Ethiopia’s remote Gambela region and Lower Omo valley are being rapidly converted to commercial agricultural investment centres. To encourage widespread industrialized agriculture in these areas, the Ethiopian government is depriving small-scale farmers, pastoralists and indigenous people of arable farmland, access to water points, grazing land, fishing and hunting grounds. It has also has been moving people off the land into government villages to allow investors to take over the land. Wealthy nations and multinational corporations are taking over lands that are home to hundreds of thousands of ethnically, linguistically, geographically and culturally distinct pastoralists and indigenous communities.

Anywaa Survival Organisation (ASO) recently had an opportunity to interview affected community representatives and leaders who fled these regions because of these government land grabs. A few of these “development refugees” gave in-depth accounts of violent tactics used against them (including rapes, intimidation, murder, harassment) as well as lack of consultation, compensation, legal redress and derogation of national and international laws intended to protect indigenous and pastoralists communities’ rights to own and use resources. These exclusive interviews, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, offer insights into the human costs of Ethiopia’s development policies.

There is a deep-rooted understanding among the lowland communities that land belongs to the community rather than to the government. During the interviews, the land-grab affected people dismissed the government justification that all land in Ethiopia belongs to the state, and strongly argued that the land grabbing policy was intended to deprive communities of their land-use rights, destroy traditional farming methods and knowledge, and displace them from their ancestral lands and natural environment.

Land grabs are happening in many parts of Africa, and the topic has received much attention and criticism worldwide. In Ethiopia, land grabbing undermines affected communities’ active participation in decisions about their lives, denies them access to key information about land deals, and abrogates their constitutional rights to free prior, informed consent, compensation, and legal redress. Land grab projects benefit newcomers migrating into the land grabs target areas. According to one refugee from the lower Omo valley; “Since land grabs started, no single local person has been employed even at security guard level. But thousands of migrants from other parts of the country have moved in and are benefiting from the project. The project forces local communities into exile where they will remain as refugees.”

Ethiopia, a country notorious for recurrent famine, drought, and high-level malnutrition, is coming under sharp criticism for its land grabs and treatment of people affected by these developments. The government’s widespread abuses of local people and its forceful eviction to implement its policies have gotten the attention of the world media, NGOs, researchers, and activists.  Yet, the authorities continue to ruthlessly implement the government’s controversial involuntary settlement programme as a formidable weapon to free more lands and destroy local community livelihoods and the natural environment.

For those with the first-hand practical experience, describing the land grabbing destruction has serious emotional impacts. Okok Ojulu, a community leader and representative said:

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