives of the villagization program.”
Foreign donors to Ethiopia, including the United Kingdom, United States, World Bank, and European Union, assert that they have no direct involvement in the villagization programs. However, the multi-donor Protection of Basic Services program subsidizes health, education, agriculture, roads, water projects and local governments in the country—including areas where new villages are being constructed. and where the main activity of local governments is moving people. “It seems that the donor money is being used, at least indirectly, to fund the villagization program,” Egeland said. “Donors have a responsibility to ensure that their assistance does not facilitate forced displacement and associated violations.”
Indian-owned Karuturi Global is among the firms investing in Gambella region, drawn by the Ethiopian government’s portrayal of land availability. The country has 74.3 million hectares of arable land, of which 12 million is cultivated. By government figures, 350,000 hectares have been leased in the last two years. The Oakland Institute, a research group, says the area leased is ten times the official figure.
Land leasing to private investors is rapidly increasing. Globally, about 45 million hectares (111 million acres) of farmland were leased in 2009, compared with a previous average rate of 4 million hectares a year, the World Bank says. More than 70 percent of the deals were in Africa, most of them in Sudan, Mozambique, Liberia, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Madagascar. (HRW, Jan. 16; CSM, Dec. 23 via Oakland Institute)
Gambella regional president Omod Obang Olum was recently removed from his post as head of the ruling Gambella Peoples’ Democratic Movement (GPDM)—affiliated with the country’s ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front— after reportedly admitting to involvement in a 2003 massacre of more than 400 members of the minority ethnic Anuak community. Several other GPDM executive committee members are also reported to have lost their jobs. (VOA, Jan. 16)
The US ambassador to Ethiopia Donald E. Booth visited Gambella Jan. 1-3 to visit US-supported projects in health and education, meet with local government officials, and discuss local issues in Gambella such as “commercial farming and regional development.” (Nazret, Jan. 13)