Ethiopia: A country for sale

Published on Pambazuka News, by Alemayehu G. Mariam, March 30, 2011.

An international company has benefitted from a massive handout of land in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Alemayehu G. Mariam shows what the devastating consequences of the deal will be for local people. Supposing someone offered you the following land deal: would you take it or would you walk away believing it to be too good to be true? For £150 a week ($245), you can lease more than 2,500 square kilometres of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset, England – for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks.

If you walked away from it, you would have lost out on ‘the deal of the century’, perhaps the millennium. If you think this is a joke or some sort of wild and crazy exaggeration, see this Guardian (UK) report and video on an incredible international land giveaway that is taking place in Gambella in Western Ethiopia and judge for yourself.


The Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global is today the proud owner of the Ethiopian land. Karuturi did not ask for the land and did not even see it when a signed 50-year ‘lease’ was delivered to its offices in Bangalore, India, on a golden platter by Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia.

Karuturi project manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon laughed euphorically as he explained what happened to Guardian reporter John Vidal:

‘We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. (Triumphantly cackling laughter) They offered it. That’s all. It’s very good land. It’s quite cheap. In fact it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India. There [India] you are lucky to get 1 per cent of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5 per cent. 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.’

Ethiopia is on sale. Everybody is getting a piece of her. For next to nothing. The land vultures have been swooping down on Gambella from all parts of the world. Zenawi proudly claims ‘36 countries including India, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have leased farm land.’ This month (March 2011) the concessions are being worked at a breakneck pace, with giant tractors and heavy machinery clearing trees, draining swamps and ploughing the land in time to catch the next growing season. Forests across hundreds of square kilometres are being clear-felled and burned – to the dismay of locals and environmentalists concerned about the fate of the region’s rich wildlife.

Karuturi, ‘one of the world’s top 25 agri-businesses’ plans to ‘export palm oil, sugar, rice and other foods from Gambella province to world markets’.



When hundreds of Anuaks were massacred in Gambella in 2003, the international human rights organisations stepped forward to let the world know what happened. In 2011, the Guardian newspaper told the world about the imminent danger facing the indigenous people of Gambella. Over the years, I have tried to offer my voice of support to the cause of Anuak human rights and condemned the giveaway of the ancestral lands. I shall cry for all the people of Gambella. I shall cry for the Anuak because I fear, as does UNICEF, that they are undergoing a slow genocide by cultural annihilation and dispossession of ancestral lands. The indigenous people of Gambella will forever lose their pastoral way of life, and the new generation of young Gambellans will never know the traditional ways of their forefathers. I shall cry for the precious wild life that will never return because their habitat has been permanently destroyed, and for the bountiful forests that are burned to ashes for commercial farmland and the rivers and fish that will be poisoned with pesticide and herbicide to grow rice and cotton for export. I shall cry out to the heavens for Ethiopia, for she has become the personal investment property of Meles Zenawi, just like the Congo was the personal investment property of King Leopold II of Belgium in the late 1800s.

But this is no time to despair and submit to the arrogance of power and the power of arrogance. The trials and tribulations of the indigenous people of Gambella and their 80 million compatriots shall come to pass soon. The bright sun that is lifting the darkness over North Africa and the Middle East is dawning just over the horizon. Let them all stand up, hold hands, march together and cast away their fears into the fiercely blowing winds of change. (full long text).

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