A controversial resettlement program in Ethiopia is the latest battleground in the global race to secure prized farmland and water.
Anchor introduction: And now a follow-up to a story that aired on PBS NewsHour in April 2010 about foreign land investment in Ethiopia. In the wake of that investment, tens of thousands of residents are being relocated off their ancestral lands and are losing access to valuable farmland and water resources. Reporter Cassandra Herrman brings us this story from the western region of Gambella, Ethiopia.
Reporter Cassandra Herrman: The Anuak people of the Gambella region have lived in scattered settlements like this for centuries, growing maize in wetter months and farming closer to the river in the dry season.
But last year, the Ethiopian government launched a program called “villagization.” Officials told the people here they would be relocated to areas with better access to clean water, health and education. But this woman says they were forced to move under false pretenses.
Tenyi woman: When we left our farm, our crops were ready for harvest, but they told us to leave them in the field, that we would find plenty of corn and other food in the new place we were moving. But they don’t give you enough food to fill you up. They give you food in a small container, but it can’t even feed a family for a day.
Reporter: The plight of the Anuak people is at the heart of a complex battle over land ownership and water rights between farmers, the government and foreign investors. It’s a battle that’s being fought in many African countries.
The Ethiopian government officially owns title to all the land here, but farmers have the right to use it. The government calls this land “abandoned” because it’s so sparsely populated. But Anuak say they need it – some for grazing, some to lay fallow – and that it’s the best farmland in the country.
Tenyi man: Moving us to a new village might be good for the government, but not for us. It’s not good to move a person from the land they have lived on for generations. Maybe the government thinks we are not worthy enough to live on such beautiful land, and they want to have it.
Reporter: Over the next two years, 1.5 million people in four regions of Ethiopia will be relocated. The government insists that the villagization program is voluntary. But Human Rights Watch says Anuak are being forced to move so that the government can lease the land to investors. The rights group recently documented cases of violence and arbitrary arrest.
Okok Ojulu: Land is political; land is very emotional. And land is our identity.
Reporter: Anuak leader Okok Ojulu was a voice of resistance against villagization. Fearing for his life, Ojulu fled Ethiopia and now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya.
Ojulu: I see my village – very small in the face of this big population coming in – I see a big threat. We need to fight for the future of our children.
Reporter: Ojulu says it’s not just his people’s land that’s at stake. Gambella, with several rivers and a sizable dam, is rich in water resources. Water is the driving force behind many agricultural deals on the African continent.
This rice farm is owned by a Saudi sheik and is on land that the Anuak consider theirs. According to the company, Saudi Star, when completed, this rice farm will be the largest in Africa.
CEO: Our objective is to put Ethiopia on the rice map of the world. We would like to export about 1 million tons of rice. We expect about $1 billion of income for the country.
Reporter: In many places in the world, water is becoming a scarce resource. Saudi Star’s rice will go to Gulf nations no longer able to irrigate their own crops. To attract investors to this area of the Nile River Basin, the Ethiopian government puts few, if any, restrictions on water usage in its contracts with foreign companies.
Saudi Star will spend $2.5 billion on the rice farm – on clearing forest, on their fleet of new tractors and combines, and on experts like Muhammad Manzoor Khan, one of the project’s directors.
Muhammad Manzoor Khan: It is a lot of rice for the world market and also for the local people. This project is generating a lot of income. It can really bring a kind of revolution in food production, as well as uplifting the social conditions of the people around.
Reporter: But Ethiopians don’t typically eat rice, and many question the move to grow crops for export when Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa have a long history of periodic hunger caused by war and weather problems.
Dessalegn Rahmato: This country is a country that has suffered food insecurity and famine, still suffers food insecurity, and yet gives out these huge land resources to foreign capital.
Reporter: Dessalegn Rahmato is a food policy expert with the Forum for Social Studies. He says making sure people have access to food should be the government’s priority.
Rahmato: There is no provision in any of the contracts signed by the government and investors – there is no provision for food security, local food security, at all. And if there are people starving there, it’s not their concern.
Reporter: In the capital, Addis Ababa, the government says the way to ensure people can afford food is to provide jobs through attracting investment and foreign currency. At the Ministry of Agriculture, Director of Investment Essayas Kebede says that as a country of farmers, Ethiopia needs agricultural exports in order to pay for importing necessary items.
Essayas Kebede: To have tractors, to have harvesters, to have equipment and to have fertilizer. We are importing fertilizer, we are importing oil; we are importing everything!
Reporter: But in Gambella, Anuak say they are not seeing the benefits of the country’s investment strategy. While companies like Saudi Star now have access to much of the region's best land and water, the leader of this village says they’ve been moved to drier areas, where farming is more difficult.
Perbongo leader: If they take all the water from the small river, the river will dry up. Then where would we get water? I heard also they are planning to take water from the lake a few kilometers from here.
Reporter: The lake he is referring to is the Alwero Dam. Saudi Star is close to finishing an 18-mile canal from the dam to irrigate their rice fields.
Perbongo leader: If I knew that they were moving me so they could sell my land, I would have refused to leave, so they could kill me and bury me in my own land! That would have been better.
Reporter: Many of the relocated communities could face endemic hunger as early as next year, according to Human Rights Watch. Most are still waiting for farms or seed. More than 12 million Ethiopians are currently in need of food assistance.
The future for groups like the Anuak grows increasingly uncertain as the global land rush continues not just in Ethiopia, but in dozens of countries across the African continent.