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[Dehai-WN] Guardian.co.uk: Land grabbers: Africa's hidden revolution

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 22 May 2012 16:00:26 +0200

Land grabbers: Africa's hidden revolution

Vast swaths of Africa are being bought up by oligarchs, sheikhs and
agribusiness corporations. But, as this extract from The Land Grabbers
explains, centuries of history are being destroyed

* Fred Pearce <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/fredpearce>
* The Observer <http://observer.guardian.co.uk> , Sunday 20 May 2012
* Comments (
siness#start-of-comments> 93)

Employees of Saudi Star work in a rice paddy in Gambella, Ethiopia. The
government wants to resettle thousands of families away from fertile land.
Photograph: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

Omot Ochan was sitting in a remnant of forest on an old waterbuck skin and
eating maize from a calabash gourd. He was lean and tall, wearing only a
pair of combat pants. Behind him was a straw hut, where bare-breasted women
and barefoot children cooked fish on an open fire. A little way off were
other huts, the remains of what was once a sizable village. Omot said he and
his family were from the Anuak tribe. They had lived in the forest for 10
generations. "This land belonged to our father. All round here is ours. For
two days' walk." He described the distant tree that marked the boundary with
the next village. "When my father died, he said don't leave the land. We
made a promise. We can't give it to the foreigners."

Our conversation was punctuated by the rumble of trucks passing on a dirt
road just 20 metres away. The dust clouds they created wafted into the
clearing and rained down on the leaves on the trees. Beyond the road huge
earth-diggers were excavating a canal. Omot watched them: "Two years ago,
the company began chopping down the forest and the bees went away. The bees
need thick forest. We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs too. But
after the farm came, the animals here disappeared. Now we only have fish to
sell." And with the company draining the wetland, the fish will probably be
gone soon, too.

Gambella is the poorest province in one of the world's poorest nations - a
lowland appendix in the far south-west of
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/ethiopia> Ethiopia. Geographically and
ethnically, the hot, swampy province feels like part of the new neighbouring
state of South Sudan, rather than the cool highlands of the rest of
Ethiopia. Indeed, Gambella was effectively in Sudan when it was ruled by the
British from Khartoum, until 1956. For the half-century since, the
government in Addis Ababa has ruled here, but it has invested little and
cared even less for its Nilotic tribal inhabitants, whose jet-black skin and
tall, elegant physique mark them out from the highlanders. The
livestock-herding Nuer, who frequently cross into South Sudan, and the
Anuak, who are farmers and fishers, are peripheral to highland Ethiopia in
every sense.

Only three flights a week go to the provincial capital, also called
Gambella. When you get there, there are no taxis, because there is no
demand. The road from the airport is a dirt track through an empty
landscape. Gambella town is a shambles. Its population of 30,000 has no
waste collection system, so garbage piles up. The drains don't work, public
water supplies are sporadic and electricity is occasional. There are few
public latrines. The couple of paved roads are heavily potholed and give out
before the town limits. My billet, the Norwegian-built guest house at the
Bethel Synod church, was probably the dirtiest, bleakest and most ill-kempt
building in which I have ever rested my head. The only vehicle in town for
hire was a 40-year-old Toyota minibus of dubious roadworthiness, with a crew
of three. I took it.

Of late, the central government in Addis Ababa has stopped pretending that
the province of Gambella doesn't exist. It now seems intent on taming a
populace that might prefer rule from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. In
practice, that means bringing in foreign agribusiness and collecting the
province's dispersed population in state-designated villages, while their
forests, fields and hunting grounds are handed over to outsiders. In the
service of capitalism, the Gambella "villagisation" programme will relocate
a domestic population much in the manner of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

I set out along the only road south from Gambella town to find the land
grabbers. On the outskirts, as we hit the dirt, my driver decided to pick up
a dozen hitchhikers. From then on, we were the local bus service. To an
outsider, much of the province looks deserted. For miles, the only obvious
sign of human activity was the odd cellphone tower, usually with a generator
to power it and a native guard. But there were hidden villages in the bush.
Their members would sit by the roadside trying to sell mangoes and other
fruit to any vehicles that passed. Mangoes cost less than three cents each
and the price had halved by late afternoon. Soon after the small town of
Abobo, the road passed through a landscape of ash, smoke and charred trees.
This was land newly acquired by my first land grabber - Sheikh Mohammed
Hussein Ali Al Amoudi, a Saudi oil billionaire with large holdings in
Ethiopian plantations, mines and real estate. In 2011, Fortune magazine put
his wealth at more than $12bn. Ethiopian-born, he is a million-dollar donor
to the Clinton Foundation and also a confidant of Ethiopia's prime minister,
Meles Zenawi, and his ruling party, which had granted a 60-year concession
on 10,000 hectares of Gambella to Amoudi's company, Saudi Star.

Amoudi has been eyeing agriculture since the world
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/food> food price spike in 2008 sent
Saudi Arabia into a spin about its food supplies. He is intent on shipping
most of his intended produce, including in excess of a million tonnes of
rice a year, to Saudi Arabia. There, he has been feted by the king for
making investments abroad to keep the kingdom fed. To smooth the wheels of
commerce, Amoudi has recruited one of Zenawi's former ministers, Haile
Assegdie, as chief executive of Saudi Star.

Saudi Star's concession is based around the Alwero dam, built in the 1980s
to irrigate a state cotton farm that never happened. The dam's rusting sign
still advertises the consulting services of Soviet engineers
Selkhozpromexport. Amoudi is digging a 30km canal from the dam to irrigate
rice paddies. Once the old state farm is watered, he wants to expand to at
least 250,000 hectares, to grow sunflowers and maize.

At the gate of the Saudi Star compound, I watched soldiers usher in giant
Volvo trucks and Massey Ferguson tractors and workmen starting to replace
the temporary buildings with new permanent structures. Close by, they were
laying an airstrip in a recently made clearing in the forest. Nobody at the
company here or in Gambella town would talk to me. Perhaps they thought
there was nothing to add to their boss's media statement that "land grabbing
poses no harm on the environment or on the local community".

Our next hitchhikers were a couple of schoolgirls who wanted a lift to their
home 2km away. It was there, in a small clearing in a forest by the road,
where we found Omot Ochan in his combat pants, describing how Amoudi and his
company were destroying his world. Hearing his testimony of ancestral
connection with this patch of forest, and his determination to keep it, I
was struck by how most westerners have lost any sense of place and
attachment to the land. I move around all the time and buy and sell houses
without feeling ties to the soil. But here in Gambella, their land is like
their blood. It is everything. And to lose it would be to lose their

Omot insisted Saudi Star had no right to be in his forest. The company had
not even told the villagers that it was going to dig a canal across their
land. "Nobody came to tell us what was happening." He did remember officials
from the "villagisation" programme dropping by to say the families should go
to the new village at Pokedi, across the River Alwero from Saudi Star's
compound. But that was all. Omot had no doubt the purpose of the new village
was to clear them and others off land taken from them to give to Saudi Star.
So far, his family and their neighbours had refused to go, even though their
children walked to the school at Pokedi on a Monday morning and didn't
return until Friday evening.

"In our culture, going to a different place is unusual. You get different
people and there is quarrelling," he told me, as his children gathered and
grabbed the remaining maize. "We should remain in our own area. We won't go
unless we are forced. God gave us this land." Another truck rumbled past,
spraying dust over the tiny forest community now ostracised by its own
government and under siege from a Saudi billionaire. After the truck had
gone, I noticed a large, dead stork in the road. A woman headed off down the
road with a bucket, on a long walk to find water.

The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth by Fred Pearce

The Landgrabbers book

11731> Buy this book from the Guardian bookshop



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