The Flood This Time
“Karuturi’s First Corn Crop in Ethiopia Destroyed,” announced the headline. Karuturi Global Ltd., is the Indian multinational agro company that has been gobbling up large chunks of Ethiopia over the past few years. This time, Mother Nature gobbled up Karuturi. The company reported last week that its 30,000 acre corn crop in Gambella in western Ethopia was wiped out when the Baro and Alwero rivers overflowed their banks and overwhelmed Karuturi’s 80km long system of protective dikes. Head honcho Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi said his company took a $15 million “hit” from the floods. He was manifestly puzzled by the intensity of the calamity: “This kind of flooding we haven’t seen before. This is a crazy amount of water.”
Karuturi is today the proud owner of “2,500 sq km of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset, England-” in Ethiopia. Truth be told, Karuturi did not ask for this bountiful giveaway, nor did it lay eyes on it when it was presented with a 50-year “lease” on a golden platter by the ruling regime in Ethiopia. Karuturi was offered the land together with generous tax breaks and other perks for £150 a week ($USD245). Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia, Karmjeet Sekhon, giggled euphorically as he told Guardian reporter John Vidal the amazing story of how his company became the beneficiary of one of the largest free land giveaways in post-colonial African history:
We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. (Triumphantly cackling laughter.) They offered it. That’s all. It’s very good land. It’s quite cheap. In fact it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India. There [India] you are lucky to get 1% of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5%. We don’t need fertiliser or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow on it. To start with there will be 20,000 hectares of oil palm, 15,000 hectares of sugar cane and 40,000 hectares of rice, edible oils and maize and cotton. We are building reservoirs, dykes, roads, towns of 15,000 people. This is phase one. In three years time we will have 300,000 hectares cultivated and maybe 60,000 workers. We could feed a nation here.
The ruling regime in Ethiopia claims that it “leased” uninhabited wilderness to Karuturi. It denies forcing the local people out of their land and “villagizing” (herding them into official villages) the heck out of them. But the evidence is incontrovertible. The “leased” land is not only the ancestral home of the people of Gambella but also the basis of their entire livelihood and survival as a tiny minority in the Ethiopian family. For Gambellans who live as pastoralist and subsistence farmers, massive dispossession and auctioning off their land for pennies will inevitably destroy the very fabric of their society and way of life and threaten them with extinction.
Karuturistan, Ethiopia (formerly Gambella, Ethiopia)
It is said that in Ethiopia “land is owned by the government.” If the “government” is the largest land owner, Karuturi must be the largest plantation owner and second largest land owner in that impoverished country. Indeed, it would be most appropriate to rename Gambella “Karuturistan” in the interest of full disclosure and accurate description of what is happening on the ground. Karuturi says it has all kinds of plans for its vast land holdings. It will “build taller dikes” to enclose the plantations “with no connection with outside water except through manually operated devices.” Karuturi is “aggressively rolling out an agriculture business venture in Ethiopia” and plans to “outsource 20,000 hectares of farm land in the African nation to Indian farmers on a revenue-sharing basis.” A “senior Kauturi official” told India’s leading business newspaper, the Business Standard, “We have got a decent response. We intend to give land and the necessary infrastructure to farmers who have the expertise in specific crop cultivation and get into a revenue share (65%:35%) with them. We hope to have agreements reached for around 20,000 hectares in the near future as part of the first phase.” Karuturi is actively negotiating with farmers from Punjab, India to launch its outsourcing venture.
Karuturi’s business model is simple: “Ask not what Karuturi can do for Ethiopia, but what Ethiopians can do for Karuturi.” Karuturi is in Ethiopia for only one thing: Profit and more profits. Just as it has built “dikes to enclose its plantations from flood water”, it also maintains a social, psychological and security enclosure to insulate itself from the local Gambella community . Karuturi maintains a virtual agricultural treasure island in Gambella. While foreign farmers are brought in as modern sharecroppers and given partnership interest, Gambella’s farmers are offered or given nothing. Why not offer Gambella farmers (the real owners of the land) a 35 percent share just like the Punjabi farmers?
Karuturi says it intends to give part of its vast landholdings to Indian farmers with “expertise”. The people of Gambella have their own time-tested agricultural expertise, but Karuturi does not want it and will not even make a symbolic gesture to help them acquire expertise by giving them training and education in new agricultural methods and techniques. Karuturi says it will export its corn and other commodities to “South Sudan and other East African markets” using “two tug boats with the capacity to carry 600 tons each”. Yet millions of Ethiopians are starving and dependent on foreign food aid for their daily bread. Some 7.5 million Ethiopians are kept alive daily by international food handouts. Last week USAID chief Raj Shah announced in Ethiopia that the US will provide $110m for famine relief. Karuturi says its commodities exports will “bring foreign exchange to the National Bank of Ethiopia.” What will Karuturi bring to the people of Ethiopia? The people of Gambella? More poverty, exploitation, environmental degradation?
Through Rose-Colored Lenses
Karuturi Ltd., is the world’s largest producer of roses. Its slogan is said to be “Let millions of roses bloom”. Roses are beautiful, but looking through rose-colored lenses one gets a rosy outlook on reality. Karuturi could easily mistake the vast tract of free land that was dropped on its lap, all of the tax breaks it receives, the duty free imports of machines and equipment it enjoys and all of the other preferential treatment it gets as proof of its arrival in Nirvana, not Ethiopia. Take the rosy lenses off and Karuturi shall behold an Ethiopia that ranks at the bottom of every international economic and political index: It is among the countries in the world with the lowest per capita incomes and highest inflation and unemployment rates. The ruling regime has been classified as one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. Karuturi looking through its rosy lenses may be unable to see the grinding poverty of the people of Gambella and the destruction of their way of life when they were forced to give up so much of their ancestral lands.
The most troubling aspect of Karuturi’s “investment” in Ethiopia is not only that it has created an island of wealth and prosperity in a sea of poverty in Gambella, but that its large-scale commercial farming operations and practices are manifestly unsustainable and likely to have a severely negative impact on the land and the way of life of the people. Numerous experts continue to warn that large-scale commercial farming operations and practices by land-grabbing multinational companies that use forest burning to clear the land, channel rivers and introduce exotic crop species cause permanent and irreversible environmental damage and ecological imbalance. The capital-intensive technologies of the multinationals displace local farmers and render them irrelevant necessitating outsourcing and importation of foreign farmers with “expertise”. “When over one-hundred papers were presented at the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing in 2011, not one positive outcome could be found for local communities.”
In Gambella, the people complain that despite millions of dollars in investments by Karuturi, they have seen few jobs, schools, clinics or clean water facilities for their use. At the end of the day, the people of Gambella will be the ones suffering the long-term effects of deforestation (land clearance by burning), reduction of ecological diversity, loss of local species, and environmental contamination caused by herbicides and pesticides used in large-scale commercial farming. When fertile Gambella becomes a virtual desert, the multinationals will move to another oasis in Africa.
Karuturi needs to take off its rosy lenses and ask itself a few questions: How could it create jobs and business opportunities for local Ethiopians when it is outsourcing its landholdings to Indian farmers? How could it improve the agricultural expertise of those Ethiopians in the local area when it is bringing in foreign “experts”? How could Ethiopia ever achieve food security and feed its explosively growing and food aid-dependent population when it is shipping out agricultural commodities on 600-ton tugboats under cover of darkness to feed the people of other nations? What will Karuturi do in the face of Ethiopia’s spreading hunger, famine and uncontrolled population growth? Will it build larger dikes, walls, fences and levees to keep the people out of its corn filelds? Will the regime send its soldiers to protect Karuturi from the hungry and starving hordes of Ethiopians begging for a few ears of corn at Karuturi’s gates?
There is a Better Way
Karuturi has the option of doing the right thing: Dump the current land acquisition and ownership deal and replace it with contract farming and deal directly with the farmers of Gambella (not Punjabi farmers). Karuturi (and other foreign investors) could provide the technology and capital, and the Ethiopians will be obligated to provide the land and labor. Karuturi could provide training to farmers in Gambella and enhance their “expertise” to make them more productive. Karuturi could supply grains and other agricultural commodities for the Ethiopian market profitably and over the long term maintain a sustainable and ecologically balanced agricultural venture. Is this too radical an idea or is it too old fashioned?
Rainbow Sign After the Flood?
It has been argued that regimes that seek out or fall prey to the big multinational land grabbers are dictatorships that exist on international charity and handouts and are thoroughly mired in corruption and debt. There is much talk these days about a “second generation colonialism” spearheaded by profit-hungry land grabbing multinationals. Some even talk about a “green gold rush” for fertile African land sold at fire sale prices by African dictators eager to line their pockets. These shameless moneygrubbing dictators will even agree to a deal that will export grain out of their countries as their population starves and they are panhandling the world for food handouts.
Truth be told, no one except a few of the top leaders of the ruling regime know the real deal in the land giveaway to Karuturi. Very little useful information is evident in the “agreement” made public with Karuturi. That “agreement” offers nothing more than the usual boilerplate full of meaningless legal mumbo jumbo routinely used for such “leases” by multinational land grabbers everywhere. For instance, the “agreement” alludes to environmental safety but provides no specific environmental standards to be followed. It talks about jobs, infrastructures and the rest but provides no specifics or details on the timetable for implementation or the scope of Karuturi’s obligations.
Over a century and a half ago, far, far away from Karuturistan, a prophesy was told in the lyrics of a song of African slaves toiling on vast cotton and tobacco plantations in America. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water. The fire next time!” God has given the people of Ethiopia the rainbow sign: Unite and come together as one rainbow nation. For those who divide and misrule and sell and buy pieces of Ethiopia, the sign says: No more water!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, NOW!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
The Deal of the Century
Supposing someone offered you the following land deal, would you take it or walk away believing it is too good to be true?
For £150 a week (USD$245), you can lease more than 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset, England – for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks.
If you walked away from it, you would have lost out on “the deal of the century”, perhaps the millennium. If you think this is a joke or some sort of wild and crazy exaggeration, see this Guardian (U.K.) report and video on an incredible international land giveaway that is taking place in Gambella in Western Ethiopia and judge for yourself.
Ethiopia on the Chopping Block
The Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global is today the proud owner of 1,000 sq. miles of virgin Ethiopian land. Karuturi did not ask for the land and did not even see it when a signed 50-year “lease” was delivered to it on a golden platter in Bangalore, India by Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia. Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon laughed euphorically as he explained what happened to Guardian reporter John Vidal:
We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. (Triumphantly cackling laughter) They offered it. That’s all.
It’s very good land. It’s quite cheap. In fact it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India. There [India] you are lucky to get 1% of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5%. We don’t need fertiliser or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow on it. To start with there will be 20,000 hectares of oil palm, 15,000 hectares of sugar cane and 40,000 hectares of rice, edible oils and maize and cotton. We are building reservoirs, dykes, roads, towns of 15,000 people. This is phase one. In three years time we will have 300,000 hectares cultivated and maybe 60,000 workers. We could feed a nation here.
Ethiopia is on fire sale. Everybody is getting a piece of her. For next to nothing. The land vultures are swooping down on Gambella from all parts of the world. Zenawi proudly claims “36 countries including India, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have leased farm land.” The Guardian reported that “foreign investors” have snagged
1.1 million hectares in Gambella, nearly a quarter of its best farmland, and 896 companies have come to the region in the last three years…. This month [March 2011] the concessions are being worked at a breakneck pace, with giant tractors and heavy machinery clearing trees, draining swamps and ploughing the land in time to catch the next growing season. Forests across hundreds of square km are being clear-felled and burned to the dismay of locals and environmentalists concerned about the fate of the region’s rich wildlife.
Karuturi, “one of the world’s top 25 agri-businesses” plans to “export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from Gambella province to world markets.”
Villagization of Gambella and the Irony of History
To make way for Karuturi and the 896 investors, the people of Gambella must be removed permanently from their ancestral lands. Over the past three years, tens of thousands of villagers have been forced to move as part of a so-called villagization program. Zenawi’s agriculture official said “there is no movement of population” in Gambella. It is the “choice” of the people to move to “villagized” centers where they can get basic services. Once they move, the official said, “they have to abandon their previous way of life, and they can’t ever go back to their villages”. Simply stated, Zenawi has imposed a contract on the indigenous people of Gambella: They will “voluntarily” choose to give up their ancestral lands, their culture and their community in exchange for a clinic, a school and a road.
“Villagization” (sefera) has a sinister and ugly history in Ethiopia. In the iron fists of the military junta (Derg) that ruled Ethiopia from the mid-1970s until 1991, “villagization” was a political and tactical counter-insurgency weapon. The Derg “villagized” and “resettled” populations in rebel-controlled areas to deny local support to rebels and create buffer zones. The Derg, like Zenawi’s regime today, justified its “villagization” program as a “development” and humanitarian effort aimed at providing food, clean water, health and educational services to needy populations.
At the onset of the 1984 famine, the Derg sought to resettle 1.5 million people from insurgent-controlled and drought-affected northern regions to the south and southwest of the country. The Derg said the people were relocating voluntarily. The northern insurgents, who now wield power, told the Derg victims of resettlement that they were being moved to concentration camps and will never return to the land where they were born (“where their umbilical cord was buried” to use the local metaphor in translation). It is an irony of history that in 2011 we hear the same old story: The people of Gambella are “voluntarily” leaving their ancestral lands and abandoning their traditional way of life in exchange for “clean water, health and educational services” in villagized centers.
The Derg never asked people (plebiscite) if they wanted to be resettled or remain on their ancestral land. Zenawi’s regime did not ask the indigenous people of Gambella if they want to be permanently uprooted from their ancestral lands and be “villagized” or corralled into reservations. The Derg could not have cared less about the people it was resettling as long as the resettlement policy advanced its counter-insurgency strategy. Zenawi could not care less about the indigenous people of Gambella as long it advanced his investment strategy. It is all about war or money. The Derg never did an environmental and human ecological impact study before it moved masses of people from the north to the southern part of the country. Zenawi’s regime never did a credible ecological study before uprooting the indigenous people of Gambella. Tens of thousands of people died in the Derg’s resettlement program from illness and starvation. Families were separated as people fled the ill-equipped and ill-managed resettlement centers. But the indigenous people of Gambella face extinction as a minority in Ethiopian society. So says a 2006 UNICEF field study:
The deracination [uprooting from ancestral lands] of indigenous people that is evident in rural areas of Gambella is extreme. It is very likely that Anuak (and possibly other indigenous minorities) culture will completely disappear in the not-so-distant future. Cultural survival, autonomy, rights of self-determination and self-governance are all legitimate issues for these indigenous groups, and these are all enshrined by international covenants and United Nations bodies—but all are meaningless in Gambella today.
It is true that history repeats itself over and over again!
When the Derg implemented its “villagization” and “resettlement” programs in the 1980s as a counterinsurgency strategy, it was not only morally wrong, it was criminal. It is no different for Zenawi in 2011 to “villagize” the indigenous people of Gambella and give away their ancestral lands for free to foreign investors who did not even ask for it. If it was a crime against humanity for Derg leader Mengistu to depopulate the northern rebel-controlled regions as part of his counterinsurgency strategy, it is no less a crime against humanity for Zenawi to depopulate Gambella to make way for his “investments.” Mengistu was convicted of genocide by Zenawi in substantial part for Mengistu’s use of “resettlement” and “villagization” as a tool of counterinsurgency. Mengistu never believed he would be held accountable; and today Zenawi similarly believes he will never be held accountable. But sometimes “justice is like a train that always arrives late.” Justice will soon arrive for the indigenous people of Gambella.
The Gambella Gambit
History shows that the indigenous people of Gambella have been neglected, discriminated and exploited over centuries of successive administrations in Ethiopia. But it was in December 2003 that the public rape of Gambella became known to the whole world. Before taking Gambella’s “best farmland”, they took the lives of hundreds of Gambella’s best and brightest over a three-day period that December. As Obang Metho, the tireless and tenacious young Ethiopian human rights advocate who was born in Gambella described it:
They targeted those individuals who were the voices of the community and have a say in the exploration and development of oil on their land. The killing squads went through Gambella town looking for the next Anuak to brutally kill, they chanted, ‘Today there will be no more Anuak.’ ‘Today there will be no more Anuak land.’ As they raped the women they said, ‘Today there will be no more Anuak babies.’ Within three days, 424 Anuak were dead.
When I received news, it was the darkest day of my life. My world was turned upside down. Among the 424 Anuak killed, I personally knew 317 of them. They were my family, my classmates and many others with whom I had been working to bring development not just to the Anuak, but to the region. Most were educated and outspoken. I have no doubts that I would have been one of the victims had I been living there at the time.
Genocide Watch described this massacre as a “major pogrom of terror and repression against the Anuak minority carried out by EPRDF soldiers and Highlander militias.” Human Rights Watch concluded: “Since late 2003, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has committed numerous human rights violations against Anuak communities in the Gambella region of southwestern Ethiopia that may amount to crimes against humanity.” The Anuak Justice Council reported “genocide and crimes against humanity have continued, raising the death toll between 1,500 and 2,500, and causing more than 50,000 Anuak to flee.”
Ethiopian Developers are Criminals, Indian Investors are Heroes?
A couple of weeks ago, Zenawi condemned Ethiopian developers who were transferring their leaseholds in urban land in Addis Ababa as “land grabbers” and “speculators” who should be “locked up”. He said “developers were grabbing land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights they were given for personal profit and speculation.” In Zenawi’s eyes, Ethiopian developers are low-down, no good, two-bit cheaters, scammers and profiteers; but Indian investors who are given millions of hectares of the “best land” in the country without asking and for nothing are heroes and saviors.
But this is not about Ethiopian developers against Indian investors. It is not about the rights of local against international investors. It is about fairness and equity. It is about official wrongs and the human rights of some of the poorest, historically oppressed, discriminated and exploited indigenous minorities in Ethiopia. It is about a land giveaway of mind-boggling proportions to a foreign company to raise rice, edible oils, maize and cotton for export while millions of Ethiopians are starving and living on international food handouts. (In 2010, Ethiopia “received more than 700,000 tonnes of food and £1.8bn in aid, but has offered three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of virgin land to foreign corporations such as Karuturi.”) It is about making “land deals of the century” without accountability, transparency, public debate, discussion and, above all, the consent of the people who will be permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. It is about how a whole country became the personal investment property of one man and his syndicate!
Karuturi, Beware of Those Bearing Free Gifts
I will never forget the giddy, bearded-face of Karuturi Project Manager in Gambella, Karmjeet Sekhon, in the Guardian video giggling ecstatically and telling John Vidal about the free land his company got: “We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. They offered it. That’s all.”
Sorry, Karuturi and Mr. Sekhon, “that is not all.” You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Of course, Karuturi is free to indulge in the proverbial fantasy about a free lunch, free money and free land. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as free land. After Karturi spends millions to clear the forest, bring in expensive agricultural equipment, build infrastructure and get the farms humming, it will find out “that’s not all”. Mr. Sekhon will wake up one fine Gambella morning and find out that the free land his company got without asking ain’t free after all. Karuturi will find out that it has failed to get this or that permit, or is in violation of this or that part of the 50-year lease. It did not build this school or that clinic, and the ones it built are not big enough or good enough. It will find out that it did not build this road or that town center the right way, and the ones it built are inadequate and more need to be built. Karuturi will suddenly find out that foreign investment law that gave them millions of hectares of free land has been reinterpreted to mean whatever the free land-givers want it to mean, just like the urban land law was interpreted to mean that developers could be “locked up” for trying to transfer their leaseholds for profit or pay “hefty fines” to avoid jail time. In the end, Mr. Sekhon’s words will come back to haunt him and his company: “The hand that gaveth the free land is the hand that taketh away the fine, well-developed farmland!”
Karuturi and the rest of the “investors” have no idea how cunning, shrewd, tricky, wily and crafty the free land-givers are; and they do not learn from self-evident facts. Those who are handing out free land understand the power of greed in the hearts and minds of the greedy. Mr. Sekhon was as giddy and merry as a five-year old child who was just got handed a bagful of candy. All of the investors salivate at the idea of grabbing millions of hectares of free land. Their greed blinds them to a self-evident truth: It is impossible to get a whole lot of something (1,000 sq miles of virgin, fertile land) for a whole lot of nothing ($245 a week for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks).
In the end, all of the investors will lose. In the end, the free land-givers will have it all. Over the decades, we have seen free-land-for-nothing type of scams from Angola to Zimbabwe. On March 27, 2011, Robert Mugabe told foreign investors straight-up that he is going to muscle in on their mining operations in Zimbabwe:
We are taking over. Listen Britain and America: this is our country. If you have companies which would want to work in our mining sector, they are welcome to come and join us, but we must have our people as the major shareholders. Those whites who want to be with us, those outsiders who want to work with us fine, they come in as partners, we are the senior partner, no more the junior partner.
Like Mugabe, Ethiopia’s free land-givers will watch the international investors pour their money, hearts and skills into the lands. They will study every move the investors make, and then make their own move. Soon enough, Karuturi and Mr. Sekhon and the rest of them will figure out that they are “outsiders” (not investors) and the free land-givers will “take over” the farming operations, or at least become “senior partners” for giving them free land in the first place. That’s how it will all play out. It has happened time and again all over Africa. Any written lease contract with Karuturi and the rest of them will not be worth the paper it is written on. Whatever unwritten agreements there may be, they will be conveniently forgotten. By the time the investors figure out that they had been taken to the cleaners, it would too late. Mr. Sekhon, who giggled uncontrollably for getting hundreds of thousands of hectares of free land will cry uncontrollably all the way back to Bangalore, India to tell his bosses: “We should have known it was too good to be true! We should have….” The guys who gave out millions of free hectares without anyone asking them for it will be laughing all the way to the bank in London, New York and Zurich.
Cry for the Beloved Country
When hundreds of Anuaks were massacred in Gambella in 2003, the international human rights organizations stepped forward to let the world know what happened there. In 2011, the Guardian newspaper bared to the world the imminent danger facing the indigenous people of Gambella. Over the years, I have tried to offer my voice of support to the cause of Anuak human rights and condemned the giveaway of the ancestral lands for nothing to foreign investors. I shall cry for all the people of Gambella. I shall cry for the Anuak because I fear, as does UNICEF, that they are undergoing a slow genocide by cultural annihilation and dispossession of ancestral lands. The indigenous people of Gambella will forever lose their pastoral way of life, and the new generation of young Gambellans who will never know the traditional ways of their forefathers. I shall cry for the precious wild life that will never return because their habitat has been permanently destroyed and for the bountiful forests that are burned to ashes and the rivers and fishes that will be poisoned with pesticide and herbicide to grow rice and cotton for export. I shall cry out to the heavens for Ethiopia, for she has become the personal investment property of Meles Zenawi, just like the Congo was the personal investment property of King Leopold II of Belgium in the late 1800s.
But this is no time to despair and submit to the arrogance of power and the power of arrogance. The trials and tribulations of the indigenous people of Gambella and their 80 million compatriots shall come to pass soon; and the bright sun that is lifting the darkness over North Africa and the Middle East is dawning just over the horizon over the land of 13 months of sunshine. Let them all stand up, hold hands, march together and cast away their fears into the fierce blowing winds of change.
Enough! Beka! Gaye! Bass! Yiakel!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/