By William Davison
The U.S. should reassess its support for the government of Ethiopia, amid concern that more than half a million people are being evicted to make land available for foreign investment in agriculture, advocacy groups including the Oakland Institute said.
A meeting tomorrow between President Barack Obama and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, among other African leaders, presents an opportunity for the U.S. to address the issue, the California-based group said in a joint statement with the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, or SMNE. The U.S. has provided aid worth more than $1 billion a year since 2007 to Ethiopia, according to the statement.
Foreign investment in commercial farming may be the “single largest man-made contributor to food insecurity on the continent today,” they said. “We hope that you will take leadership in responding to an international call asking you to put the brakes on this impending and present-day catastrophe.”
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, is leasing out land to investors to grow cash crops and generate foreign exchange. The government leased 350,096 hectares (865,106 acres) of land to 24 companies, including 10 foreign ones, according to the Agriculture Ministry’s website. Oakland puts the amount of leased land at 3.6 million hectares.
The government denies any connection between land leasing and resettlement programs. The relocation of about 20,000 households in the southwestern Gambella region last year was voluntary and aimed at providing people with access to farmland and public services, Federal Affairs Minister Shiferaw Teklemariam said in an interview in March.
Oakland and SMNE criticized U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald E. Booth, citing him as saying people in Gambella benefit from the government’s policies.
“Mr. Booth seems unwilling to acknowledge any of the abuse, violence, or coercion that human rights groups and the media have reported,” they said. The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia is awaiting approval from Washington for its response to the statement, Diane Brandt, a spokeswoman for the embassy, said by phone today from Addis Ababa.
SMNE, which has branches in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, advocates “rule of law, respect for human rights, equal opportunity and good governance” in Ethiopia, according to its website. The group’s executive director, Obang Metho, is being tried in absentia in Ethiopia for terrorism.
Horizon Plantations, an Ethiopian company majority owned by Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi, criticized Oakland’s association with SMNE. Horizon has leased 20,000 hectares in Ethiopia’s western region of Benishangul-Gumuz to grow groundnuts for edible oil.
“All of the land being given to international investors is the land which is not developed at all,” Horizon General Manager Jemal Ahmed said in a phone interview. “Oakland Institute does not care for Ethiopia. They are doing their best to stop the development taking place by allying themselves with violent and hate-advocating diaspora opposition.”
To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa via Nairobi at [email protected].
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin in Johannesburg at [email protected].