January 18, 2012

HRW: Zenawi land sale brings famine to Gambella

Ethiopia: Forced Relocations Bring Hunger, Hardship

Donor Funds Should Not Facilitate Abuse of Indigenous Groups
by Human Rights Watch | The Ethiopian government’s villagization program is not improving access to services for Gambella’s indigenous people, but is instead undermining their livelihoods and food security. The government should suspend the program until it can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people have been properly consulted and compensated for the loss of their land.

Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch

(London) – The Ethiopian government under its “villagization” program is forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. State security forces have repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested villagers who resist the transfers.

The report, “‘Waiting Here for Death’: Forced Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region,” examines the first year of Gambella’s villagization program. It details the involuntary nature of the transfers, the loss of livelihoods, the deteriorating food situation, and ongoing abuses by the armed forces against the affected people. Many of the areas from which people are being moved are slated for leasing by the government for commercial agricultural development.

“The Ethiopian government’s villagization program is not improving access to services for Gambella’s indigenous people, but is instead undermining their livelihoods and food security,” said Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should suspend the program until it can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people have been properly consulted and compensated for the loss of their land.”

The government says the “villagization” program is designed to provide “access to basic socioeconomic infrastructures” to the people it relocates and to bring “socioeconomic & cultural transformation of the people.” But despite pledges to provide suitable compensation, the government has provided insufficient resources to sustain people in the new villages, Human Rights Watch said.

The residents of Gambella, mainly indigenous Anuak and Nuer, have never had formal title to the land they have lived on and used. The government often claims that the areas are “uninhabited” or “under-utilized.” That claim enables the government to bypass constitutional provisions and laws that would protect these populations from being relocated.

The report is based on more than 100 interviews in Ethiopia in May and June 2011, and at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab and Nairobi, Kenya, where many Gambellans have fled.

“My father was beaten for refusing to go along [to the new village] with some other elders,” a former villager told Human Rights Watch. “He said, ‘I was born here – my children were born here – I am too old to move so I will stay.’ He was beaten by the army with sticks and the butt of a gun. He had to be taken to hospital. He died because of the beating – he just became weaker and weaker.”

The Villagization Program
The Ethiopian government is planning to resettle 1.5 million people by 2013 in four regions: Gambella, Afar, Somali, and Benishangul-Gumuz. Relocations started in 2010 in Gambella, and approximately 70,000 people there were scheduled to be moved by the end of 2011. Under the Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State Government Plan, 45,000 households are to be moved during the three-year program. The plan pledges to provide infrastructure for the new villages and assistance to ensure alternative livelihoods. The plan also states that the movements are to be voluntary.

Instead of improved access to government services, however, new villages often go without them altogether. The first round of forced relocations occurred at the worst possible time of year – the beginning of the harvest – and many of the areas to which people were moved are dry with poor-quality soil. The nearby land needs to be cleared, and agricultural assistance – seeds and fertilizers – has not been provided. The government failure to provide food assistance for relocated people has caused endemic hunger and cases of starvation.

Human Rights Watch’s research showed that the forced relocation policy is disrupting a delicate balance of survival for many in the region. Livelihoods and food security in Gambella are precarious. Pastoralists are being forced to abandon their cattle-based livelihoods in favor of settled cultivation. Shifting cultivators – farmers who move from one location to another over the years – are being required to grow crops in a single location, which risks depleting their soil of vital nutrients. In the absence of meaningful infrastructural support and regular supplies of food aid, the changes for both populations may have life-threatening consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

The resident of one new village told Human Rights Watch: “We expect major starvation next year because they did not clear in time. If they [the government] cleared [the land] we would have food next year but now we have no means for food.”

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