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Statement by Nyikaw Ochalla, Director, Anywaa Survival Organisation-ASO

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Press conference, Indian-Ethiopian Civil Society Summit on Land Investments

February 5, 2013, Press Club of India, New Delhi, India



Dear all,

Allow me to extend my sincere gratitude to the Oakland Institute, Indian Social Action Forum, CSD, PEACE, and all other Indian colleagues who have worked very hard to bring me here today. I am convinced all of us have a stake in sustainable investment and protection of the natural environment to improve the livelihoods of billions of people across the world. It is with this in mind that I have traveled thousands of miles to New Delhi to speak to you on behalf of indigenous communities affected by large-scale commercial agricultural investment policy in Gambela, a remote region in Southwest Ethiopia.

As I stand in front of you, hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers and pastoralists are being denied access to arable farmland, grazing and water points, and hunting grounds--and at best, they are being turned into day laborers doing back breaking work while living in extreme poverty. The government is moving ahead with its plans for so-called “progress,” which relies on tactics of widespread human rights abuses including harassment, rapes, arbitrary detention and imprisonment without trial, displacement, increased food insecurity, destitution, and destruction of the environment.

The pain of losing arable farmland is so real to my community. Left with no alternative--with the hard choice to live or die--some farmers took law into their hand to harvest on a maize field now belonging to Karuturi, the largest Indian company invested in Ethiopia. When identified, one farmland worker who participated in harvesting on a Karuturi maize field defended his action by pointing out that he had lost his farmland and does not want to die of hunger and subject his household to further suffering. Such testimonies are so strong amid the government’s claims that its policy of leasing land to foreign investors will reduce food aid dependence.

Let me provide you with my background in this struggle. I belong to a small-scale farmer family from Gambela, a region that has become a magnet to foreign investors.  I currently live in exile in the UK but with day-to-day close contact with the people I left behind. I do not wish to enjoy stability and economic prosperity of the west. In fact, I had not dreamt of staying in exile at all as I owe so much to my country and the people. But continued human rights abuses and denial of fundamental human rights for the population of more than 80 million shattered my dream to contribute to democratic and good governance of the country in general and the Gambela region in particular. I was threatened to the point of losing my life on several occasions due to expressing my political opinions, forced to resign from civil service employment, and detained without trial and legal remedies.

Friends, my home region, Gambela, is the agricultural base of Ethiopia with large tracts of arable farmlands and abundant water resources. Over 90% of its population is small-scale farmers who have contributed enormously to economic development of the country for generations without dependence on food aid. This is soon to be a history as the authorities in Addis Ababa aggressively campaign to attract foreign direct investment to the region’s agricultural sector, which is currently dominated by small-scale farmers.

At the heart of land grabbing in the region are Indian, Chinese, Saudi Arabian, and other companies that produce crops with little food value to the local population. As the largest share of land deals in the region are in the hand of Indian companies, including Karuturi Global, 300,000 ha; Ruchi Soya, 25,000 ha; Shapoori Pallonii, 50,000 ha; I have come to New Delhi with the  hope  that  I  can  reach  India’s  policy  makers,  media,  and  her  people  to  care  for  my community that has been dispossessed of livelihoods, ill-treated, and subject to unspeakable misery.

Today, as I share the impact of government land lease policy, I am reminded of massive displacement, forced relocation and villagization, and dispossession of local communities’ traditional home villages, farmland, ancestral burial sites as well as religious sites. Nothing better explains the situation than the loss of woodland and forest that I value so much in my Ilia village,  where  today  an  Indian  company,  Karuturi  Global,  is  clearing  the  entire  forest  and denying my community access to vital resources.

The  Anywaa  (Anuak)  and  other  communities  in  the  region,  whose  traditional  livelihoods entirely depend on hunting and gathering, fishing, pastoralism and small scale farming along the riverbanks, are undeniably threatened by foreign investment. This development is taking effect ignoring the fundamental consultation and prior consent of the indigenous people in particular and the country’s development needs in general.

Organisations such as Anywaa Survival Organisation-ASO believe in social justice and environmentally sensitive development and are committed to give a voice to the voiceless indigenous people and support their struggle for the respect of their basic rights. In my capacity as the founder and coordinator of ASO, I actively communicate with small-scale farmers in the Gambela region to make our work efficient and effective even in exile. We further attempt to understand their concerns in order to communicate with potential investors and other stakeholders internationally so that development can be achieved without destroying human life and the natural environment. This work is not possible on the ground, due to the nature of the regime that denies people freedom of speech and association. In July last year, for instance, the government banned Feteh newpaper, and its chief editor Temesgen Desalegn, was fined 2000   Eth.   Birr,   accused   of   biased   reporting.   Other   journalists   reporting   for   different independent newspapers have fled the country. Last year, Eskinder Nega, renowned journalist and writer was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Two other Ethiopian journalists, Reyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, are serving jail terms while two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, served 14 months of their 11 year jail term for allegedly supporting terrorism.

In   fact,   the   Ethiopian   government’s   attempt   to   ban   independent   media   outlets,   the introduction  of  laws  to  restrict  both  local  and  international  NGOs,  and  surveillance  of opposition politicians contradict constitutional rights provisions while making it impossible for civil  society  to  report  on  ongoing  human  rights  abuses  that  accompany  land  grabs  and represent the victims.

Let me share with you a few more things to shed a better light on the reality prevailing in this remote part of the country. ASO was formed in late 1999 due the fact that my hometown, a focal point for foreign investment, has been constantly marginalized and neglected by authorities in Addis Ababa, and has experienced unreported terrible human rights abuses and lack of local NGOs campaigning on these issues.

In terms of the degree of human rights abuses, a parallel can be drawn between the dark times of the military junta that was in power in Ethiopia until 1991 and the current regime. Human rights violations, disappearances, rape, displacement, environmental destruction, large-scale farming with displacement of indigenous people from their ancestral lands and farmlands, villagization and people forced into exile were common during the military regime--and unfortunately continue under the current TPLF regime.

In 2003, the army and allied militias took law into their own hands by committing the worst atrocities in the history of the Anywaa community; displacing thousands of civilians, raping, torturing, intimidating, and harassing thousands of young men, elderly, women, and disabled people who were forced into exile.

Government’s offer of large tracts of land for commercial agriculture is attracting investors from around the globe and fueling an already antagonistic relationship between locals and the central government, with a longstanding history of politically induced hatred, marginalization, neglect, mistrust, and destitution in the region. Today, amid the political tension and forceful eviction of my community, I look back with sadness and grief, and wonder every day and night about the future of these peaceful and hardworking communities. I believe our joint effort here can do what I and other campaigners on human right abuses and land grabbing issues in the region cannot do--that is, save the future of my community by disseminating information and taking joint action at the international level. I am here to call upon Indian authorities, the independent media in India which we don’t have, and the public to tell Indian companies and the Ethiopian authorities to stop this pillage.

I also want to share the truth behind Ethiopian government claims that large-scale commercial investment will provide employment opportunities, technology transfer, and food security in Ethiopia.

As described in the Oakland Institute’s country report on Ethiopia, affected communities have been growing food on permanent plots along the river and use shifting cultivation techniques on higher ground to grow maize. This shifting cultivation, together with fishing and harvesting of forest resources, provides buffers against food insecurity. With the relocations, their only buffer will be food aid, if provided by the government.

According to the communities, “There will be no food. They (government) say there will be lots of water and backyard for vegetables. They said they will provide relief food for the rest, but they never keep their promise, and here we can grow our own food. We will not go. They will have  to  kill  us  first.”  Many  more  testimonies  similar  to  the  above  are  echoed  in  my conversations with those affected back home and contradict the above government claims.

Friends, the Gambela region is home to one of the country’s national parks and a home for rare wildlife on the continent. This precious wildlife population faces the threat of extinction from large-scale commercial farms.

Many research institutions, NGOs, media, and activists share similar concerns around the future of large-scale agricultural investment in the country and have produced valuable reports, educating the international community, and opening up constructive discussions to highlight the suffering of indigenous people like the community I am representing today. It is about time that we listen to undeniable facts, evidence, and data from the field and make informed decisions to save the future of those affected by land grabbing and their natural environment.

Finally, I wish to thank you again for this opportunity to be here, for your willingness to hear my testimony, and to help share the plight of the people of Gambela with the people of India.