Heineken’s brewery in Ethiopia leaves farmers without land
By Olivier van Beemen
On a sunny day in February 2013, the Dutch minister of foreign trade and development co-operation, Lilianne Ploumen, laid the first stone for a new Heineken brewery in Kilinto, then a small village on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“Everyone benefits from this,” the minister said.
The brewery was intended to create more local jobs and more profits for the Dutch beer company.
Ten years later, in a working-class area with unpaved roads just a few minutes’ drive from the brewery, many don’t share the minister’s optimism.
About 200 villagers were evicted from their land to make way for the new brewery, and some of them were resettled here.
Although the farmers did receive some compensation in the form of a small plot of land and one-off cash payment, they consider this to be far below the value of the land that was taken from them.
“It was a depressing time,” says Tolosa Balacha, a man with a grey beard and a green camouflage cap. On a piece of land of 1 000m2, he grew barley and teff, Ethiopia’s staple food, before he was told he had to move.
In compensation, he received a piece of land measuring 50m2 plus 60 000 birr, or just over $2 000 at the time.
“The plot was too small to build a new house and the money was too little to buy one,” he says. “Now I’m a security guard on a construction site. My life is standing still.”
Bezuelem Alemu remembers the stress that overwhelmed her father when he was told that he had to leave the land on which he had lived all his life. “He was desperate. ‘What should I do?,’ he kept saying. Shortly before we had to leave, he died of a heart attack.”
Alemu was there when the village was razed to the ground. “They came with a bulldozer and an elite police squad. It still hurts. I now work as a maid. My life could have been much better.”
Tilahun Demissie, another former farmer from Kilinto, speaking from his wheelchair, says he didn’t have the strength to resist. “The authorities first arranged temporary accommodation, but I was removed. I lived in a box for a while.”
Anbassa Tesfaye* is one villager who did put up a fight. He was given just 24 hours to leave his home, along with his cat, cows and sheep. “I refused and was accused of inciting my neighbours to revolt.”
Tesfaye says the police locked him in a cell and tortured him for three days, chaining his hands between his feet, and pouring buckets of water over him. He says he was made to undress and given electric shocks. For several hours, a full bottle of water was hung from his penis.
Eventually, they broke him. Tesfaye agreed to move, and now works at the Heineken brewery. He checks and fixes wooden pallets, making $40 in a good month, $10 in a bad one.
“It’s humiliating to work there. Stealing our land has made us hate Heineken, but we’re even angrier at the government,” he says. “They evicted us and gave our land away.”
At the time of going to print, the Ethiopian government had not responded to a request for comment.
By law, all land in Ethiopia belongs to the state. Foreign companies that want to build factories or operate farms must rent land from the government. It is the government that is responsible for relocating and compensating anyone who already lives there.
In recent years, the Ethiopian government has been enthusiastically renting large swathes of its territory to both local and foreign investors, regardless of who is already living there.
Since 2008, some seven million hectares have been leased to investors. “The land grabs are done mostly without prior consultation and without adequate compensation, sometimes with no compensation, to the evicted farmers and community members,” wrote Samrawit Getaneh Damtew, a legal researcher at the African Union, in a 2019 article in the African Human Rights Law Journal.
Damtew described the phenomenon of land grabs across Africa as a “neocolonialist scramble for Africa”, of which Ethiopia is the epicentre.
According to a 2011 estimate by the World Bank (the most recent available), some 70% of land grabs globally were taking place in Africa. All too often, these infringe on the rights of the people who were already there. Heineken does not seem to have mitigated that risk.
“In line with Ethiopian practice, the process of engaging with stakeholders, providing fair compensation and suitable relocation is managed by the Ethiopian government,” Heineken said in response to a request for comment. “We are concerned to hear allegations of human rights abuses and, while we were not directly involved in the resettlement process, we will engage locally to understand what happened and whether there is evidence of mistreatment. If so, we will engage with the relevant authorities to understand what can be done to address the concerns.”
The company declined to respond to specific questions, and denied a request for an interview with the manager responsible for the Kilinto expansion.
Wynona Mutisi - Heineken
(Illustration: Wynona Mutisi)
The question of what responsibility a foreign company may have in situations like this has come up in other contexts. In Uganda in 2001, a group of farmers was violently evicted from their land by Ugandan soldiers, to make way for a new coffee plantation owned by the Neumann Group, a German company that is the world’s leading supplier of raw coffee.
The farmers sued the Neumann Group for damages, and the high court issued a damning assessment of the group, saying it had a duty to ensure people on the land were adequately compensated and resettled.
“Instead they were quiet spectators and watched as cruel, violent and degrading eviction took place through partly their own workers,” the court said. “They lost all sense of humanity.”
“Everyone benefits,” the Dutch minister said on that day in 2013 when the first stone for the new brewery was laid. The venture has been a commercial success for Heineken, which is vying for the market leader position in Ethiopia with its French competitor, Castel.
But it has not led to increased employment. When Heineken entered the Ethiopian market in 2011 by acquiring two state-owned breweries, nearly 1 700 people worked there. Today, Heineken employs just over 1 000 permanent staff, despite building its third brewery at Kilinto.
A slogan the company likes to use is “Brewing a better world”, but a better world for whom?
* One villager’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
A version of this story was published on the Dutch investigative website Follow the Money. Travel expenses were covered by Free Press Unlimited.