Voice of America, July 28, 2011
John de Capua
A human rights group has accused the Ethiopian government of leasing
some of its most productive farmland to foreign companies. Survival
International said the Omo River region is the traditional homeland of
some 90-thousand indigenous people.
The group said Malaysian, Italian and Korean companies are buying
leases; and that large areas are being cleared for state-run plantations.
"The government announced that it was going ahead with the huge sugar
cane plantation known as the Kuraz Project. We know that there are
leases given out to other foreign companies. For example, an Italian
company, which is leasing 30,000 hectares to grow palm oil," Fiona
Watson, Survival International's field and research director.
Survival International said the government has failed to consult the
indigenous people, who would be affected. "Leasing of their land without
their knowing about it," said Watson, "is going to create enormous
problems for them."
The government rejected the group's allegations. Spokesman Simon Bereket
said it was official policy to inform and consult with local
populations. "That is the normal practice in Ethiopia," he said,
"mandated by the constitution to be discussed by all peoples."
Bereket called the group's accusations "baseless."
He added, "As far as I know the indigenous people are very supportive of
the government. These are indigenous people who had been neglected for
centuries, never been considered to be Ethiopians. It's only now or last
20 years that their identity has been recognized and protected."
Watson said the projects threaten to destroy the way of life for the
indigenous people near the Omo River.
"By and large, the tribal peoples of the Omo Valley are self-sufficient
people, who have perfected techniques to live reasonably well in what is
a difficult environment. If the leases go ahead…they're going to lose
all the ability to be self-sufficient."
Many are nomadic cattle herders. Others rely on the seasonal flooding of
the Omo River to deposit silt on the farmland, making it more fertile.
Who owns the land
However, the government said private property is not an issue in the Omo
valley or elsewhere in Ethiopia.
"Technically, land belongs to the government. Land is not private
property in Ethiopia. So, it is basically the government who owns the
land of the country."
Watson said, "It's true that the government says that. That doesn't
necessarily make it right. And under all sorts of international
conventions and laws, it is recognized that indigenous and tribal
peoples should have the right to collectively own their land. In fact
there is a clause in the Ethiopia constitution, which says that nomadic
pastoralist peoples, which includes most of the people in the Omo
Valley, have the right to use land freely to practice their pastoralism."
Survival International said government plans for relocating the people
to villages would create more poverty and hunger. It said a similar
project in the 1980s by a former government, "had an incredibly negative
Survival International has also been a long time critic of the Gibe III
damn under construction on the Omo River. It said the dam would end the
seasonal floods benefiting farmlands and adversely affect water access
in the region.
"If you look at the land leasing in conjunction with the dam it's like a
double whammy." Watson said.
Bereket disagrees. He said, "There is no way, no way that this
government would trample upon the rights of such indigenous groups."
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