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Sreelatha Menon: Bloodied Pulses

February 16, 2013
Business Standard

Indian plantations bloom in Ethiopia at the cost of the livelihoods and homes of the tribals


If there is “blood diamond”, there is also such a thing as “blood maize”, “blood soya” and “blood pulses”. These come all the way from plantations in Ethiopia and other countries with repressive regimes.

India, which claims to shun blood diamonds coming from African mines that use slave labour, is enthusiastically backing exploitation of natives in Ethiopia, so that Indian enterprises can take root there.

A report by the Oakland Institute in the US, “Unheard Voices: The Human Rights Impact Of Land Investments On Indigenous Cummunities In Gambella”, says since 2010, the Ethiopian government has displaced thousands of indigenous communities and made these lands available to investors. Nyikaw Ochalla is an activist from Gambella who is living in hiding. He told the media in New Delhi recently how its government’s development agenda has rendered them homeless. The Anywaa Survival Organisation’s Ochalla says when displacements happen in India, the media and the civil society take up the cause of the displaced. But in Ethiopia, most journalists and activists land up in jail if they raise a voice against the government. India seems to be blind to the implication of investments by Indian businesses in such a place.

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in 2010 urged Indian agricultural entrepreneurs to grow lentils in Africa and South America. He said while the ministry would not invest in directly buying land abroad, it would act as a facilitator.

India’s Export Import (Exim) Bank offers credit to overseas entities to import projects, equipment, goods and services like farming from India. It is all set to open its third office in Africa, and first in Ethiopia.

The largest single line of credit approved by the Exim Bank so far has gone to Ethiopia — $640 million for a sugar project. A report by Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), “India’s Role In The New Global Farmland Grab”, quotes Commerce Minister Anand Sharma as saying at the Seventh Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)-Exim Bank conclave that “while the current volume of India-Africa trade stands at $45 billion, we have set a target of $70 billion for 2015”.

Indian business associations, the CII and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), have also supported the move to invest in agriculture in Africa. Assocham, in fact, sent a proposal to the external affairs ministry for Indian “farmers” investing in Africa. And Indian farmers are doing immensely well, too. Karuturi Agro Products has 100,000 hectares in Ethiopia and has been promised twice that area by the government to grow what it likes. And the price is next to nothing. Just $9.28 for one hectare. There is also an annual rent to pay for the next 50 years, and that is also not much — $1.91.

Recently, the Ethiopian government made public 24 contracts it had signed with companies for farmlands. This was one of them, and is cited by the INSAF report. BHO Bioproducts (27,000 hectares), Ruchi Agro (25,000 hectares), Sannati Agro Farm Enterprises (10,000 hectares) and Verdanta Harvests (3,012 hectares) are some in the list.

If there is one story of tribals having been displaced in India in Niyamagiri, Ethiopia seems to be dotted with Niyamagiris. The native tribes Suri are pastoralists whose only asset is the cow. They move with their cows from place to place. But the displacement is forcing them to settle down in small communities, in areas where they cannot feed their cows or grow millets as they used to. Their farms have been swallowed by huge plantations of soya and maize and sugar cane, and are of no use to them, says the Oakland Institute report.

None of these companies replied to queries from the newspaper on the cost of the land they leased, and whether they displaced people.

“We are not beggars. We just want to be left in peace with our cows,” is the plea of a Suri warrior, Welekibo. But his voice seems to have as little weight as his cows or his tiny farm lost somewhere in the land gifted away by his government to alien landlords.