By Nickolas Johnson, The Oakland Institute
More than 1.5 million residents of Ethiopia have begun or will begin relocating away from their ancestral lands in a program called villagization. Ethiopia has a long and controversial history with resettlement, as it was a major element of the Derg’s socialist agricultural policies. By 1989, Derg’s villagization program had resettled more than 13 million people; international disapproval, degrading security and dwindling of resources caused the program to slow down.
Today, the government has resumed the program, stating that it is voluntary and justifying it by claiming that it’s necessary to centralize infrastructure by having the villages close to roads and available water supplies. Though this sounds like a valiant attempt to supply access to services quickly, research and testimonies from locals say otherwise.
The Oakland Institute’s field research shows that a vast majority of people in the targeted regions do not want to relocate, but have been threatened by local police. As reported by a recent Human Rights Watch report, the forced relocation of residents of Gambella has caused great hardship to tens of thousands — including rape, other violent acts, coercion and intimidation. Furthermore, there is a disturbing parallel between land being vacated and the land being sold to investors for large-scale commercial agriculture.
Despite the government’s claims that this is purely coincidental, Karuturi, one of the largest foreign landholders in Ethiopia, has stated publicly that the Gambella Regional government offered to move the village of Ilea for them. Luckily, Karuturi chose not to pursue this venture. However, another company, Saudi Star, is now clearing forests that had been used by former residents who were forced to relocate to Pokedi as part of the villagization program.
Loss of livelihoods
Presently, villagers grow their own 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.
In Gambella and Benishangul, the villagization concept involves giving each household a small permanent plot of land of 2-4 hectares adjacent to the village site. However, this will require new forms of cultivation and farming techniques and technologies that are unfamiliar to the people. Training has been promised by regional governments, but the government’s failure to live up to their promises leaves the villagers skeptical.
While these households were once largely food self-sufficient, they will now have to rely on food aid, as promised by some officials. With the relocation to smaller permanent plots, their only buffer against food insecurity will thus become government handouts, to be funded by international donors. The loss of traditional lands will result in the loss of livelihoods, changes in diet, increased reliance on wage employment, and aid while weakening community bonds. This process will also result in the destruction of natural resources such as forests and grazing land. These adverse impacts of large-scale land investment on the lives of local people will be dramatic, long term, and potentially irreversible.
The time for action is now
By continuing to provide huge amounts of aid to Ethiopia, the U.S. is supporting a repressive regime that puts large-scale agricultural investment and for-profit access to Ethiopia’s fertile lands over the well-being and land rights of indigenous and local people.
USAID should not support such endeavors and ask for due diligence in respect to the human rights of the people of Gambella and other affected communities.
Looking at the facts regarding the kind of investments occurring in Ethiopia , it’s clear that action is needed to ensure U.S. assistance actually benefits local communities and not just the interests of a minority.
Please join the fight and sign the petition against forced relocations in Ethiopia.
Read more about the worsening human rights situation in Ethiopia.
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