Nelly Bassily | December 22, 2008
Shashe Dima says that nature seems to be at odds with her family. Last year, lack of rain caused her family’s crops to fail. This season, they had high hopes for their small plot of land in central Ethiopia. They looked forward to a bumper harvest of teff, a native grain. But in late October, too much rain destroyed their crops. Now Ms. Dima’s husband, Tola Melka, is interested in another way of providing food for his family. Melka says he would like to obtain work on a foreign-owned industrial farm – a type of operation that the Ethiopian government would like to see more of.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi welcomed a Saudi Arabian delegation to his country earlier this year. Following the visit, he told Arab News that Ethiopia is “very eager to provide [the Saudis] hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land for investment.”
Saudi Arabia is one of several Middle Eastern and Asian countries seeking to lease or buy farmland in Africa. In this case, the Saudi government is seeking land for cereal production.
Jacques Diouf is Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. He cautions that such land deals could create a form of “neo-colonialism.” Mr. Diouf warns that developing countries could end up producing food for rich ones, at the expense of their own people.
But the Ethiopian government is keen to pursue more land deals. It argues that food produced by foreign investors would be available to local markets as well as for export. Government officials also suggest that investors would bring new farming technology and knowledge, which could be imitated by locals.
So far, the government has identified some two million hectares of land in the regions of Oromia and Amhara, where most of Ethiopia’s grain is grown. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Zenawi gave 7,000 hectares of land to Djibouti’s president for wheat farming.
Pundits argue that this strategy has many risks. Anthropologist Marco Bassi of the University of Oxford says that leasing Ethiopia’s communal lands to foreign investors puts pastoralists at risk. There is further concern that such land is unsuitable for intensive cultivation, and that foreign investors could extract all of the soil and water resources.
There are also doubts that locals would see any of the food produced on these lands. Analysts say that almost all of the food will leave the country, since Ethiopians cannot compete with prices offered by foreign consumers.
With six children to feed, Mr. Melka says it is too risky to rely on one’s own farm for a living. He is interested in the immediate employment opportunities that foreign-owned farms could offer. This would be an additional source of income for his family at a difficult time.
Click here to see the notes to broadcasters on foreign-owned farmland