EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

The race for MDGs Vs land grabbing

15 mins read

 By~Geletaw Zeleke
The United Nations’ number one millennium development goal is eradicating extreme poverty from the face of the earth. Holding this slogan high, countries across the globe are working to get rid of poverty. Supporters of bilateral aid both international and national nongovernmental organizations up and down are working to achieve this goal.  There is, however, one colossal obstacle standing in the way of them achieving their goal and that, of course, is land and water grabbing. When the land and water grabbing phenomenon turned up all around the world it cast its shadow over MDG endeavors.
According to the World Bank 70% of world citizens who earn less than 2 dollars a day are located in the Sub-Saharan region. This region is an area where extreme poverty is highly concentrated and consequently where world combined force works to pull residents out from under the reign of multidimensional poverty.  The saddening fact however is that this region is now the 70% victim of land and water grabbing practices.
Never forget that in the Sub-Saharan region and others among the most under-developed regions in the world more than 80 percent of the population constitutes farmers. For these groups of people in particular, to break free from the grasp of poverty, of course agriculture plays a vital role. The land and water of these poor nations are the potentials in hand of its poor majority populations to achieve the eradication of poverty in alignment with MDG.
We have learnt from the development history of today’s most developed nation’s their initial and turning points in the process of development is agriculture. More than anything else for poor nations to eradicate poverty and to develop their countries they have no other choice than to utilize their agricultural potentials. Furthermore, under-developed countries have to choose agriculture first because agriculture is the preferred model for their capacity. Since education and technology is deficient in less developed areas the easiest way to move to wealth is by exploiting agriculture resources.
Land grabbing was born in the era of MDG and within a decade it spread very fast. It seems to have spread faster than the world race toward MDG accomplishment. The head of economic justice for Oxfam, Ms. Kelly Dent, says the following of the spread of land grabbing practices.
    “Over the last 10 years, poor countries have lost a soccer oval worth of land to foreign investors every second”
In addition, Oxfam’s “Working Together to End Poverty and Injustice”,
Reports the following about the scale of the scramble to land grab.
“In developing countries as many as 560 million acres of land, an area greater than the size of California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming combined, have been sold, leased or licensed in large-scale land deals since 2001.”
Imagine how fast and how aggressively the trend to land and water grab has spread. Land grabbing movement has become an over-consumptive movement. It was born out of the recent global recession when seeing the future as gloomy companies ran to grab land and water from the world’s poorest countries. It seems the calculations were not farsighted, however. How could they sustain their profit for long? Since there is no mutual respect and benefit it cannot self-sustain but rather it brings about other unexpected problems. Instability, hatred and war might result from such human rights violated business practices.

How does land and water grabbing differ from other kinds of investments?

Land grab is different from other investments in its nature. One of its unusual characteristics lies within its risk taking measures. Under normal circumstances when people invest their money they evaluate risks by assessing the rule of law, political stability and peace among other things. Investors are generally sensitive to investing their money when risks are substantial. Land grabbing on the contrary especially in Ethiopia, takes huge risks. These potential risks constitute the following dilemmas.

The quest for land tenor is an unresolved question.

In Ethiopia in the 1970s one of the hottest political issues was the land tenor question. University students paid a huge personal price for rehashing this hot political issue.  When the DERG regime came to power after taking possession of land from large scale land owners, instead of releasing the land to its tenors with full rights the government lotted it out for farming and could not resolve the land ownership quest. Then after the DERG regime fell Ethiopians were hoping that the EPRDF, the current ruling party, would resolve this question. However, this land is still owned by the government. This issue of land privatization is still an important question in the minds of Ethiopian elites and students. One of the indicators of this reality is that, except for ruling EPRDF party supporters all opposition parties believe that land should be possessed by citizens. Interestingly, this reality indicates that any governmental change is risky for land grabber security. Moreover, since there is no reliable doubt that sooner or later these ownerships will be privatized and repatriated by citizens, the situation actually put land grabbers in opposition to the same majority of Ethiopians whose lands they employ. The potential problem for land grabbers in Ethiopia is that when the time comes for change there will be a huge reorganization of Ethiopian land policy. Since land has remained in the control of government the possession transfer can and is expected to be a somewhat radicalized one.
Ethiopia has unutilized land but this does not mean that Ethiopia has surplus land. There is huge demographic pressure in some parts of the country while there is unutilized land in other disparate areas. In the high land areas for example farmers on average hold a little less than one hectare with 6 average family sizes. Due to bad policy citizens cannot fully exploit their own lands while man power is unrealized on sparse plots. So again, during that period of projected change those densely populate areas will have citizenship rights to claim unutilized areas. Remember that Saudi Arabian and Indian land and water grabbers in Ethiopia took this risk regardless.
Another risk not only impacts Ethiopia but also other countries where citizens have lost their access to land and as a result have experienced instability. People are resisting and protesting while land grabbers plague the land by employing government soldiers to guard and protect their interests.
Land and water grabbing is equivalent to a violation of the sovereignty of one’s country. Citizens have emotional attachments to their surrounding land and water environments. When they see their vast lands sold for 99 years at a time they feel frustrated and irritated because land is one of the manifestations of sovereignty.
In every country when the land is sold for a period of time that extends past the life of generations then individuals can begin to feel unsuccessful. People start to blame the government who gave away their land and they start to seek administrative change. In this case the sale of land becomes a stimulant for political change. This is a huge risk for grabbers. The recent years witness a good example of these risks.
In Madagascar an irresponsible government was dealt to sell half of the countries arable land to one Korean company. The Madagascar people protested and eventually this resulted in the downfall of the president Marc Ravalomanana.
Another risk of land grab is that it violates international human rights protections. While ultimately large scale investment cannot go far without the support of the international community.
Land and water grab is characterized by another dealing that differ it from other investments. The transactions of land grabbing are highly confidential. Why is land grab deals are not conducted in the public arena? In less developed countries the act of attracting investment is big news where gain is often even exaggerated; investment is usually publicized and often even politicized. When it comes to instances of land grab, however, deals are kept secret and are carried out by high level government officials and investors working privately.
In fact is land grabbing not kept confidential for the reason that it violates constitutional rights of nations and international human rights laws in the first place? Land grabbing is by all means illegal because it breaks the law by infringing on citizen rights. It has no legal fortitude or developmental base. The dilemma of secrecy exposes the crime of land grab and explains why it is carried out behind closed doors out of the arena of public scrutiny. This dilemma characterizes land grab and stigmatizes it apart from other investments.
In Ethiopia a land and water grab deal is always hidden from journalists, opposition leaders and the people. This creates distrust and frustration among citizens. The government continues to lease large areas of arable land but citizens have no right to know about the agreements or how their revenues will be spent. Land farmed for generations by one family can overnight become leased to foreign investors for up to 99 years.
Why do leaders do this? What is their profit?
The answer is easy. There are two major calculated profits. The first is to prolong or maintain seats of leadership and, or positions of power. Most governments who are accused of bad governance or dictatorial style leadership and those which have no public support will by nature cling to supports which enable them to retain their control, positions or power. One of the calculations of such is that by giving away their citizens land they can for all intents and purposes “buy” supporters. Land grabbers know that if there is political change, if there is democracy then there secret dealings will no longer be profitable to them. This bad business creates a conundrum where land grabbers may support bad government as much as they can at the expense of citizen benefits. This climate consequently will breed suspect and fear from the opposition that land grabbers play a negative role in their struggle for democracy, justice and even good governance.
The other negative impact of bad business practices such as land grabbing can be seen in the glitz economy. Glitz style of growth is a term proposed by Dr. Aklog Birara used to express the superficiality of growth when it does not impact citizen lives. Governments may get money from land deals of palm oil, flowers or bio fuel for agribusiness. This exchange is not expected to be proportional to the value of the land but it is used to build tall buildings and luxury hotels to give the outward appearance of prosperity and wealth. Meanwhile people are starving, out of work, desperate and isolated from the economic elite enjoying the benefits if the glitz economy.

Land and water grabbing activity not only takes the above mentioned risks but also undermines social responsibility.


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