Ethiopia plans to lease land to foreign investors despite human rights concerns

ADDIS ABABA: In a move that already has Ethiopia’s activist community on edge, the government has announced it will lease land to developers and investors despite widespread concerns over human rights abuses of rural citizens in the country.

On Friday, the government announced it would lease 100,000 hectares of land to local and international investors.

But activists told that “much of this land was taken illegally and there have been reports of violence and murder in rural areas over land and the government.”

The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture said details on the leases will be provided in the upcoming budget.

The ministry indicated that it had prepared large fertile tracts of land in Gambella, Benshangul-Gumuz, Oromia and Amhara states to be offered to investors.

Already, a large number of foreign investors are competing for the government’s favor in various agro industries in the country, mainly Indian and Saudi investors.

The move, however, comes on the heels of reports of forced removal of farmers and villagers from areas by local and international human rights groups.

The government maintains that the land to be offered to investors is “free from any abuse.”

This past week, Ethiopia’s Anuak indigenous people filed a complaint with the World Bank Inspection Panel that puts blame on the World Bank and the Ethiopian government for human rights abuses over its “forced villagization” program in the country.

According to the complaint, the indigenous population is claiming the World Bank-financed and administered Protection of Basic Services Project (PBS) had resulted in the direct contribution to the government’s forcing of resident to establish villages

“Villagization plans have been implemented by Ethiopian public servants, who are paid through the World Bank-financed project,” reported Bank Information Center.

PBS has provided $1.4 billion in budget support for basic services to the government of Ethiopia since 2006, according to the World Bank.

But the indigenous population said that the program was supposed to be on a volunteer basis only and they have accused the government, with the World Bank’s knowledge of using force and violence to force citizens into the villagization.

There have also been reports of violence including rape and torture in military custody and extra-judicial killing.

“Ethiopia’s villagization plan sees people in four other regions of Ethiopia being resettled as well. In total, the project calls for the resettlement of approximately 1.5 million people by 2013,” the report stated.

While not directly linked in this complaint, the United Kingdom could also face a lawsuit over its role in aid to Ethiopia after a farmer alleged human rights abuses as a result of one of its programs.

According to a BBC report, the farmer, Mr. O, is accusing the British government of responsibility in his eviction and beating as well as having witnessed rapes as part of a “villagization” scheme put forward by the UK government.

Human rights activists Rita Desalgna told in Addis Ababa that the farmer’s accusations have been reportedly corroborated by other residents in the area.

“We have heard and talked to a number of individuals who have reported rape and other violent actions as a result of this program, but it is still unclear if the British government is responsible for the actions of their Ethiopian partners,” she said.

The BBC report said that the farmer’s lawyers say the program “receives funding from the UK Department for International Development (Dfid).”

However, Dfid denied the accusations, saying it does not fund “any commune projects” in the country.

UK aid to Ethiopia is among the East African country’s largest, with the foreign ministry reporting having sent $61 million for the country’s drought problems in the past decade.

“The UK government has been extremely positive in its efforts to assist Ethiopia so I would be surprised if they had any knowledge of the violence and evictions,” added Desalgna.

But the married farmer, a father of 6, told his lawyers from London’s Leigh Day and Co that his family was forced off their land in November 2011 after soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) came to the area for the eviction.

His lawyers said he claimed that “several men were beaten, women were raped and some people disappeared” during the resettlement.