Ethiopia: Land grabbing and the emergence of ‘cereal republics’

By Raphael Grojnowski | February 4, 2010

Photo: BBC


Ethiopia’s recent history is punctuated by famine. Severe droughts, on-going conflicts and stagnating agricultural growth have been reproducing widespread food insecurities for decades. Compounded by cereal prices doubling over the last year, many people are struggling to meet even their most basic food needs. Concurrently the World Food Programme has had to reduce emergency food rations due to the high global food prices. Right now, at least 6.2 million people in Ethiopia are seriously threatened by hunger and malnutrition, and require urgent food assistance.

At the same time Esaya Kebede, Director of the Ethiopian Agricultural Investment Agency, revealed that the Ethiopian government has so far designated a total of 3 million hectares of agricultural land, an area around the size of Belgium, to be leased to incoming foreign investors. For a country on the constant brink of famine, this is a perplexing move. What is behind such massive land giveaways?

The land deals are part of a wider global trend, dubbed by many as neo-colonial land grabs. Shocked by the price spikes and distribution bottlenecks during the global food price crisis, wealthy food-importing countries from the Middle-East, India and China are scrambling to buy up enormous tracts of arable land on the African continent in order to long-distance farm for their own domestic markets. Similar to the Central American banana republics of the early twentieth century, foreign agri-businesses are working in close collaboration with their own governments to establish enormous agricultural plantations in African countries. Exploitative labor conditions, peasant land dispossessions and environmentally destructive industrial farming methods spring to mind. The only difference is that the target crops now are not cash crops like bananas, rubber or cocoa, but basic food staples, such as wheat, maize, barley and rice. Are we facing the emergence of neo-colonial ‘cereal republics’ throughout the developing world?

For many Ethiopian farmers, these land grabs are devastating. While the Ethiopian central government is actively involved in allocating land officially deemed ‘sparsely populated’ or ‘wasteland’, such claims need to be met with serious doubts. With some of the investment levels being in excess of $ 100 million, it is highly unlikely that investors will purchase land with low quality soil characteristics or poor access to infrastructure such as roads and ports. A comprehensive study by various United Nation agencies states that in the Ethiopian context, “the documented land deals tend to concentrate in regions with more fertile land and/or closer links to the markets”. Furthermore, most documented land deals are planned to occur in the Ethiopian highlands, considered one the most densely populated agricultural areas in Africa. Therefore gaining control overlarge tracts of contiguous land without any dispossession of local land is impossible.

With 85% of the Ethiopian population living in rural areas and being dependent on farming for their livelihood, losing access to arable land, their most crucial asset, will seriously undermine thousands of households’ ability to earn a living, produce and purchase sufficient food. Being stripped of the land will spell the end to many smallholder farming communities throughout the country, plunging many Ethiopian families deeper into rural poverty as landless laborers, creating new vulnerabilities and putting their food security at even greater risk.

On a national scale, the land grabs strike a further blow at the already fragile Ethiopian food security situation. Research shows that the vast majority of the foreign-owned farms are planning to grow cereals, destined for direct repatriation to the investors respective home market. This is extremely problematic, as the domestic production of cereals has an immense significance in Ethiopia. Not only is it the most important income source for the majority of small farmers, who account for over 90% of domestic agricultural production, but this domestic supply of cereals also represents the most important source of nutrition for both rural and urban consumers. In Ethiopia, food availability is strongly determined by the country’s own production of cereals (1). By taking land out of the production cycle, harvests from these lands which could be destined for local and regional markets, are going to be shipped away to feed foreign nations, while the local population remains food insecure and dependent on a volatile food aid regime. Even worse, in a time of acute national food crisis, trucks loaded with grain could be driven out of the country, while the population is starving.

So why is the central government so keen on giving away prime arable real estate at fire sale prices, instead of supporting its own farmers? Simply put, to attract foreign investment. Since the end of the era of State-led development in the 1970s, Northern-based International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have prescribed reduced government regulation and increased foreign direct investment (FDI) as the formula for achieving growth and development. After years of failed, top-down agricultural policies, the Ethiopian government was pressured into opening up its borders, amending legislation and facilitating the privatization of its agricultural lands. As a high-ranking Ethiopian government official disclosed: “we are looking to generate foreign exchange to support our development effort. It’s better than begging”.

To sweeten the deals, investors are using “win-win” rhetoric, making promises of increases in farm yields and rural development. However, the only winners are the foreign investors, their companies and possibly a few corrupt officials. Jumping on the bandwagon of the philanthrocapitalist-led new African Green Revolution, investors are bringing in modern technology, in form of new seed varieties, irrigation systems and chemical inputs to achieve their projected yield increases. Never mind the proven dangers of Green Revolution input intensive farming, as especially the use of fossil fuel based fertilizer and pesticides will lead to environmental destruction in many rural areas and losses in agro-biodiversity. The new highly irrigated farms will also need an unprecedented amount of water, ultimately leading to more fierce competition over this already scarce resource. As a result, sinking water levels and the chemical infestation of groundwater are likely to ensue, a terrifying future for surrounding farms and local populations. Furthermore, even if yields on the foreign farms rise exponentially, the local population does not stand to benefit, if all the produce is shipped directly from the Ethiopian fields to a government warehouse in Saudi-Arabia or China. Even initial employment will diminish over time as the farming projects evolve towards less labor-intensive cultivation through increased mechanisation.

Ethiopia itself must harness its enormous agricultural potential, not by selling it off as a cheap commodity, but by supporting farmers in growing culturally appropriate crops for domestic markets, using agro-ecologically sustainable farming methods. As an example, the Tigray sustainable agriculture project in Northern Ethiopia has already spread to65 districts since its inception in 1996. Based on the rich knowledge and agro-biodiversity of local farmers, its focus on ecosystem services instead offossil fuels, has helped farmers double yields, whilst reducing chemical fertilizer use by almost a third. The sovereignty of local farmers over their own land and resources must be ensured by affording them legal and political protection from land-grabbing by foreign agri-business investments, disguised as benevolent agricultural development initiatives.

(1) J. von Braun & P. Webb, Famine and food security in Ethiopia, New York: Wiley Publishers, 1994, p.26

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