When Ethiopia feeds the world, who will feed Ethiopians?
When Bob Geldof formed Band Aid in 1984 he imagined the world feeding Ethiopia. Now, Ethiopia is feeding the world, but can things really have changed that much in 30 years? In the spring of this year I conducted a short piece of research into recent land lease deals and the subsequent building of huge farms in an area of Ethiopia called Gambella. The aim was to find out, through a number of longer semi-structured interviews with development workers and activists that had recently been in the area, what was going on and how it was affecting local people. The case study created a background for further discussion about political strategies for development in rural areas.
By: Agnes Bridge Walton
The region of Gambella is a remote western outpost of Ethiopia, not, you might think, a hub of activity, yet it is teeming with people from India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even Sweden. In fact, since the Ethiopian government decided to present 1.1 million hectares of prime farmland, an area roughly three times the size of Rhode Island, for lease at bargain prices, investors have been flocking to Gambella province.
Gambella, with its highly productive soil and steady water supply, is just one of many places in Subsaharan Africa that is experiencing the effects of the global hunger for more, and better, land. Governments, companies and local businessmen bought or leased around 33 million ha of land in the region between 2008 and 2009. They are driven by the increasing global demand for food, diminishing returns from existing crops due to soil degredation and climate change and the belief that farmland is a safe, high return investment. But clearly, no farmland is unused or unwanted and many discussions about the global land rush miss the central point; what happens to the people that used to work the land?
In the spring of 2011, I set out to answer this question. Attempting to penetrate the notorious silence surrounding internal affairs in Ethiopia was a challenge. At the time, the government was becoming increasingly afraid of mounting international debate and criticism of land lease deals. But through interviews with exciled local activists and development workers, I gradually managed to gain some insight into the impact of recent land deals on Gambella’s rural population.
To understand the social impact of these deals, one must first understand their enormity. One quarter of all land in Gambella has been passed into new hands for cultivation and several of the new farms are more than 120 km long. The villages and family compounds that once dotted the countryside are being abandoned and levelled to make way for oil palms, maize and cotton fields. While the government claims that the people who once lived there have voluntarily moved to new towns under a program to increase access to healthcare, education and infrastructure, the people themselves say that these new towns are little more than makeshift camps and that the promise of better living conditions has not been fulfilled.
However, it is not only government policy that is driving people away from their land. The environmental degradation that follows in the wake of massive-scale farming is also playing a part. In Gambella, the tropical forest of Godere is being clear-felled for a Saudi Star tea plantation, forcing the Majanger, who live, hunt and keep bees in Godere, out into the pasturelands of Nuer herders. As several subsidiaries of the region’s two main rivers have been diverted into irrigation, these same Nuer are being driven towards the great rivers and into land belonging to another group, the Anuak. In the past these groups have maintained an uneasy coexistance at best. But now, lost livelihoods on the land are resulting in conflict, confusion and greater poverty.
Ethiopia is a country that relies, even in better years, on food aid to feed it’s population. Malnourishment is widespread. To add to this, the drought that has so badly affected the entire Horn of Africa region is currently pushing the food insecure into acute crisis and outright famine. As most of the people I talked to pointed out, it is beyond paradoxical that such a country should be giving up its best land and scarce water supplies for the production of food that will be consumed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government continues to maintain that land deals like those in Gambella are securing much-needed foreign investment for one of the world’s poorest countries. The official story is that the giant agricultural companies bring with them employment, infrastructure and hard cash to local communities. But although some of the region’s inhabitants view the future with cautious optimism, most people I talked to remain deeply worried about the impact of so much land changing hands.
Fundamentally, the displacement of farmers and herders is turning food producers into passive food consumers. People who could previously feed themselves and their families have become recipients of food hand-outs and are reliant on outside help. For displaced families this constitutes the loss of nutritional self-determination; they suddenly become completely exposed to volatile global food prices and the changing goodwill of the government. They eat what little they can afford or what is given to them. Since few local people have found employment on new farms or construction projects, and those who have take home tiny sums of money, most do not have enough money to provide their families with adequate nutrition. Thus, a cycle of escalating hunger and poverty is born.
It is deeply interesting that a policy of massive agricultural investment over a short period of time can actually render an area less food secure. But this is the case in Gambella. The increasing powerlessness of local people to feed themselves in the midst of huge harvests serves as a stark reminder that it is not always more produce that is needed, but a more equitable distribution of power, money and land. These people could have been the driving force behind a sustainable agricultural development, designed to supply a whole country with food. Instead, they have been reduced to labourers, striving to feed others for a wage of less than a dollar a day and the province that was once called the future breadbasket of Ethiopia is now the breadbasket of greedier, though less hungry, nations.
By: Agnes Bridge Walton