Ethiopian President Concerned by Lease of Forest to Indian Firm

Bloomberg | 4 February 2011

By William Davison

Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis and the country’s environmental regulator have both written to the Agriculture Ministry expressing concern over the sale of forestry land to foreign agricultural companies.

“Whilst our country is representing Africa in international panels regarding global warming through our Prime Minister, for no reason should forest land be given out for agricultural purposes,” Girma wrote in a note dated Dec. 10 and published on the Ethiopian Review website on Jan. 31.

The comments were in response to the lease of 3,012 hectares (7,443 acres) of forest in the Gambella region to New Delhi-based Verdanta Harvests Plc on April 21. The land will initially be used to grow tea.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi headed Africa’s negotiating team at the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit where rich nations pledged to give the developing world $30 billion by 2012. The money will partly be used for reforestation projects that trap carbon dioxide. Ethiopia has also undertaken a reforestation campaign over the last decade that took forest coverage back up to 9 percent of the country’s land area, the Agriculture Ministry said in July.

The Horn of Africa nation, which regularly suffers food shortages, plans to lease another 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of land over the next five years to earn foreign exchange and increase yields by raising productivity.

Agriculture Minister Tefera Deribew returned from a trip to India yesterday, where he was trying to attract more investment.

“I am confident that more than half of the 3.6 million hectares land will go to Indians,” the New Delhi-based Indo- Asian News Service cited him as saying on the visit.

Bush Not Forest

Verdanta’s land is “bush” not forest, Esayas Kebede, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s investment support directorate, said by phone yesterday.

Stringent environmental and social regulations are in place and “every investor has to prepare an environmental impact assessment before it clears the land,” Esayas said. “We have given more attention to conservation in forest areas and the people living there.”

Still, the ministry hasn’t replied to a letter from the Environmental Protection Authority sent six months ago that expressed concern about the Verdanta deal, according to Berhanu Ayelew, assistant to the director general of the EPA.

“They should follow the correct procedures,” Berhanu said by phone from Addis Ababa on Feb. 2. “If they have followed them, let them show us and discuss it. The local community’s concern is that natural forest they have been conserving for many years has been given to investors.”

“The government has given us the land, signed, sealed and documented. I do not know anything about any dispute,” Verdanta Chief Executive Manojeet Barkataky said in an interview yesterday in Addis Ababa. “It’s replacing green with green. Not green with concrete.”

--Editors: Philip Sanders, Emily Bowers

To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg at [email protected].

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at [email protected].

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Source: Bloomberg