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Calls to End Africa's 'Horrific' Land Deals After Indian Firm's Fallout

November 28, 2017
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Karuturi worker in Gambella camp. Credit: The Oakland Institute
Karuturi worker in Gambella camp. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Rina Chandran, Tom Gardner

MUMBAI/ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Large-scale land deals by investors in Africa are coming under greater scrutiny after an Indian firm demanded compensation for the cancellation of its lease by Ethiopia, with analysts saying they are hurting local communities and damaging ecosystems.

Karuturi Global, one of the largest investors in Ethiopia’s commercial farming industry, said the cancellation of its lease for 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) in the western Gambella region broke the terms of its agreement with the government.

Ethiopian officials, who have earmarked some 11.5 million hectares of land for overseas firms to invest in agriculture, say Karuturi failed to make adequate progress on the land allotted for growing and exporting sugarcane, rice and palm oil.

Critics say neither side addresses the more controversial issue of millions of indigenous people and small farmers being forcefully removed from their ancestral land with little consultation or compensation.

“These large-scale plantations and farms are displacing people who have lived there for generations, without creating jobs for the locals or enhancing food security,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of California-based advocacy group Oakland Institute, which has studied these deals.

“It is a horrific abuse of rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

Across Africa, more than 117 large-scale land deals totaling about 22 million hectares, an area the size of the U.S. state of Utah, have been recorded in the last 12 years, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Millions of small farmers and herders in Ethiopia have been moved from the land offered to investors and relocated under “villagisation” programs, often with threats and assaults, according to rights groups, including GRAIN and the Oakland Institute.

The new villages where they are resettled often lack basic resources including adequate food, agricultural support, and health and education facilities, according to activists.


Ethiopian officials have denied people are being displaced, or that villagisation takes place where overseas investments are planned. The program provides better infrastructure for rural populations, they say.

“We have never replaced farmers, we have never replaced pastoralists in favor of mechanized farming,” said Fitsum Arega, director of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, a government body.

“There is lots of vacant land available that is not taken by any farmers. We believe in encouraging private investors with the capacity to develop large amounts of land,” he said.

Agribusinesses, investment funds and government agencies piled into developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, when oil prices peaked in 2007-08, leading to a surge in prices of food.

Cheap land to grow food crops and bio-fuels to enhance food and energy security has become essential as populations expand.

There is plenty of land in Africa, with only 5 percent of an estimated 550 million hectares of arable land in central Africa being cultivated, according to the FAO.

Prices were lower than in other developing countries, the terms were favorable, including no import duties on machinery, and full repatriation of products and profits.

But most deals were cloaked in secrecy, and jobs for locals were often only low-paying manual work, activists say.

Most deals also encompass fertile lands which are inhabited, rather than marginal or infertile land as promised by officials.

“This is the land where indigenous communities have farmed and grazed their animals, and depended on for their livelihoods. This is the land where their ancestors lie,” Mittal said.

There is “irrefutable evidence that the locals have been forcibly evicted from their homes and lands. They have been intimidated, beaten, and even arrested for demanding their right to their land,” she said.