The race is on to grab the world’s most precious and irreplaceable resource: land. And environmental writer, Fred Pearce, has gone in pursuit of the globe-trotting landgrabbers – a larger-than-life cast of characters that includes City speculators, gulf oil sheikhs, Chinese entrepreneurs, big-name financiers like George Soros, and industry titans like Richard Branson. Pearce’s findings, chronicled in his new book The Landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth, are extraordinary.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1: Gambella, Ethiopia. Tragedy in the commons.We sincerely thank Fred Pearce and Transworld Publishers for allowing us to reproduce this work. You can buy the ebook here.
Omot Ochan was sitting in a remnant of forest on an old waterbuck skin, and eating maize from a calabash gourd. He was lean and tall, wearing only a pair of combat pants. Behind him was a straw hut, where bare-breasted women and barefoot children were busy cooking fish on an open fire. A little way off were other huts, the remains of what was once a sizeable village.
Omot said he and his family were from the Anuak tribe. They had lived in the forest for ten generations. “This land belonged to our father. All round here is ours. For two day’s walk.” He described the distant tree that marked the boundary with the next village. “When my father died, he said ‘don’t leave the land, we made a promise. We can’t give it to the foreigners.’”
When my father died, he said ‘don’t leave the land, we made a promise. We can’t give it to the foreigners.’
Our conversation was punctuated by the rumble of trucks passing on a dirt road just 20 metres away. The dust clouds they created wafted into the clearing and rained down on the leaves of the trees. Beyond the road, huge earth diggers were excavating a canal. Omot watched them.
“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.” And with the company draining the wetland, the fish will probably be gone soon, too.
Gambella is the poorest province in one of the world’s poorest nations – a lowland appendix in the far southwestern corner of Ethiopia. Geographically and ethnically, the hot, swampy province feels like part of the neighbouring state of South Sudan, rather than the cool highlands of the rest of Ethiopia. Indeed, Gambella was effectively in Sudan when it was ruled by the British from Khartoum, until they left in 1956.
For the half-century since, the government in Addis Ababa has ruled here, but it has invested little and cared even less for its Nilotic tribal inhabitants, whose jet-black skin and tall, elegant physique mark them out from the lighter-skinned and shorter highlanders. The livestock-herding Nuer, who frequently cross the border into South Sudan, and the Anuak, who are farmers and fishers, are peripheral to highland Ethiopia in every sense.
Only three flights a week go to the small provincial capital, also called Gambella. When you get there, there are no taxis, because there is no demand. The road from the airport is a dirt track through an empty landscape. Gambella town is a shambles. Its population of 30,000 has no waste collection system, so garbage piles up. The drains don’t work, public water supplies are sporadic and electricity is occasional. There are few public latrines. The couple of paved roads are heavily potholed and give out before the town limits. My billet, the Norwegian-built guesthouse at the Bethel Synod Church, was probably the dirtiest, bleakest and most ill kempt building in which I have ever rested my head. The only vehicle in town for hire was a 40-year-old Toyota minibus of dubious roadworthiness, with a crew of three. I took it.
Of late, the central government in Adis Ababa has stopped pretending that the province of Gambella doesn’t exist. It now seems intent on taming a populace that might prefer rule from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. In practice, that means bringing in foreign agribusiness and collecting the province’s dispersed population in state-designated villages, while their forests, fields and hunting grounds are handed over to outsiders. In the service of capitalism, the Gambella “villagisation” programmed will relocate a domestic population much in the manner of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
I set out along the only road south from Gambella town to find the land grabbers. On the outskirts, as we hit the dirt, my driver decided to pick up a dozen hitchhikers. From then on, we were the local bus service. To an outsider, much of the province looks deserted. Its expanses of lowland forests and bush, grassland and marsh, are wide open to wildlife migrations, passing cattle herders and occasional shifting cultivators.
For miles, the only obvious sign of human activity was the odd mobile phone mast, usually with a generator to power it and a resident native guard. But there were hidden villages in the bush. Their members would sit by the roadside trying to sell mangoes and other fruit to any vehicles that passed. Mangoes cost less than three cents each, and the price had halved by late afternoon.
Soon after the small town of Abobo, the road passed through a landscape of ash, smoke and charred trees. This was land newly acquired by my first land grabber – Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Amoudi, a Saudi oil billionaire with large holdings in Ethiopian plantations, mines and real estate. In 2011, Fortune magazine put his personal wealth at more than $12 billion. Ethiopian-born, he is often described as the world’s richest man.
He is a million dollar donor to the Clinton Foundation, and also a close confidant of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and his ruling party, which had granted a 60-year concession on 10,000 hectares of Gambella to Al Amoudi’s company, Saudi Star.
Al Amoudi has been eyeing agriculture since the world food price spike in 2008 sent Saudi Arabia into a spin about its future food supplies. He is intent on shipping most of his intended produce, including in excess of a million tones of rice a year, to Saudi Arabia. There he has been feted by the king for making investments abroad to keep the kingdom fed. To smooth the wheels of commerce, Al Amoudi has recruited one of Zenawi’s former ministers, Haile Assegdie, as chief executive of Saudi Star.
Al Amoudi has been eyeing agriculture since the world food price spike in 2008 sent Saudi Arabia into a spin about its future food supplies. He is intent on shipping most of his intended produce, including in excess of a million tones of rice a year, to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Star’s concession is based around the Alwero dam, built in the 1980s to irrigate a state cotton farm that never happened. The dam’s rusting sign still advertises the consulting services of Soviet engineers Selkhozpromexport. Al Amoudi is digging a 30-kilometre canal from the dam to irrigate rice paddies. Once the old state farm is watered, he wants to expand to at least 250,000 hectares, to grow sunflowers and maize.
At the gate of the Saudi Star compound, I watched soldiers usher in giant Volvo trucks and Massey Ferguson tractors and workmen starting to replace the temporary buildings with new permanent structures. Close by, they were laying an airstrip in a recently made clearing in the forest. Nobody at the company here or in Gambella town would talk to me. Perhaps they thought there was nothing to add to their boss’s media statement that “land grabbing poses no harm on the environment or on the local community”.
Our next hitchhikers were a couple of schoolgirls who wanted a lift to their home 2km away. It was there, in a small clearing in a forest by the road, where we found Omot Ochan in his combat pants, describing how Amoudi and his company were destroying his world. Hearing his testimony of ancestral connection with this patch of forest, and his determination to keep it, I was struck by how most westerners have lost any sense of place and attachment to the land. I move around all the time and buy and sell houses without feeling ties to the soil. But here in Gambella, their land is like their blood. It is everything. And to lose it would be to lose their identity.
Omot insisted Saudi Star had no right to be in his forest. The company had not even told the villagers that it was going to dig a canal across their land. “Nobody came to tell us what was happening.” He did remember officials from the “villagisation” programme dropping by to say the families should go to the new village at Pokedi, across the River Alwero from Saudi Star’s compound. But that was all. Omot had no doubt the purpose of the new village was to clear them and others off land taken from them to give to Saudi Star. So far, his family and their neighbours had refused to go, even though their children walked to the school at Pokedi on a Monday morning and didn’t return until Friday evening.
“In our culture, going to a different place is unusual. You get different people and there is quarrelling,” he told me, as his children gathered and grabbed the remaining maize. “We should remain in our own area. We won’t go unless we are forced. God gave us this land.” Another truck rumbled past, spraying dust over the tiny forest community now ostracised by its own government and under siege from a Saudi billionaire. After the truck had gone, I noticed a large, dead stork in the road. A woman headed off down the road with a bucket, on a long walk to find water.
Saudi’s farm looked huge, extending for miles along the road. But it was nothing compared to what I saw the next day, driving west on the other road out of Gambella town. At another roadside farm complex, most of the way to the border with South Sudan, I dropped in unannounced on Karmjeet Sekhon, an Indian agriculturalist recently arrived in Ethiopia. He took a parasol to shade himself from the fierce sun as we met at the gate of his compound, then settled into his air-conditioned mobile cabin.
Resplendent in his turban and tweaking his long moustache, Sekhon said he could not believe his luck at being in charge of his land. In 2009, the Ethiopian agriculture ministry gave his company, Bangalore-based Karuturi Global, a 50-year lease on 100,000 hectares, either side of the road through the north of the province. It promised 200,000 hectares more if he cleared the first tranche within two years. He was well on the way.
Sekhon had a long career as a dairy man in India, where the options for expansion are constrained by more than a billion people. But here he had an area twenty times the size of Manhattan to do anything he wanted – with an option on sixty Manhattans. “The soil is excellent. It is virgin land,” he told me. “You can grow anything here; the climate is ideal. We had no land like this in India. There we are lucky to get 1 percent of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5 percent. We don’t even need fertiliser.” All for an annual rent of about a dollar a hectare.
“The soil is excellent. It is virgin land,” he told me. “You can grow anything here; the climate is ideal. We had no land like this in India.” And all for an annual rent of about a dollar a hectare.
Outside the pool cabin, Gambella’s dry season was ending, and smoke plumes dotted the horizon. Sekhon’s men were burning the bush to drive out snakes. He said he would soon have put in 600 kilometres of private roads, more than all the tarred public roads in the province. A South African remote sensing company had mapped every half metre of the concession for him. Fifteen huge 475-horse-power John Deere tractors were clearing and levelling 500 hectares every day. Drainage ditches and irrigation canals were being dug, and an irrigation kit was being shipped in from Israel and India. He had storage for 50,000 litres of diesel, mainly to run the pumps.
Soon, Sekhon would be planting. He had half a million oil-palm seedlings growing in a nursery. Within a year, he intended to be growing 20,000 hectares of oil palm, 15,000 hectares of sugar cane, 25,000 hectares of rice, and 10,000 hectares each of maize and sorghum. Contractors would soon be on site building processing works to extract palm oil, crush sugar cane and mill rice. Then they would start work on the townships, with schools and hospitals, shopping centres and housing for up to 50,000 people.
The company had hired two tugboats to pull barges carrying its harvests from the banks of the Baro River, a tributary of the Nile that ran through the mega-farm, upstream to Uganda and Lake Victoria, and downstream to Khartoum and beyond. The boats would follow the same route that British river traders took a century ago to export to the world Ethiopian coffee that they bought in Gambella town. The echoes of a new imperialism were strong.
I asked Sekhon whether locals would get jobs. He said most of his technical people would be Indian or Ethiopians from the highlands. He had absorbed the Ethiopian ethos that the local tribespeople from the Gambella lowlands were lazy. “But labourers will be from the villages whose land has been allotted to us. About 85 percent of our drivers are from local tribes,” he assured me. Several dozen women from the nearby village of Iliya, which woke in 2009 to find itself surrounded by Karuturi concession, now earn a dollar a day tending the oil-palm nursery rather than their own fields. Iliya is the home village of Nyikaw Ochalla, an exile I met in Reading, England. “All the land round Iliya has been taken,” he told me. “People have to work for the Indian company. They have no real choice.”
Karuturi is owned by Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, an Indian engineer in his forties. Starting from scratch, he has become the world’s largest owner of greenhouses, many of them in Ethiopia.
Under glass roofs, he has created the world’s largest rose-growing business, selling 650,000 million stems a year. This is a stunning 10 percent of the global market. He employs 10,000 people in Africa alone. But Karuturi reckons he cannot sell any more roses. The market is sated. So he is moving into mainstream agriculture. “I want to be among the top four or five integrated agri-product companies in the world. And I will implement this vision out of Africa,” he says. He plans on having a million hectares of land under his ploughs in Africa – a third of them in Ethiopia and, he suggested in late 2011, another third in Tanzania.
All the land round Iliya has been taken. People have to work for the Indian company. They have no real choice.
Karuturi promises to invest a billion dollars in the virgin fields of Gambella alone. Flash floods from the River Baro obliterated thousands of hectares of the first maize harvest in late 2011, but his response was to bring in Dutch consultants to prevent a repetition. He means business. His investment should see handsome returns both for him and for his US private equity investors, including Bethesda-based Monsoon capital and Boston-based sandstone capital. The investment seems set to create Africa’s largest privately-owned farm, and make Karuturi one of the world’s largest producers of a range of foodstuffs, able to take on long-standing US and European commodity giants like Cargill, ADM and Dreyfus.
But will promise become reality? Sekhon and his Indian lieutenants are a long way from home. They have little experience of Africa or Africans, and know little of the people whose land they are now tilling. Nor, it seemed, did they know about the anger caused by the land grab: The tales of government intimidation, of massacres, of vanishing livelihoods and wildlife, and the mutterings I heard in huts and clearing across the province about arming the tribal youth to reclaim their land.