25 March 2011

Ethiopian Land Grabs

John Vidal reports for The Guardian on how international agricultural businesses have been handed a remarkable opportunity in Ethopia.
It's the deal of the century: £150 a week to lease more than 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset – for 50 years. Bangalore-based food company Karuturi Global says it had not even seen the land when it was offered by the Ethiopian government with tax breaks thrown in.

Karuturi snapped it up, and next year the company, one of the world's top 25 agri-businesses, will export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from Gambella province – a remote region near the Sudan border – to world markets.

Ethiopia is one of the world's largest recipients of humanitarian food and development assistance, last year receiving more than 700,000 tonnes of food and £1.8bn in aid, but it has offered three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of virgin land to foreign corporations such as Karuturi.

"It's very good land. It's quite cheap. In fact it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India," says Karmjeet Sekhon, project manager for what is expected to be one of Africa's largest farms. "There 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."
Watch the video as he explores the land deal and how it impacts communities and individuals in Ethopia. Promises of new homes, schools and roads for workers have been made, but the skeptic in me finds it hard to be optimistic about what is happening. What is striking is how the land was seemingly given away. With the breaks received and the cheap labor, it is no wonder that the agreement was made without even seeing the land.

Duncan Green of Oxfam provides much more depth on this issue and I highly suggest reading his post on it as well. I wrote this before reading his, but am positing after. I would be remiss not mention it and send you on your way to read his thoughts.