Ethiopia News: “Villagization,” collectivization for the 21st century?

NAIROBI, Kenya — During the dark days of the Derg — a murderous regime run by Mengistu Haile Mariam that ruled Ethiopia from the 1970s and 1980s — there were a lot of terrible policies that made already difficult lives scarcely tenable.

Among them was the forced movement of the rural population as part of a Stalinist inspired program of "collectivization," which failed in its intent to boost agricultural production.

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According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, the government of Meles Zenawi is little different. The report titled "Waiting Here for Death" details the forced movement of thousands of people, particularly in the Gambella region, into new settlement as part of a program dubbed "villagization."

Such population transfers are not new. Ethiopia has a long and brutal history of failed attempts at resettling millions of people in collectivized villages, particularly under the Derg regime, in power until 1991, but also under the current government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The villagization concept has now been reborn in Gambella under the guise of “socioeconomic and cultural transformation."

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The idea, according to the government, is that it can provide better basic services to its people if they live in new villages. Any movement is supposed to be voluntary and things like education, healthcare and sanitation should be provided in the new villages. Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch, said this is not what's happening.

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.

The advocacy organization also implicated donor governments such as those of the United States and the United Kingdom for, "providing support for forced relocations" by funding the basic services that are the motivation for the relocations, but which are mostly not provided.

Unsurprisingly, the Ethiopian government rejects the report and its findings, the BBC reports.

But perhaps most nefarious of all is the way in which the Ethiopian government is selling-off the forcibly vacated land to foreign investors, as reported by GlobalPost back in 2010, in deals that activists say do not benefit the local people.

More from GlobalPost: Ethiopia's human rights record scrutinized 

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