Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Residents in Gambella set Indian-owned farm on fire

Residents of the Gambella Regional State, Godera woreda, attacked and set the property of the Indian farm, Verdanta Harvest Plc., on fire on account of destroying the rich forest resources in the woreda where Verdanta has some 5,000 hectares for tea plantation.

According to sources in the area, the vigilantes attacked the plantation compound on Tuesday late night and set ablaze stores, fuel tankers, machineries like tractors and excavators and logs of timber, allegedly harvested from the land the company took for tea plantation. Gatlowak Tute, president of the region, confirmed the occurrence and said that a 9-man team has been sent to the area to investigate the event. “So far, security forces have taken into custody few locals suspected of involvement in the incident,” Gatlowak told The Reporter.

Verdanta took over the plantation five years ago from the Ministry of Agriculture on a 50-year lease contract with fairly cheap terms. According to the contract signed at the time, the company agreed to pay 111 birr annual lease price for the plantation extending 3012 hectares wide in Godera woreda and Gumare kebele. The total lease quotation of 16.7 million birr was agreed to be payed over the course of the 50 years at 334,332 birr per annum.

However, Verdanta requested the land for tea plantation before the ministry took over the land provision from the region and hence was able to receive 5,000 hectares although the contract with ministry say 3012. According to sources, the company have kept control of the 5,000 hectares until present, which residents of the area consider to be a forest resource and national forest region. The two kebeles of Godera woreda, Gomare and Kubu, are among the 58 primary national forest regions in the country. According to residents in the locality, the area is also rich in forest agricultural productions like honey, spice and coffee.

The vigilant residents say that the plantation company was offered is indeed a forest area that deserves to be preserved. Whereas both the regional government and the ministry say that the plot of land is no more than scattered bushes and that it does not qualify to be called a forest. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) standards, a forest area can be referred to as such as long as it is at least half a hectare wide and have trees more than five meters tall. Residents say that even the plot that is held by the Verdanta is 5,000 hectares and that it has tree which are 10 meters tall in length. At one time former president of the republic, Girma Woldegiorgis appealed to both the ministry and the region not give the land which should be preserved as national forest area. Tea plantation require the entire vegetation to be cleared out from the area, hence the president appealed to reconsider the decision. However, both the ministry and regional administration did not want to accept the request and hence the company stayed in possession of the property until the incident.

On the other had, the widespread rumors accusing the Verdanta of harvesting timber from the forest while it was supposed to be planting tea was also not accepted by the authorities. Sources say that on quite various occasions authorities have discovered logs of timber products leaving the property of Verdanta. However, the regional president did not deny this but said that the company have has assured his administration that the timber is not for sale. Although not verified by the findings of the investigating committee yet, sources indicate that it was the vigilantes of Godera who have taken matters into their own hands.

Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) have provided 89.5 million birr in loans to Verdanta. Hence, some are asking if DBE collateral has been damaged in the process. Efforts to get response from the Bank was not fruitful, and other are also asking if the investigative committee could come up with an amicable solution for the residents and the company in question.