MFA laments BBC’s land grab fears

BBC World Service published a story titled ‘Land grab fears for Ethiopian rural communities on December 16/2010. The story by Ed Butler paints a grimly picture of Ethiopia’s effort to develop its agricultural sector by engaging foreign investors.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs(MFA) of Ethiopia lamented the story, citing its failings and inaccuracies, as cynic, hypercritic and paternalistic. As the response by the  MFA is highly brief and to the point, there is no need to attempt summarizing it.

Here is a section of MFA weekly press release – A Week in the Horn (24.12.2010)

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Land Leasing and BBC cynicism

Hypocrisy comes in many forms.  For many detractors of Ethiopia, it is often demonstrated in the form of crocodile tears over what they allege to be the destructive policies followed by the incumbent government. Anything the government does is made the subject of ridicule and all-too-often a deafening media cacophony verging on hysteria. Ethiopia’s dams, for example, have all too often been singled out as environmentally unfriendly even when all the scientific evidence proves the contrary. Development projects that can benefit tens of millions, lifting people out of debilitating poverty, are invariably dismissed as white elephants designed to destroy the ecosystem. A common refrain among some international NGOs and media outlets is that hydro-electric projects, however environmentally friendly they may be, will invariably cause destruction to the lives of the indigenous communities, a phrase which provides a missionary ring to it. Some of these campaigns have fizzled out over the years but others are quick to follow on their heels. One recent story carried by the BBC, and headlined “Land Grab Fears for Ethiopian Rural Communities” (16.12.2010), epitomizes this pattern of paternalistic concern from western commentators with questionable motives.

In fact, the BBC story is the latest chapter in a campaign that at some point seemed to lose its momentum after starting out with near ferocity.  This is perhaps one indication that this holier-than-thou pontificating about protecting local populations by organizations like the BBC is indeed becoming absurd. The central element of the BBC report is that lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Ethiopia are being threatened by external investments and that Ethiopia is doing its people a disservice, even an injustice, by leasing millions of hectares of land to foreign investors. To back up his claim the BBC reporter quotes unnamed sources with lots of grim stories to tell about what ‘they’ claim has been the lot of their compatriots following examples of land lease. They add, for good measure, that they couldn’t air their opinions because this would get them killed.  It’s a waste of time to respond to such outrageous allegations – people aren‘t arrested or killed for commenting on government policies in a country where they are actually expected to openly discuss those policies. Of course, the nameless people to whom the reporter alludes aren’t necessarily residents of the areas they refer to. It is all-too-common for journalists to quote an interpreter or friends as representatives of indigenous communities. Reference to a possibility or the likelihood of being killed as a result of one’s comments immediately obviates the need to give names or the whereabouts of sources. It’s a technique common to journalists and advocacy organizations alike.

What started out as a defense of the rights of pastoralist farmers also gets mixed up half-way through the article as advocacy of smallholder farmers displaced from their landholdings as a consequence of these leases. While the allegations of displacement of pastoralists are totally erroneous, even more outrageous is the claim that the land leases result in dispossession of smallholders. According to the report, areas earmarked by the government for lease in the western and south-western parts of the country support more than 4 million people. The intent is obviously to suggest that this is the number of people potentially affected by the arrangement. A modicum of research however will find that the population of the two regions involved, Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz Regional States, is a little under a million inhabitants between them. If even a few of these allegations were true, this remains a substantial figure, but it is interesting to see just how far critics are prepared to go to paint a grim picture about a development that is proving pivotal in improving and changing so many lives. It doesn’t seem to matter that local people continue to suffer as long as Asian or Middle Eastern investors can be excluded from access to cultivable land even then it doesn’t in any way harm any single individual. The criticisms are not about the people in whose name such reports are written; they are rather about those involved. It is no surprise that European commercial farmers who own literally tens of millions of hectares of land in some parts of Africa are never referred to as “land grabbers”.

For the BBC reporter, any deal of land lease in Ethiopia involving Asian and Middle Eastern investors is suspect as the kind of infrastructural development expected to come with the deal just doesn’t materialize. The reporter also insinuates that while compensation is paid to smallholders this is not the case for pastoralists, though no evidence is offered for this assertion. The reporter claims that pastoralists are bribed to sell their own farms but adds that such transactions cannot be valid because residents claim there is no empty land ‘without history’, all land is “ancestral land.” This amounts to a cheap trick aimed at ennobling a duplicitous agenda that has little to do with honoring the will and history of the locals. The reporter quickly goes on to take issue with the very notion of land lease in Africa as unviable. It might work elsewhere but not in Africa. The condescending overtones are clear: the only difference that exists in land lease in Latin America and in Africa is not in the arrangements but in the identity or national origin of the investors.

In fact, for those interested, understanding the government’s policy and the reality on the ground are not actually difficult. The government of Ethiopia has always made it quite clear that no single individual, smallholder or otherwise, will be displaced for the purpose of investment. What is allocated for this purpose are previously uncultivated and inaccessible lands in areas where there are virtually no farmers. Investment in those areas is providing opportunity for infrastructural expansion and development designed to lift local people out of poverty. The evidence already underlines this is the case. No single farmer has been dispossessed of his holding on account of foreign investment; the government is committed to avoiding such a possibility.

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