Once the most frequented source of poster images depicting starving children, Ethiopia is now in the media for a new reason: as the go-to destination, ironically, for foreign companies and governments leasing land to grow food and biofuels.
Globally, food prices are rising. Food security is dubious in the Global North, Gulf countries and emerging economies such as China and India. Moreover, many nations face an energy crisis and are on a quest to find renewable alternatives to fossil fuels such as biofuels.
Given this confluence of circumstances, countries with abundant land such as Ethiopia, once ignored as too poor and destitute to warrant anything but food aid, now enjoy ‘most favored nation’ status in the eyes of foreign investors.
Women, who are already compensating for rising food prices and energy costs with additional time and labor – are now further disadvantaged through land grabbing.
Land grabs are land lease or sale agreements between parties with unequal bargaining power, often transacted through covert or illegal means.
Although land grabs in the 21st century bear some resemblance to massive land grabs that characterized colonization and empire-building in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, grabs today are courted by African governments, endorsed through intentionally vague paperwork and lauded in official speeches espousing their trickle-down merits.
According to Oxfam, in the last decade alone, foreign companies and governments have acquired 227 million hectares of land in Africa.
In Ethiopia, as a legacy of the socialist dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s, the government technically owns all land. It claims that the land available for lease is unused and surplus. This land is dry and pastoral, used primarily for grazing and for small-scale cultivation by families for their own food, including staples such as teff.
Leases are paid in cash and long in duration, with many lasting 99 years and offering rent-free initial years as incentives. Licenses to operate can be obtained within four hours from a special office catering to foreign investors in Addis Ababa. Investors leasing the land are exempt from paying local taxes.
Lease agreements stipulate that the land will be handed over to investors without ‘encumbrances’ - people and their homes. The leases also do not specify any conditions about creating jobs for local residents or building schools, hospitals or housing. Unbridled access to water sources, including wells and rivers, is implied in lease agreements.
As Indian economist Jayati Ghosh puts it, “investors are given carte blanche.” She adds there is no way that investors could find such good deals within their countries of origin.
The private sector refers to this agricultural outsourcing as the third wave of outsourcing, following manufacturing and then services.
As foreign investors cultivate crops, often water sources are polluted, diverted and drained. Without regard for long-term arability and with the goal of maximum yield, the land is used for monocropping under commercial agricultural techniques, including spraying harmful fertilizers and chemicals. Imported machines lessen the need for local, human labor.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reports that the first land to be offered for sale is land used predominately by women for purposes such as grazing animals or collecting firewood, water, and medicinal plants. As land is leased, women are displaced without compensation, lose access to their livelihoods, are forced to work for small wages as farm hands, and have their workload significantly increased as they travel greater distances to accomplish their daily tasks such as fetching water.
On one hand, women’s cultural roles—for example, their role as traditional healers —may be undermined when access to important resources is cut off by some land deals. On the other hand, women’s reproductive roles are reinforced as paid jobs are offered by investors first and often solely to men, and women take on more responsibilities in the home.
Also, in negotiating land agreements, investors approach and deal directly with men in thegovernment and in local communities. As a result, the situation of women land users is often not considered in the negotiation process – and is already precarious due to lack of land rights.
Women grow 80% of Africa’s food but own 1% of its land. Throughout the continent, with few exceptions, men hold land rights, and women access the land as kin. In most cases, women cannot own, inherit or bequeath land and do not participate in land administration structures.
On paper, the recently created African Union Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa commits to prioritizing land policy development for locals and equitable access to land in the African Union. It even recognizes the role of patriarchy in restricting women’s ownership and control of land and further notes the role of colonization in cementing patriarchy in land ownership laws in the first place.
Yet the Framework and Guidelines remain silent on the issue of land grabs and fail to address how land grabs further and urgently necessitate the need for women’s rights to land.
When questioned, representatives from governments, including those in Ethiopia, spout proven ineffective neoliberal arguments. In Planet for Sale, they eschew the need for rights and instead contend that such massive foreign investment will trickle down to locals and that money from food exports can be used to buy food from international markets.
With food price volatility, climate change and the demonstrated failure of neoliberal economic policies to alleviate poverty, this is hardly likely.
Thus far, kickbacks from investment have padded the pockets of elites and are yet to augment national coffers. Land grabs have not increased local food security. Cultivated crops are exported or sold at high prices to locals who can afford them.
Meanwhile, no investments are made in local, small-scale farms. Ethiopia continues to depend on food aid.
South of Ethiopia and wary of the same fate, communities across Madagascar revolted when their government leased half of the country’s farmland to South Korea’s Daewoo corporation. Korean women farmers backed their counterparts in Madagascar, protested for support for small-scale local farms and pressured their government to revoke the deal. After weeks of uprising, the government cancelled the contract with Daewoo.
There are also a few signs of hope in Ethiopia. According to IFPRI, female representatives have recently been included in the land certification process, increasing the likelihood that women will have their interests in land better protected in the context of land deals.
At the global level, women’s rights advocates are working in solidarity with other civil society organizations and social movements to prevent land grabs. They are also linking land grabs to climate change, including as part of the People’s Summit in the lead-up to the United Nations Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.
One day, Ethiopia may be a source for images that portray sustainable development and rights for all.
Masum Momaya and Kathambi Kinoti contributed to research and writing.