Forced displacement of pastoralists in Gambella

According to Human Rights Watch, the Ethiopian Government under its “villagization” programme is forcibly relocating about 70,000 people – many of them pastoralists and agropastoralists – from the western Gambella Region to new villages. The report Waiting for death: forced displacement and ‘villagization’ in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region examines the first year of Gambella’s villagization program. It details the involuntary nature of the transfers, the loss of livelihoods, the deteriorating food situation and ongoing abuses by the armed forces against the affected people. Many of the areas from which people are being moved are slated for leasing by the government for commercial agricultural development.

“The Ethiopian government’s villagization program is not improving access to services for Gambella’s indigenous people, but is instead undermining their livelihoods and food security,” said Jan Egeland, Europe Director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should suspend the program until it can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people have been properly consulted and compensated for the loss of their land.”

The government says the “villagization” program is designed to provide “access to basic socioeconomic infrastructures” to the people it relocates and to bring “socioeconomic & cultural transformation of the people.” But despite pledges to provide suitable compensation, the government has provided insufficient resources to sustain people in the new villages, Human Rights Watch said.

The residents of Gambella, mainly indigenous Anuak and Nuer, have never had formal title to the land they have lived on and used. The government often claims that the areas are “uninhabited” or “under-utilized.” That claim enables the government to bypass constitutional provisions and laws that would protect these populations from being relocated.

The report is based on more than 100 interviews in Ethiopia in May and June 2011, and at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab and in Nairobi, Kenya, where many Gambellans have fled.

The villagization program

The Ethiopian Government plans to resettle 1.5 million people by 2013 in four regions: Gambella, Afar, Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz. Relocations started in 2010 in Gambella, where approximately 70,000 people were scheduled to be moved by the end of 2011. The Gambella Peoples’ National Regional State Government Plan pledges to provide infrastructure for the new villages and assistance to ensure alternative livelihoods. The plan also states that the movements are to be voluntary. But instead of improved access to government services, new villages often go without them altogether.

Human Rights Watch’s research showed that the forced relocation policy is disrupting a delicate balance of survival for many in the region. Livelihoods and food security in Gambella are precarious. Pastoralists are being forced to abandon their cattle-based livelihoods in favour of settled cultivation.

Commercial land investment

The villagization program is taking place in areas where significant land investment is planned or occurring. The Ethiopian Government has consistently denied that the resettlement of people in Gambella is connected to the leasing of large areas of land for commercial agriculture, but villagers have been told by government officials that this is an underlying reason for their displacement. Former local government officials confirmed these allegations to Human Rights Watch.

One farmer told Human Rights Watch that during the government’s initial meeting with his village, government officials told them: “We will invite investors who will grow cash crops. You do not use the land well. It is lying idle.”

Mass displacement to make way for commercial agriculture in the absence of a proper legal process contravenes Ethiopia’s constitution and violates the rights of indigenous peoples under international law.

From 2008 through January 2011, Ethiopia leased out at least 3.6 million ha of land, an area the size of the Netherlands. An additional 2.1 million ha of land is available through the Federal Government’s land bank for agricultural investment. In Gambella, 42% of the total land area is either being marketed for lease to investors or has already been awarded to investors, according to government figures. Many of the areas that have been moved for villagization are within areas slated for commercial agricultural investment.

“The villagization program is being undertaken in the exact same areas of Ethiopia that the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agricultural operations,” Egeland said. “This raises suspicions about the underlying motives of the villagization program.”

Role of foreign donors

Foreign donors to Ethiopia, including the United Kingdom, United States, World Bank, and European Union, assert that they have no direct involvement in the villagization programs. However, the multi-donor Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program subsidizes basic services – health, education, agriculture, roads, and water – and local government salaries in all districts in the country, including areas where new villages are being constructed and where the main activity of local governments is moving people.

As a result of their potential responsibilities and liabilities, donors have undertaken assessments of the villagization program in Gambella and in Benishangul-Gumuz and determined that the relocations were voluntary. Human Rights Watch’s field-based research and interviews with residents, however, indicates that the moves have been coerced.

International donors should ensure that they are not providing support for forced displacement or facilitating rights violations in the name of development, Human Rights Watch said. They should press Ethiopia to live up to its responsibilities under Ethiopian and international law, namely to provide communities with genuine consultation on the villagization process, ensure that the relocation of indigenous people is voluntary, compensate them appropriately, prevent human rights violations during and after any relocation, and prosecute those implicated in abuses. Donors should also seek to ensure that the government meets its obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the economic and social rights of the people in new villages.

“It seems that the donor money is being used, at least indirectly, to fund the villagization program,” Egeland said. “Donors have a responsibility to ensure that their assistance does not facilitate forced displacement and associated violations.”

Source: Human Rights Watch press release (abridged) dated 17 January 2012 “Ethiopia: forced relocations bring hunger, hardship: donor funds should not facilitate abuse of indigenous groups”. The full version of the press release can be found here .

Posted on 17 March 2012 in News, Pastoralism & Natural Resources, Pastoralism, Policy & Power