Oakland Institute Exposed the Human Right Impact of “Land Grabbing” in Ethiopia
By Betre Yacob
The United States-based Oakland Institute, which is known in struggling for land rights and food sovereignty of Africans, has exposed the human right impact of the land investment, which is often characterized as “land grabbing”, on indigenous communities in the Gambella Regional state, Ethiopia.
The new report of the institute says “the government of Ethiopia has not only failed to keep its promises and deliver services and infrastructure, but also has perpetrated human rights abuses in resettling indigenous communities in Gambella to allow for land investment deals to move forward.”
The report, titled “Unheard Voices”, is based on the result of an extensive work and research of the institute on the land investment in Ethiopia, and on personal testimonies of prominent Ethiopian human rights defenders. It also consists the results of Human Rights Watch (HRW) researches conducted on human rights abuses associated with Ethiopia’s villagization program.
The 15 page report says “although Ethiopian officials claim that villagization is a voluntary program, investigations reveal that the government has forcibly resettled indigenous communities from land earmarked for commercial agricultural development, rendering them food insecure and fearful for their survival.” Villagization is an official government policy that “voluntarily” resettles indigenous populations from scattered places to villages of 400-500 families, ostensibly in the name of providing infrastructure and better social services.
According to the report, the government has used fear, violence, and intimidation against indigenous communities in Gambela. Mentioning the HRW, the report says, “Police and soldiers have beaten and arrested those who question these policies, releasing them only on the condition that they support the resettlement program.”
In connection, the report also indicates that the assault and retaliation have continued even after the resettlement. Here the report explains: “Human Rights Watch reports that parents are afraid to send their children to school because of the increased army presence. Parents worry that their children will be assaulted.”
The 15 page report of the institute, which paints a more complete picture of the impact of the “land grabbing”, also asserts that the government has also failed to compensate individuals for their loss of livelihood and land. The report says, “The Oakland Institute did not find any instances of government compensation being paid to indigenous populations evicted from their lands.”
The report explains: “Under international law, forced evictions can only be carried out if they comply with specific standards. The relevant standards derive from a variety of different sources; and they require states to ensure that evictions serve a legitimate public purpose, that they meet the requirements of due process, and that they are accompanied by fair compensation. The testimony of affected individuals compels the conclusion that these evictions are forced, and in violation of international law.”
In addition, the report states that the resettlement has directly affected the livelihoods of the communities and exposed them to serious food insecurity. It explains: “In many parts of Gambella, families farm on sedentary plots along the riverbanks and practice shifting cultivation on higher ground; the former protecting them against poor harvests on the latter. The shifting cultivation practice involves farming on one plot of land for several years before moving on to another. They return to the original plot in seven to 10 years and begin the process again. Yet once they are sent to live in villages, the static lifestyle and lack of water sources render them unable to practice this traditional form of farming.” Here the report criticized the government for not providing training to the resettled communities to learn new forms of cultivation.
According to the report, unable to feed and care for themselves and their families, such shifting cultivators fear they will not survive. The report says, “one displaced individual told HRW: ‘the government is killing our people through starvation and hunger— we are just waiting here for death.’”
According to the report, Nyikaw Ochalla, an Ethiopian human right defender and the Coordinator of Anywaa Survival Organization, told Oakland Institute: “the communities used to live on riverbanks, but they are now in a place where there is no river. They are taken far away from fish, and they can’t fish at all. Land is their identity—it is what they breathe, and they’re taken away from that. Even now, some people are so stressed. They sit in camp and do nothing. Their way of living and their existence has been taken from them.”
The report also indicates that through the so called villagaization program over 1.5 million additional Ethiopians, including 225,000 people from Gambella alone, are in the process of being relocated, and the humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate further.
“Key Rights Affected”
The report says the Ethiopian government has violated a number of rights of the indigenous populations guaranteed by different international and regional laws and treaties, in order to make a way for commercial agricultural development.
The report explains: “The ICCPR prohibits arbitrary arrests and beatings—such as those carried out against individuals who question the government’s resettlement plans—as well as the mistreatment of those who are held in government custody.”
It adds: “The repressive atmosphere, in which the government responds forcefully to those who dissent against villagization, also suggests violations of the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, both of which are also guaranteed by the ICCPR. The government has also violated or jeopardized the economic and social rights of many of the people it has resettled in order to clear land for investors.”
The report also says: “by removing people to areas that lack housing and infrastructure, separating them from their crops, grazing lands, and other forest and water resources, the government has destroyed the livelihoods of those who rely on such resources—such as shifting cultivators. As a result, large populations that previously produced their own food have now been rendered food insecure, suffering violations of their rights to food, housing and adequate standard of living, all of which are enshrined in the ICESCR..”