Ethiopia: Tens of thousands forced off land for foreign investors, HRW says

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The Ethiopian government is forcing tens of thousands of indigenous people off their land so it can be leased to foreign investors, according to the US-based group Human Rights Watch.

Under Ethiopia's "villagization" program, about 70,000 people from the western Gambella region have been forcibly relocated to new villages that lack sufficient food, farmland and access to services including health clinics and schools, the group said in a report released Tuesday.

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Ethiopia's government said the program is intended to provide "access to basic socioeconomic structures" to villagers, with 1.5 million people to be resettled by 2013.

But, according to Human Rights Watch, many of the areas from which people are being moved are due to be leased by the government for commercial agricultural investment.

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The report said that from 2008 to the start of 2011, Ethiopia leased out at least 3.6 million hectares of land — an area the size of the Netherlands. 

In the Gambella region, 42 percent of the total land area is either being marketed to investors or has already been leased to investors, according to government figures.

“The villagization program is being undertaken in the exact same areas of Ethiopia that the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agricultural operations,” Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report.

“This raises suspicions about the underlying motives of the villagization program.”

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The report is based on more than 100 interviews conducted by researchers in Ethiopia in May and June 2011, and at refugee camps in Kenya.

Villagers who resist being moved are threatened, assaulted and thrown in jail, according to witnesses.

“My father was beaten for refusing to go along [to the new village] with some other elders,” a former villager told Human Rights Watch researchers.

“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.”

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