A violent attack on a tea plantation leased by Indian-owned Verdanta Harvest Plc, a subsidiary of the Noida-based Lucky Group, has renewed concerns over Ethiopia’s policy of leasing out large tracts of land to international investors.
On October 20, unidentified individuals destroyed buildings and machinery worth approximately $140,000, according to Verdanta officials.
Media reported that locals set the plantation on fire “on account of destroying the rich forest resources”, a claim denied by the company.
Community leaders in Gambella did not comment on the attack, but rights groups have warned that a policy of leasing out 42 per cent of Gambella’s land and resettling over 30,000 agro-pastoral communities is the likely cause of the unrest.
In 2011, for instance, armed gunmen killed five workers on a farm developed by a Saudi Arabian company.
All land in Ethiopia belongs to the state, giving the government unusual leverage in its dealings with local communities.
Rights groups like the Oakland Institute claim Indian companies have acquired 6,28,000 hectares of agricultural land under a government programme to lease 3.6 million hectares for export-oriented agriculture.
More than half the land deals, worth an estimated 3,65,000 hectares, have since fallen through due to disagreements among investors, communities and the various levels of government.
Verdanta said its land was acquired by the government in the 1980s. The attack comes after nearly three years of discord with local officials and some sections of the community.
In 2010, Verdanta signed an agreement for 3,012 hectares in the hope of harvesting 500 hectares of tea by 2015. Thus far only 169 hectares have been cleared and 70 hectares planted.
“We met the local officials and found their expectations were a little too high. So we asked for another piece of land,” said Manojeet Barkataky, General Manager for Verdanta Harvests, explaining the community had demanded roads, electrification, schools and a hospital before the company began its project. “We said we will implement our CSR [corporate social responsibility] once the project begins.”
Nine months later, Mr. Barkataky said, the government claimed to have consulted the local community and urged the company to start work.
In February 2011, Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture, expressing concern that Verdanta had been allotted forestland, a claim denied by the government and the company.
When the federal government in Addis Ababa demarcated a plot for the company, its counterparts in Gambella issued a different map, reducing the plot by 327 hectares. An additional 80 hectares was earmarked for a cultural site revered by the community, but the federal government dismissed their claim. These competing claims over the size and scope of the project exacerbated the tension in the region.
“It is a total incompetence, inefficiency, and neglect on the part of the local government up to the federal government,” said Mr. Barkataky. “Why couldn’t the government finalise the boundary in the last three years?”
At a press conference last month, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn indicated his displeasure with the development of the agriculture sector. “Until now the progress is very slow,” he said. “It is not a problem with the investors, the problem is infrastructure. Our future plan is to engage heavily in infrastructure development.”
Verdanta has halted all work on its project until the government guarantees security for its operations.