Land grabbing started over in Ethiopia, just as pan-Africanism or red-yellow-green flags of independence did. And just the same, land grabbing became… pan-African.


Africa is the biggest hotspot for overseas land acquisitions. Out of the 203 million hectares of farmland cited by the ILC, 134 million hectares are in Africa. Most of these land deals came right after the global food crisis form 2007-2008. The World Bank computed that acquisitions totaled almost 10 million hectares in merely four African countries (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, and Sudan – South Sudan included) during the relatively early period of 2004-2009.

World Bank’s 2011 study shows that sub-Saharan Africa has over 200 million hectares of unfarmed land “suitable for cropping, non-forested, non-protected, and populated with less than 25 people per square kilometer”. The global surface of unfarmed land is around 445 million hectares.

Paradox. Many African countries, despite their farmland, are acutely food insecure and depend on aid from the World Food Program (WFP). Ethiopia has received $116million in WFP food aid even while Saudi companies have grown grains on Ethiopian land for Saudi consumption.

Who's purchasing Ethiopian land?

Who’s purchasing Ethiopian land?


Chido Makunike, Senegal-based agricultural commodities exporter, states that the large scale agriculture model is “Africa-dismissive”. Millions of smallholders are being ignored, while capital, expertise and even managers and workers are imported from overseas. There are cases in Sierra Leone and Mozambique where investors’ promised jobs to smallholders have never materialized. A clear-cut case is based in Ethiopia, where an Indian firm is using Ethiopian land to produce food for export that was previously used to raise Ethiopia’s staple crop. (Michael Kugelman, editor, “The Global Farms Race: Land Grabs, Agricultural Investment, and the Scramble for Food”, Chapter 1, Kindle edition, loc. 370).

Foreign investments in agriculture are not necessarily a matter to be objected. When local communities can be shown and convinced that the commercial use of land would definitely and significantly improve community well-being, then the investment is a wise one. Makunike is cautiously supportive of contract farming, noting that it offers African smallholders income opportunities while giving them the flexibility to grow their own crops on the side. The biggest question is whether investors would have the patience to offer training and assistance to their smallholder partners – given that time-pressed investors are used to having large groups of tightly controlled laborers who are hired and fired at will. Local communities must see their interests tied up with the business success of the investment.

David Hallam of FAO commented in late 2009:

“Imagine empty trucks being driven into Ethiopia, at a time of food shortages caused by war or draught, and being driven out again full of grain to feed people overseas. Can you imagine the political consequences? That’s why proper legal structures need to be put into place to protect land rights, and why we should look at some form of international code of conduct.”

The fact that some of the countries targeted for investment receive aid from WFP reinforces the upper mentioned scenario. Ethiopia, together with other (African) countries have completed or projected land deals. They are also benefiting of WFP aid. Millions of people live at extreme levels of food insecurity, therefore they all need to make significant investments in their domestic production as part of reestablishing food security. Moreover there is a growing demographic pressure on land. Many African countries face increases in populations, especially in rural areas, over a medium and long term. In Ethiopia projections suggest that the rural population will grow from 70 million in 2006 to 183.4 million in 2050. These demographic factors have major implications on land availability.




In Ethiopia, the unique legitimate landowner is the state. Grabbing the power in 1991 after having ousted the “red dictator” Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has decided to maintain the same system of land control implemented during the socialist regime under Derg. Those times, Ethiopia was a disaster state, hit by draught and malnutrition, identified in the public imaginary with swollen bellied rachitic children that gave a boost in 1985 to Bob Geldof’s Live Aid. It was a “concert for Ethiopia” and it was then agreed that responsibility for the terrible famine lies in the flawed land management carried out by Derg. The organization’s “agrarian socialism” forbade private property and was trying to re-group, often in a violent manner, all farmers into state or party owned cooperatives.

When Mele Zenawi’s rebels came to power every one expected an agrarian reform. But for grand discomfort of international donors such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – that were expecting a large scale privatization of land, the government had first confirmed in 1991 that land regime was to remain the same as in the times of Derg and legally provisioned the principle of “public property over the land” in the 1995 Constitution. Article 40 was reading that “land is in the common property of the nations, peoples and nationalities of Ethiopia.”

According to this principle, the state, via its regional and district offices (named woreda and kebele), leases areas for cultivation. Beneficiaries do not enjoy any property right but just a simple possession or the right to duly use the land for agricultural purposes. (For detailed land use regime from the imperial époque of Haile Selassie until the 1995 Constitution see Wibke Crewett, Ayalneh Bogale, Benedikt Korf, “Land Tenure in Ethiopia. Continuity and Change, Shifting Rulers, and the Quest for State Control,” CAPRI Working Paper, September 2008)

Inspired from the principle of equal justice, this policy is looking to gain the favors of rural populations with a vivid memory of the grand inequalities during the imperial period when all agricultural lots were in the hands of few landowners. Nonetheless, this became a formidable instrument of power to be used by the government in a state where 85% of the population lives on the countryside and out of agriculture. He who controls the land, controls the people.

Therefore, the state leases land to either peasants for their subsistence agriculture or to big agri-investors, local or international.



Gambella is the poorest province in one of the poorest countries in the world. Closer to South Sudan than to Addis Ababa, the province was controlled by the British from Khartoum until 1956. It is inhabited by Nilotic tribes (Nuer – herders and Anuak – farmers), dark skinned, much different than lighter skinned peoples in the Ethiopian highlands.

“Two years ago, the company began chopping down the forest and the bees went away. The bees need thick forest. We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs too. But after the farm came, the animals here disappeared. Now we only have fish to sell” (Omot Ochan from the Anuak tribe for Fred Pearce, The “Landgrabbers. The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth,” Eden Project Books, Transworld Publishers, UK, 2012)



The greatest investor in the Ethiopian lands is the already famous Bangalore based Karuturi. Mainly a rose producer in Kenya and Ethiopia, the Indian moguls decided to diversify their activities, following Zenawi’s offers in land purchasing. Due to the economic crisis, many rose producers switched to food and feed agricultural crops.

Karuturi made it big, it acquired 10,000 hectares 250 km away from Addis Ababa and another 300,000 hectares (a territory as big as Luxemburg) in the province of Gambella. Working in this area, at the border with South Sudan, offers a incomparable advantage: the land is free. Karuturi has closed an accord with the Ethiopian government providing that in the first six years no lease shall be paid. And then, they will pay 15 birr (60 eurocents) per hectare for the next 84 years. A similar land lease in Malaysia or Indonesia will rise up to Eur 300 per hectare per year.

While Saudis are cultivating merely for their own country needs, Karuturi has a global approach: it cultivates roses for Europe, palm oil for the Indian market, but as well for the African one (countries members of COMESA – Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa).

Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi says:

“One invests in China for the industrial goods, in India for services. For food we must come to Africa.”

Esayas Kebede with the Agricultural Development Agency in Ethiopia agrees. In Ethiopia everything grows and this is not merely due to good land and mild climate, but also to incentives: the government does not seem to be very interested in what is going to be cultivated, nor has it a real strategy of agricultural development. It gives away land and the deal is closed! (Stefano Liberti, “Land Grabbing. Com il mercato delle terre crea il nuovo colonialismo”, Minimum Fax, Rome, Italy, 2011)


Gambella Province on Ethiopia’s map

A UNICEF study in 2005 mentioned in its conclusions that:

–       before the foreign land grabs and the villagization program , Gambella was characterized by a climate of fear in which deracination of indigenous people in rural areas is extreme;

–       it is likely that Anuak culture will completely disappear in the not-so-distant future.

Ruchi Soya is a billion dollar edible oils producer from India. It sells its products all across Asia. It purchased 25,000 hectares of virgin soils in Gambella. Apparently they have completed the first test harvests of soya beans.

Verdanta Harvests from India has a 3,000 hectares lease for 50 years of forests that are claimed by the Majangir people.

Sannati Agro Farm Enterprise has 10,000 hectares in the far south of Gambella. They grow rice that it is exported to the US. (Data gathered from Fred Pearce, The “Landgrabbers. The New Fight Over Who Owns The Earth,” Eden Project Books, Transworld Publishers, UK, 2012)

BHO Bioproducts, a closely held farming company, said it plans to invest more than $120 million in rice and cotton production in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region during the next four years.

BHO signed a 25-year renewable lease at 111 Ethiopian birr ($6.14) a hectare a year for a 27,000 hectare plot in Itang district of Gambella. (William Davison, Bloomberg, September 27, 2012)

An interesting settlement is the new village of Gok Pipach – a product of the recent villagization program. People here have been apparently moved from land leased to the landgrabbers and they are still willing to cultivate their ancestral lands. (Pearce, 17)




Ethiopia is a country where pastoral communities are systematically marginalized and doomed as environmental destroyers while their economic contribution goes largely unrecognized.

Pastoralists make up a tenth of Ethiopia’s population and occupy a third of its land – considered ancestral territories. However, in return, they raise 40% of the country’s cattle, 75% of its goats, 25% of its sheep and roughly 100% of the camels. Raw materials for leather products in Ethiopia come largely from pastoral herds on common land. And leather production is the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner. Doubled with food production, pastoralists sustain quite an industry.

Pastoralists are currently losing their land fast, to the plough and to misguided conservation schemes.

Oromo, the largest Ethiopian ethnic group with some 30 million members, have their pastures (east of Addis Ababa) under constant attack.

–       In 1961, the government fenced off 75,000 hectares to create the Awash National Park.

–       Later, a Dutch company took over 15,000 hectares to create the Metehara sugar estate.

–       Big ranches further moved in next, grabbing 34,000 hectares; communities, original owners, were never consulted when the land was illegally taken from their good use. Often they are charged fees for their cattle to be allowed access to the ranches (for details see Eyasu Elias and Feyera Abdi’s study Putting Pastoralists on the Policy Agenda: Land Alienation in Southern Ethiopia, gatekeeper 145 : July 2010).

–       In 2008, the government gave an Indian company, Chadha Agro, 22,000 hectares to grow more sugar in Oromia, in return for Indian investment in a sugar refinery.

Over 60% of their lands have the Oromo lost. Consequently, remaining pastures have been overgrazed and started fighting over land with the Afar people on the other side of the Awash Park. Some of them turn to farming agriculture, charcoal burning and smuggling. Others turn to Addis Ababa’s urban slums. The gutsiest ones plot against the government and belong to the Oromo Liberation Front – a secessionist group listed as terrorist in the Ethiopian capital.