August 20, 2014

Land Grab and the False Promise of Food Security

Filed under: Land grab — ethiopiantimes @ 11:26 am
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By Destaw Andargie (PhD)
August 19, 2014


One can only speculate why the secretive government of Ethiopia is giving away the country’s fertile land to foreign agribusinesses. But we know the official explanation; that is, such ‘long-sought’ agricultural investments enhance the country’s food security. For a country that is intuitively associated with hunger and starvation, there should indeed be no higher priority than food security. Yet, how agricultural production by profit-driven foreign businesses improves the food security of poor Ethiopians is not terribly clear. Indeed, compelling empirical and theoretical evidences show that increased food production per se doesn’t necessarily correlate to any improvement in the food security of people in any country. That is what I wish to discuss here. Before turning to this issue, however, a word or two on the equivocal concept of food security is in order.

A. Food Security: What is It?

The notion of food security, like GDP, conceals more than it reveals about how the actual lives of people go. It may mean different things, depending on whose security is at stake. Generally, food security is raised at three different levels:

i. Global food security: concerns with the aggregate global food supply sufficient to feed the world population. It is invariably about the supply side of the equation. Potentially, food insecurity might be an existential threat to humanity. Presently, however, the world is awash with surplus food. Indeed, overproduction has been a major concern in some regions of the world for decades that discouraging agricultural production now figures even as a goal under the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). Overproduction slumps food prices, and agribusinesses that dominate all chains of the world food trade don’t like that. Accordingly, the so-called blue box subsidies under the AoA are tied with a condition that receiving farmers limit their productions. It does not matter that around a billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger on a constant basis. As a matter of fact, as famine raged in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, farm policy debates in surplus producing nations were centered on whether disposing the surplus food grain in the sea or dumping it to the third world in the form or aid or cheap sale is cost effective. Thus, for the hungry, global food security is largely inconsequential.

ii. National food security: refers to the availability at a national level of adequate amount of food for the entire population. Again, it is about the supply side of the equation, and thus it may not signify anything for the poor and the hungry. For example, India produces about 50 million tons of surplus food grain per year; yet, a third of its population suffers from chronic hunger. Similarly, although surplus food disposal has been a major concern in the United States since the mid-1980s, the US Department of Agriculture reports that millions of Americans suffer from food insecurity year after year. There are similar stories elsewhere. The crux of the matter is this: the abundance of aggregate food supply at the national level is often irrelevant for the insolvent poor.

iii. Individual/household food security: here is where food in/security figures in its most concrete manner. Food insecurity can be decisively tackled only at the individual/household level. Distribution rather than availability of food is at the heart of the problem of hunger. Indeed, the greatest misconception regarding hunger is probably the assumption that people go hungry because there is no food or there is less food than is needed to feed all people in the country. People starve either because they produce insufficient food or are simply too poor to command enough food in the market, not necessarily because there is a decline in the per capita food supply. It is often about the demand side of the equation. Even during times of famine, there is always food in the local market for those who can afford to buy. As the 18th century French princess Marie Antoinette’s legendary ‘then, let them eat cake’ might exemplify, it is often the case that some starve even when others live in blinding abundance.

B. Why Large-Scale Land Transfer is NOT the Answer to Food Insecurity

Agribusinesses produce food exclusively for the market. And obviously the market is need-blind; not only does it operate to the complete exclusion of the insolvent, but also may undermine how much food those who can pay are entitled in exchange for the price they pay. One’s ability to command enough food depends not only on how much one can spend on food, but also on how much others are willing to pay. One’s exchange entitlement may worsen, for instance, because others have grown richer and are buying more food, triggering a rise in food prices. Thus, while agribusiness acquiring land in Ethiopia may sell their produce anywhere in the world market, an average Ethiopian with an annual consumption expenditure of just $670 will have to compete with, say, a Swiss who can afford to spend $26,470 per annum on consumption. And, of course, the poor Ethiopian stands no chance under this scenario (even if we accept the seemingly inflated figure of $670). It would be foolish, therefore, to expect Karuturi to cater to poor consumers in Ethiopia.

Market forces, by their very nature, facilitate the movements of goods, including food, to places where they can fetch the most competitive price rather than to places where they have greater utility. During the Great Irish Famine, for example, food was actually exported from impoverished Ireland to opulent England. In Ethiopia too, during the 1973 Wollo famine, food was bought from markets in the province of Wollo and sold in Addis Ababa and Asmara. That is what the market naturally does-responding to demand, not to need. Not only food products directly but also productive resources, such as land are increasingly being diverted away from growing staple foods for the poor and the hungry towards cultivating livestock feed that would go to satisfy the dietary taste of the rich (i.e. expensive protein-rich animal products) and biofuel production. Such diversion of farm land was among the major drivers of the recent global food crisis, which is estimated to have plunged around a 100 million people into extreme poverty and hunger globally. At the same time, however, a rapid growth of per capita food consumption has been recorded among the growing middle class in many regions of the world. Indeed, we do not need to look elsewhere; many of the investors that have acquired land in Ethiopia seek to produce crop for biofuel production, and, of course, they do not have any responsibility towards the food security of Ethiopians. How this boosts the country’s food security is not obvious.

C. The Way to Tackle Food Insecurity

Hunger has both technical as well as political dimensions. A credible effort to stamp out hunger must thus address both dimensions of the problem. First, there should be sufficient food. The fact that hunger is more of a problem of distribution than of availability of food should not imply that there are no issues with respect to food supply. Indeed, and this is ironic, most victims of hunger are food producers. For poor countries, such as Ethiopia, low productivity associated with lack of technology and agricultural inputs, remains a veritable problem. That agricultural labor productivity in least developed countries, such as ours, is less than 1 percent that of the level in developed nations explains it all. As regards small holding farmers, therefore, any food security program must necessarily involve improving their food productivity. That is largely technical. For the urban poor, the availability of sufficient food stock in the country or at the local granary is not sufficient. Although food is physically available, it may still be economically inaccessible for the very poor. Therefore, any food security program in this context must ultimately aim at enhancing the capability of individual’s to compete and purchase enough food. That in effect means fighting urban poverty.

Poverty is both the root and consequence of hunger. People go hungry because they are poor (conversely, those crippled by hungry have a diminished chance of defying poverty). Yet, poverty does not offer foundational explanation to hunger. It begs the question of why people are so poor in the first place. We know that poverty is not inevitable. We also know that no society’s resources are too insufficient to extricate people from abject poverty and starvation. Indeed, too often, resource constraint is not even among the primary causes of poverty and hunger in the world today, including in Ethiopia. Endemic hunger rages unabated, not because the problem is invincible, but because its victims find themselves in socioeconomic and political circumstances that rob them of the ability to defy the tragedy. The fact that hunger is predominantly a rural phenomenon means that its victims are not only socially and economically marginalized, but also are often geographically removed from the scene of political decision making. Powerlessness, be it in the control over productive resources such as land, or in decision making processes at local and national levels explains much of the problem. While the starved are powerless and their voices too muted to be heard, they are often ignored, by those holding political and economic power. We heard several times our leaders denying the existence of famine, even as they plead for food handouts. A credible food security program must thus exhibit the political will to comprehensively address every handicap that undermines a person’s entitlement to food, whether it is illiteracy or bad land policy, genocidal corruption or misdistribution, political repression or overpopulation, discrimination or ecological degradation, institutional ineptitude or unemployment, lack of accountability or political instability.



January 22, 2013

Ethiopia’s resettlement scheme leaves lives shattered and UK facing questions

MDG : Ethiopia : landgrab in Gambella : Resettling rural population

A family in Kir, Gambella. Ethiopia’s controversial resettlement programme has forced people to leave their villages. Photograph: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

Mr O twists his beaded keyring between his long fingers as he explains why he started legal action against Britain’s international development department over its aid funding to Ethiopia. Three other refugees from the Gambella region listen as he speaks in a stifling room in north-eastern Kenya. All have a story to tell.

The accounts are broadly similar, but the details reveal the individual tragedies that have shattered their lives: they say they were forced to leave their villages, beaten by soldiers, and sent to remote areas lacking all basic services under a controversial “villagisation” programme.

Eventually, they fled to Kenya, joining nearly half a million displaced people living in the world’s biggest refugee complex, a sprawling expanse of tents and rudimentary houses set in the sun-hammered scrub and sand outside Dadaab.

“We don’t have any means of retrieving our land. We decided to find an organisation that could be our lawyer and stand up for us so that those who are funding these organisations to displace us will be stopped,” Mr O said. He spoke through a translator in the language of the Anuak, an indigenous people who live in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region.

“Britain is a very big power in the world. Britain is Ethiopia’s top donor,” says Mr O, whose identity is being protected for his safety. The 32-year-old wears a stained white shirt, white trousers and a blue-beaded bracelet on his left hand.

London-based law firm Leigh Day & Co has taken the case for Mr O, arguing that money from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) is funding the villagisation programme.

Ethiopia is one of the biggest recipients of UK aid and Britain, alongside other international donors, contributes significant funding for the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme. Lawyers for Mr O say that, by contributing to this programme, DfID contributes to villagisation, be it by financing infrastructure in new settlements or paying the salaries of officials overseeing the relocations.

DfID says it does not fund any commune projects in Ethiopia. A spokesman said the agency was aware of allegations of abuses and would raise any concerns at the highest levels of the Ethiopian government. Leigh Day is waiting for a response to its letter to the UK government in December.

The three-year villagisation programme aims to move 1.5 million rural families to new “model” villages in four regions, including approximately 45,000 households in Gambella. Official plans say the movements are voluntary, and infrastructure and alternative livelihoods will be provided in the new villages.

In January 2012, a Human Rights Watch report said the Ethiopian government was forcibly relocating thousands of people in Gambella, with villagers being told the resettlement was linked to the leasing of large tracts of land for commercial agriculture.

For the four Anuak in Dadaab, relocation has been a catastrophe: Mr O has not seen his wife and six children since he left, Peter’s wife was raped by soldiers, widow Chan and her eldest son were beaten, and Ongew was detained 11 times on charges of inciting villagers. The four did not want to give their full names for fear of retribution.

There is a desperate sense of powerlessness among the refugees, who link the recent abuses to years of alleged targeting of their ethnic group, including a 2003 massacre of Anuak in the town of Gambella. “I feel so very bad because I have been separated from my family, which shows we do not have the power to protect ourselves … Unless you decide to leave that area there will not be hope for you,” Mr O says.


Peter, a 40-year-old who lost his sight 20 years ago, bows his head as he tells how he was beaten when he asked the soldiers to take his disability into account before moving him in October 2011. Then, his wife was taken away and raped.

“I’m powerless. There was nothing I could do to stop that. Also, my cousin was taken by the soldiers and is still missing today,” Peter says. He left through South Sudan and arrived in Kenya with his wife and five children in March last year.

When soldiers came almost two years ago to move Chan, a 37-year-old farmer and mother of four, they beat her on the arm and face with a stick. The skin on the right side of her face, just below her ear, is uneven and marked. The soldiers also beat her then 18-year-old son on the head with a gun. Nobody could fight back.

“Because we don’t have power,” she says, her hands upturned helplessly on her lap. “Whenever these soldiers come to a village, there are very many. How will you fight? If you try to beat even one soldier, they will attack the whole village.”

Chan, whose husband was killed during the 2003 massacre, moved to the new village. “There was no water, no school, no clinic, not even good farm land because it is dry land,” she says. People were still being abused, so she decided to leave with her children. She arrived in Kenya last February. Despite the creeping insecurity in the Dadaab refugee camps, she says life is better “because nobody is coming to beat you in your home”.

Mr O, then a farmer and student at agricultural college, was forced from his village in November 2011. At first he would not leave, so soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force beat him with guns. He lifts the faded black baseball hat he is wearing, marked with the words “Stop violence against women”, and shows a thin, long scar on his head. Strong men were forced to lie down and then beaten while women were also beaten, and those who resisted were taken and raped in a military camp, he says.

He was forced to a “new place” which did not have water, food or productive land. He was told to build a house for his family, but when work didn’t progress as quickly as expected, he was taken to a military camp and beaten again. After one month he left, sneaking past village leaders and “local militias” who controlled the area, refusing to let people leave. He arrived in Kenya in mid-December 2011.

Ongew, a 35-year-old wearing a red baseball cap and blue jeans, believes the international community can stop the alleged abuses. “There are powerful countries that control the world. So we are requesting those international communities … to stand firm and force Ethiopia to leave our land and stop this villagisation,” he says.

Ongew used to distribute food to the new villages for the government but when villagers began to complain about the absence of services, he was blamed for inciting them. The father of four was beaten many times. He gets news of his family sometimes from a relative in Britain. He has heard that police have repeatedly questioned his wife about his whereabouts.

Mr O’s wife and children are now in a new village. He has not seen them since he left but news of them reaches him through new arrivals.

The four Anuak say the relocations are continuing, with new refugees still arriving in Kenya.

Mr O says he is not taking legal action in order to get money. “Money will not bring any change for me and my family … What we want from the court is our land back. We will go there, produce what we like, and we will support our lives as before.”

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