January 4, 2012

The great Ethiopian land-grab: feudalism, leninism, neo-liberalism … plus ça change

Land in Ethiopia is being leased to agro-industry investors on very long terms and below market rates. The beneficiaries have good political connections. But then land has been the play-thing of centralising authoritarians throughout Ethiopia’s recent history.

About the author
René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of “Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?” (1982, Zed books).  His email is renelefort@wanadoo.fr

Ethiopia is the world champion of “land grabbing” – the practice of renting out vast expanses of farmland to local and, in particular, foreign investors. In 2011, 3.5 million hectares were allocated, while the projected figure for 2015 is 7 million hectares, an area twice the size of Belgium. By way of comparison, 12 million hectares are farmed by the same number of smallholders, who make up four-fifths of the Ethiopian workforce. It is not hard, then, to imagine the anticipated leap forward in agricultural output, especially given that the productivity of these new mechanised farms should be much greater than that of traditional peasant farmers. As a first approximation, medium sized yields and export of just half of their production should, in the medium term, bring in about US$ 10 billion in foreign currencies, at a time when the deficit in the balance of payments is the Achilles heel of the Ethiopian economy and its GDP currently stands at US$ 30 billion.

“They gave the land to us and we took it… This is green gold!” exclaimed one of the largest investors. The rents are “ridiculously low by any standard” (theoretically starting at US$ 8 dollars per hectare per year), the leases are for up to 99 years, finance facilities and tax breaks are increasingly generous as the share of exported produce goes up. Some are calling it “the deal of the century”. The authorities, who are solely responsible for this operation, because land is public property,  challenge the term “land grabbing” and retort that these are “win win arrangements.” They say that only “abandoned” or “unutilized” land is open to the investors “on the basis of clearly set out lease arrangements… to make sure everybody will benefit from this exercise.”

But the indictment of journalists and researchers, who have only recently been able to peek beneath the of this operation shrouded in secrecy, seems irrefutable.

“The government of one of the most vulnerable countries in the world is handing over vast land and water resources to foreign investors to help the food security efforts of their home countries, or to gain profits for their companies, without making adequate safeguards and without taking into account the food security needs of its own people.” The mechanism that they set up can be summarised as follows: Ethiopia rents out land to investors so that they can export their produce, and then import the same produce, grown somewhere else, to feed its own people. In the end, “the damage done… outweighs the benefits gained.”

The Ethiopian regime is anything but impulsive. It has obviously weighed up the pros and cons of land grabbing, especially since, for the large part, these were known in beforehand. So why did they throw themselves headlong into it?

The rush of investors for farmland is a global phenomenon, on a scale never seen before. But why has Ethiopia responded to this demand with such a staggering offer? There are two main factors – the influence of Ethiopia’s long heritage and the radical change of direction taken by the new “post revolutionary” ruling class over the past decade.

“Land was the sign, the source, the stake, the object of wealth and power; conversely, wealth and power gave access to the land” Haile Selassie, officially the sole and unique landowner, gave land to those whose support he wanted or to reward services rendered. They derived most of their income from a “feudal” exploitation of this land, on condition that they also handed over a substantial portion to the Crown. The Kings of Kings used this deduction as his economic weapon to attain the supreme goal of centralising power, at the expense of local “feudal” lords.

This mode of feudal extrication was even more brutal in areas on the edge of the Abyssinian plateau that had been conquered and subjugated at the end of the 19th century. The State handed out two thirds of these lands to its supporters, with outrageous favouritism shown to the Amharas of Shoa, which was the epicentre of imperial power. This particular form of what researchers have dubbed “internal colonialism”, which included settlers from the plateau, was justified either on racial grounds  – the light-skinned “Northerners” from the plateau, versus the “black” people, the chankilla (slaves) of the South –or on social grounds – the “Northern” farmers versus the agro-pastoralists or pastoralists of the South– and on the basis of a myth, whereby these vast lands were an almost deserted Eldorado, a natural outlet for the insatiable hunger for land arising from the extreme density of the Abyssinian plateau. All of this also fuelled a spontaneous emigration of “Northerners”.

For the imperial regime, agriculture was the engine for development. But as the regime came to an end, it oscillated between two strategies. For the first, which remained marginal, “small farmers are efficient and are capable of being the engine of growth and economic development” on condition that they receive help to increase their remarkably low productivity. Whence the timid appearance from the 1960s onwards of “package programmes. In the second strategy, which dominated and received the support of international organisations, these “subsistence farmers” are incapable of “productivity growth”. Salvation could only come from the development of “large and mechanized farm enterprises.” Hence the emergence of “agrarian capitalism” or “mechanised feudalism through land concessions given to private Ethiopian, and sometimes foreign, investors. This was ultimately the case for about 2% of cultivated land.

When the Derg took power in 1974, with its Marxist-Leninist ideology backed by the student movement, its priorities was to eradicate this “feudal” class of “landlords” by one of the most radical agricultural reforms ever undertaken: “land to the tiller.” It became public property. But the State maintained a sort of crown right over its administration, beginning with granting use rights to peasants over a parcel of land roughly proportional to the size of their family.


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