The Conference on Land Policy in Africa starts today, November 12, 2014, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Government officials, representatives from international institutions, aid agencies, and civil society organizations have gathered around the theme “ensuring agricultural development and inclusive growth.”
Given the recent explosion of land grabs across the African continent, this international conference seems pertinent and timely, especially for the millions of smallholder farmers and citizens across the continent. But let’s not allow some key facts to be drowned by the enthusiasm expressed from those attending.
We need to consider the venue and the host country, Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government is not only offering a facility for the conference, but has also played a key role as a member of the Steering Committee for the gathering. The same country is arguably one of the worst offenders when it comes to forced displacement resulting from land grabs.
In recent years, the Ethiopian government has leased over 3 million hectares to corporations for the development of large-scale agricultural plantations and is making available a total of 11.5 million hectares to investors. As widely documented by the Oakland Institute, the land offered to investors is inhabited and used by millions of indigenous peoples in different regions of the country. The Ethiopian government has embarked on a villagization program aiming to resettle some 1.5 million people from this land in order to make room for these agricultural investments. This program is being implemented through forced displacement and massive human right violations.
On November 10, 2014, the Oakland Institute released the latest of its investigative reports on agricultural investment in Ethiopia. Engineering Ethnic Conflict: The Toll of Ethiopia’s Plantation Development on the Suri People documents the dire impact of the current land policy on local people, including the destruction of lives and livelihoods, as well as massacres and violent conflict between local communities.
Last week, Amnesty International published an equally troubling report, 'Because I am Oromo', detailing rape, unlawful killings, torture, and arbitrary arrest of Oromo people for supposed opposition to the government.
The Ethiopian government has systematically silenced all those who oppose and report on these issues within the country, curtailing free speech and creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Independent civil society organizations have been decimated by the 2009 Civil Society Law as well as by the arrests and repression of independent voices and critics of the government’s actions and policies.
For a land conference to take place in Ethiopia, where millions of hectares of land are being forcibly taken away from local communities, this event makes a farce out of a tragedy – especially given the theme “ensuring agricultural development and inclusive growth.”
The conference includes a session on the issue of pastoralist land-use rights in Ethiopia. The possibility of a constructive dialogue at a conference coordinated and hosted by the Ethiopian government, is impossible given the well evidenced horrific abuses carried out against the pastoralist communities in Ethiopia, the primary targets of land grabbing.
There is no doubt that a critical dialogue on the issue needs to take place. But holding such a meeting under the guidance of and in the backyard of one of the world’s worst offenders of land-based human rights abuses, seriously jeopardizes any well intentioned plan for designing land policies that will ensure true development, recognizing rights of smallholder farmers, the indigenous, and the pastoralists in Africa.