The idea of south-south co-operation evokes a positive image of solidarity between developing countries through the exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge. It's an attractive proposition, intended to shift the international balance of power and help developing nations break away from aid dependence and achieve true emancipation from former colonial powers. However, the discourse of south-south co-operation has become a cover for human rights violations involving southern governments and companies.
A case in point is the land grab by Indian corporations in Ethiopia, facilitated by the governments of both countries, which use development rhetoric while further marginalising the indigenous communities that bear the pain of the resulting social, economic and environmental devastation. It is against this scenario that international solidarity between communities affected by the insanity of a development model that prefers profits over people is reclaiming the principles of south-south co-operation.
Ethiopia's late prime minister, Meles Zenawi, welcomed India's expanding footprint in Africa as essential for his country's wellbeing, a vision shared by his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn. The Export-Import Bank, India's premier export finance institution, gave the Ethiopian government a $640m (£412m) line of credit to develop the controversial sugar sector in lower Omo. Indian companies are the largest investors in the country, having acquired more than 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) of land for agro-industrial projects.
With 80% of its population engaged in agriculture, Ethiopia is home tomore than 34 million chronically hungry people. Every year, millions depend on aid (pdf) for their survival. Amid such hunger, large-scale land deals with Indian investors are portrayed as a win-win situation, modernising agriculture, bringing new technologies and creating employment.
Research by the Oakland Institute, however, contradicts such claims. Most of what is produced is non-food export crops while tax incentives offered to foreign investors deprive Ethiopia of valuable earnings. The promises of job creation remain unfulfilled as plantation work at best offers menial low-paid jobs.
Worse still, the Ethiopian government is using its villagisation programme to forcibly relocate (pdf) about 1.5 million indigenous people from their homes, farms and grazing lands to make way for agricultural plantations. Those who refuse face intimidation, beatings, rapes, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, and even death. The repression of social resistance to land investments is even stipulated in some land lease contracts: "[it is the] state's obligation to 'deliver and hand over the vacant possession of leased land free of impediments' and to provide free security 'against any riot, disturbance or any turbulent time.'"
It was to challenge this form of south-south co-operation that the Oakland Institute, in partnership with Indian civil society groups the Indian Social Action Forum (Insaf), Kalpavriksh and Peace, organised an Indian-Ethiopian summit on land investments in New Delhi in February. Obang Metho of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia and Nyikaw Ochalla from the Anywaa Survival Organisation, members of the Anuak community of Gambela, Ethiopia, travelled to India with shocking testimonies of how their community has been dispossessed of livelihoods, ill-treated and subjected to misery while the Ethiopian government leases land to Indian corporations at giveaway prices.
This coming together of Indian and Ethiopian civil society groups marks a turning point in the struggle for land rights and livelihoods in the two countries and beyond. For the first time, the agony of communities who face human rights abuses as their lands are taken over has reached the investors' doorstep, sending a powerful message to the investors and governments of Ethiopia and India. At the same time, it initiated a rewriting of south-south co-operation where the takeover of communal lands that have been homes, grazing grounds and water sources for generations, by corporations – even if they are from the global south – is being recognised as a new form of colonisation. It was a starting point, and plans for further collaboration are under way.
Unlike the Ethiopian leaders who met the Indian business delegations in person, Metho and Ochalla did not get a hearing with Indian government officials, despite several requests. Instead, it was activists who are challenging land grabs across India who travelled to New Delhi to meet them. They told how control over land and natural resources is spurring violent clashes in nearly 130 districts of India. Meanwhile, reports came in that 12 platoons of police had moved in on villagers in Govindpur and Nuagaon in Odisha, to forcibly clear lands for the Korean Steel Posco project. Women and children were beaten indiscriminately and people were arrested as they tried to prevent the demolition of their betel vineyards – one of the most viable local livelihoods.
We need to challenge the paradigm of development that trivialises and ignores the human consequences of these land acquisitions by corporate investors and governments. The idea that "some have to be sacrificed" for the "larger national good", which is nothing more than the double-digit economic growth that benefits a few, must be rejected – even if the deals are between developing countries and framed by the rhetoric of south-south co-operation.
Anuradha Mittal is founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy thinktank based in Oakland, California