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Ethiopia: A Battle for Land and Water

February 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A controversial resettlement program in Ethiopia is the latest battleground in the global race to secure prized farmland and water. Correspondent Cassandra Herrman reports as part of the Food for 9 Billion series, a NewsHour partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and Marketplace.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a struggle over land in Western Ethiopia that pits village farmers against the government and land investors.

Tonight’s story is part of a multimedia project that looks at the challenge of feeding the world in a time of social and environmental change. It’s a NewsHour partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

The project is called Food for 9 Billion.

Tonight’s correspondent is Cassandra Herrman.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: The Anuak people of the Gambella region have lived in scattered settlements like this for centuries, growing maize in wetter months farming closer to the river in the dry season.

But last year, the Ethiopian government launched a program called villagization. Officials told the people here they would be relocated to areas with better access to clean water, health, and education. But this woman says they were forced to move under false pretenses.

WOMAN (through translator): When we left our farm, our crops were ready for harvest, but they told us to leave them in the field, that we would find plenty of corn and other food in the new place we were moving. But they don’t give you enough food to fill you up. They give you food in a small container but it can’t even feed a family for a day.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: The plight of the Anuak people is at the heart of a complex battle over landownership and water rights between farmers, the government, and foreign investors. It’s a battle that is being fought in many African countries.

The Ethiopian government officially owns title to all the land here, but farmers have the right to use it. The government calls this land abandoned because it’s so sparsely populated. But Anuaks say they need it, some for grazing, some to lay fallow, and that it’s the best farmland in the country.

MAN (through translator): Moving us to a new village might be good for the government, but not for us. It’s not good to move a person from the land they have lived on for generations. Maybe the government thinks we are not worthy enough to live on such beautiful land, and they want to have it.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: Over the next two years, 1.5 million people in four regions of Ethiopia will be relocated. The government insists that the villagization program is voluntary.

But Human Rights Watch says Anuak are being forced to move so that the government can lease the land to investors. The rights group recently documented cases of violence and arbitrary arrest.

OKOK OJULU, Anuak leader (through translator): Land is political. Land is very emotional. And land is our identity.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: Anuak leader Okok Ojulu was a voice of resistance against villagization. Fearing for his live, Ojulu fled Ethiopia and now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya.

OKOK OJULU: When I see my village, very small in the face of this big population coming in, I see a big threat. We need to fight for the future of our children.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: Ojulu says it’s not just his people’s land that is at stake. Gambella, with several rivers and a sizable dam, is rich in water resources.

Water is the driving force behind many agricultural deals on the African continent. This rice farm is owned by a Saudi sheik and is on land that Anuak consider theirs. According to the company Saudi Star, when completed, this rice farm will be the largest in Africa.

HAILE ASSEGIDE, Saudi Star Agricultural Development: Our objective is to put Ethiopia in the rice map of the world. We would like to export about one million tons of rice. We expect about $1 billion of income for the country.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: In many places in the world, water is becoming a scarce resource. Saudi Star’s rice will go to Gulf nations no longer able to irrigate their own crops.

To attract investors to this area of the Nile River Basin, the Ethiopian government puts few, if any restrictions on water usage in its contracts with foreign companies. Saudi Star will spend $2.5 billion on the rice farm, on clearing forests, on their fleet of new tractors and combines, and on extra experts like Mohammad Manzoor Khan, one of the project’s director.

MOHAMMAD MANZOOR KHAN, Saudi Star Agricultural Agency: It’s a lot of rice for the world market of local people. This project is generating a lot of income. It can really bring a revolution in poor production, as well as uplifting the social ambitions of the people around.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: But Ethiopians don’t typically eat rice, and many question the move to grow crops for export, when Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa have a long history of periodic hunger caused by war and weather problems.

DESSALEGN RAHMATO, Forum for Social Studies: This country is a country that has suffered food insecurity and famine, still suffers food insecurity, and yet gives out its huge land resources to foreign capital.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: Dessalegn Rahmato is a food policy expert with the Forum for Social Studies. He says making sure people have access to food should be the government’s priority.

DESSALEGN RAHMATO: There is no provision — in any of the contracts signed by the government and investors, there’s no provision for food security, local food security at all. And if there are people who are starving there, it’s not their concern.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: In the capital, Addis Ababa, the government says the way to ensure people can afford food is to provide jobs through attracting investment and foreign currency.

At the Ministry of Agriculture, Director of Investment Essayas Kebede says that as a country of farmers, Ethiopia needs agricultural exports in order to pay for importing necessary items.

ESSAYAS KEBEDE, Agricultural Investment Agency: To have tractors, to have harvesters, to have other equipment and to have fertilizer, we are importing fertilizer. We are importing oil. We are importing everything.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: But, in Gambella, Anuaks say they are not seeing the benefits of the country’s investment strategy. While companies like Saudi Star now have access to much of the region’s best land and water, the leader of this village says they’ve been moved to drier areas where farming is more difficult.

MAN (through translator): If they take all the water from the small river, the river will dry up. Then where would we get water? I heard also that they are planning to take water from the lake a few kilometers from here.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: The lake he is referring to is the Alwero Dam. Saudi Star is close to finishing an 18-mile canal from the dam to irrigate their rice fields.

MAN (through translator): If I knew they were moving me so they could sell my land, I would have refused to leave, so that they could kill me and bury me in my own land. That would have been better.

CASSANDRA HERRMAN: Many of the relocated communities could face endemic hunger as early as next year, according to Human Rights Watch. Most are still waiting for farms or seed.

More than 12 million Ethiopians are currently in need of food assistance. The future for groups like the Anuak grows increasingly uncertain as the global land rush continues, not just in Ethiopia, but in dozens of countries across the African continent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find the first two reports in this series at the Food for 9 Billion website. There’s a link to it on NewsHour.PBS.org.