From: Biniam Tekle (email@example.com)
Date: Fri Nov 27 2009 - 13:05:51 EST
*Ethiopia being 'used like an empty womb'*
November 28, 2009
*There is alarm over the growth of land leasing in the country, writes
*BAKO, ETHIOPIA: *In recent months, the Ethiopian Government began marketing
abroad one of the hottest commodities in an increasingly crowded and hungry
''Why attractive?'' reads one glossy poster with photos of green fields and
a map outlining swathes of the country available at bargain-basement prices.
''Vast, fertile, irrigable land at low rent. Abundant water resources. Cheap
labour. Warmest hospitality.''
This impoverished and chronically food-insecure nation is fast becoming one
of the world's leading destinations for the booming business of land
leasing, by which relatively rich countries and investment firms are
securing 40-to-99-year contracts to farm vast tracts of land.
Governments across South-East Asia, Latin America and especially Africa are
trying to attract this new breed of investors, creating land-leasing
agencies and land catalogues to display their offerings of earth.
In Africa alone, experts estimate more than 20 million hectares have been
leased in the past two years.
The trend is driven in part by last year's global food crisis. Wealthy
countries are shoring up their food supplies by growing staple crops abroad.
The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is shifting wheat
production to Africa. The government of India, where land is crowded and
overfarmed, is offering incentives to companies to carve out mega-farms
across the continent.
Increasingly, though, purely profit-seeking companies are snatching up land,
making a simple, grim, calculation. As one Saudi-backed businessman here put
it: ''The population of the world is increasing dramatically, so land and
food supplies will be short, demand will be higher and prices will rise.''
The scale and pace of the land scramble have alarmed policymakers and others
concerned about the implications for food security in countries such as
Ethiopia, where officials recently appealed for food aid for about 6 million
people as drought devastates East Africa.
A code of conduct to govern land deals was discussed on the sidelines of
last week's UN Food and Agriculture Organisation food security summit in
Rome. ''These contracts are pretty thin; no safeguards are being
introduced,'' David Hallam, a deputy director at the FAO, said. ''You see
statements from ministers where they're basically promising everything with
no controls, no conditions.''
The harshest critics conjure images of poor Africans starving as food is
hauled off to rich countries. Some express concern that decades of
industrial farming will leave good land spoiled even as local populations
surge. And sceptics also say the political contexts cannot be ignored.
''We don't trust this government,'' said Merera Gudina, a leading opposition
figure who accuses the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, of using the
land policy to hold on to power. ''We are afraid this government is buying
diplomatic support by giving away land.''
But many experts are hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed
millions by industrialising agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where
about 80 per cent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields
''If these deals are negotiated well, I tell you, it will change the
dynamics of the food economy in this country,'' said Mafa Chipeta, the FAO's
representative in Ethiopia, dismissing the worst-case scenarios. ''I can't
believe Ethiopia or any other government would allow their country to be
used like an empty womb. The human spirit would not allow it.''
Few countries have embraced the trend as zealously as Ethiopia, where
hard-baked eastern deserts fade into spectacularly lush and green western
valleys fed by the Blue Nile. Only a quarter of the country's estimated 70
million fertile hectares is being farmed.
Desperate for foreign currency, the government of former Marxist rebels who
once proclaimed ''land to the tiller!'' has set aside more than 2.5 million
hectares for agribusiness. Lured with 40-year leases and tax holidays,
investors are going on farm shopping sprees, crisscrossing the country to
pick out swathes of Ethiopian soil.
''There's no crop that doesn't grow in Ethiopia,'' said Esayas Kebede, who
works for a government agribusiness agency, adding that too many
requirements on investors might scare them off. ''Everybody is coming.''
Especially Indian companies, which have committed $US4.2 billion ($4.6
Anand Seth, director general of the Federation of Indian Export
Organisations, described Africa as ''the next big thing'' in investment
opportunities and markets.
As he stood on a hill overlooking 12,000 hectares of rich, black soil,
Hanumantha Rao, chief general manager of the Indian company Karuturi Agro
Products, agreed. So far, he said, the Ethiopian Government has imposed few
requirements on his company. ''From here, you can see the past and the
future of Ethiopian agriculture.''
>From there - a farm just west of Addis Ababa - it was possible to see a
river designated for irrigating cornfields and rice paddies; it is no longer
open for locals to water their cows.
Several shiny green tractors bounced across the field where teff, the local
grain, once grew. Hundreds of Ethiopian workers, overseen by Indian
supervisors, were bent over rows of corn stalks, cutting weeds tangled
around them with small blades. Many of the workers were children.
The day rate: 8 birr - about 70 cents.
''The people are very happy,'' Rao said. ''We have no problems with them.''
As a worker spoke to one of his supervisors, he whispered that the company
had refused to sign a wage contract and had failed to deliver promised water
and power to nearby villages.
Supervisors treat them cruelly, he said, and most workers were just biding
time until they could go work for a Chinese construction company rumoured to
pay $2 to $4 a day.
Ethiopia being 'used like an empty womb'
November 28, 2009
''We are not happy,'' said the man, a farmer-turned-tractor driver who did
not give his name because he feared being fired.
''I'm a machine operator and I make 800 birr [about $65] a month. This is
the most terrible pay.''
Rao said he had trained about 60 Ethiopians to drive tractors; others would
learn to run shellers and how to fertilise and irrigate land. If things work
as they should, he said, Ethiopians will adopt the modern techniques in
their own farms.
Along a muddy road leading to Karuturi farm, people said they were hopeful
that might happen. But they were not sure how. Ethiopians cannot own land,
instead holding ''use certificates'' for their tiny plots, making it
difficult to get loans, or to sell or increase holdings.
''We think they might be beneficial to us in the future,'' said Yadeta
Fininsa, referring to the new companies coming to town. ''But so far we have
not benefited anything.''
*The Washington Post*
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