Miracle or Mirage? Manufacturing Hunger and Poverty in Ethiopia

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Executive Summary

Manufacturing Hunger and Poverty in Ethiopia
As months of protest and civil unrest hurl Ethiopia into a severe political crisis, a new report from the Oakland Institute debunks the myth that the country is the new “African Lion.” The report exposes how authoritarian development schemes have perpetuated cycles of poverty, food insecurity, and marginalized the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

By Frederic Mousseau | Oakland Institute,

By In 2016, food crisis in Ethiopia once again topped the international headlines, with 18 million people reportedly requiring food assistance for survival. The food crisis has been widely attributed to climatic events resulting from El Niño, and presented as an exogenous incident in Ethiopia’s acclaimed economic miracle and double-digit growth rate.

This narrative is convenient for the Ethiopian government. For many years, the regime has used the argument of its economic success to counter the critics of its development strategy and repressive rule. It has labeled organizations such as the Oakland Institute as being ‘anti-development’ after they exposed the devastating impact of its policies on the livelihoods and basic human rights of millions, including many indigenous communities across the country.

The climatic explanation is also critical for the international backers of the regime. Ethiopia received on average $3.5 billion annually from donors in recent years, which makes it one of the largest recipients of international development assistance.

Its largest donors, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank, have been closely involved in the design of its development strategy and play a key role within a number of aid mechanisms established to deliver it. Their indefectible support to the regime has not been affected by the prevalent repression of political opposition and independent media, and widespread human rights abuses over various religious and ethnic groups.

The 2016 crisis is a harsh reminder that despite the trumpeted economical miracle, Ethiopia has not moved beyond its tragic history of chronic hunger and famine. Every year since 2005, 8 to 18 million Ethiopians have relied on food assistance for their survival. The country still ranks 173rd out of 186 countries in the latest United Nations’ Human Development Report.

Over the past decade, the government has designed policies and plans supposed to address chronic food insecurity and to usher in development. The five-year Ethiopia Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), launched in 2010, had the objective of eradicating poverty and dependence on food aid in the short run and lead to the ‘renaissance of Ethiopia.’

In order to achieve these ambitions, the GTP included efforts to increase the productivity of smallholder farmers – and at the same time included programs to accelerate agricultural industrialization through large-scale farming operations. By 2011, the government of Ethiopia had demarcated 3.6 million hectares of land for large-scale agricultural investments. It put in place the Commune Development Program (CDP), also known as “villagization” program, to resettle 1.5 million people in lowland areas which were targeted for large-scale agricultural plantations, including South Omo, Gambella, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz and Afar.

As evidenced by the Oakland Institute and others, the CDP has resulted in forced evictions of local communities, mostly pastoralists and agro-pastoralists, and the seizure of land and water resources on which millions of Ethiopians rely for their livelihoods. More evictions can be expected in the future given that beyond the initial 3.6 million hectares earmarked for large-scale agriculture, the government has announced a total of 11.55 million hectares being available to agricultural investors.

Sugar production is a key sector prioritized by the Ethiopian government. In 2015, the government announced its plan to make Ethiopia one of the world’s ten largest sugar producers and exporters by 2023. Under the GTP, the government has pursued the construction of several sugar factories and sugarcane plantations, accompanied by construction of multiple dams for irrigation and generating electricity for agro-processing industries.

These are not the first large-scale agriculture and irrigation schemes that have been established in Ethiopia. In the mid – 1950s, the imperial regime created sugar and cotton plantations in the Awash Valley in the Afar Region. Along with plantations came the building of several hydroelectric dams and irrigation schemes along the Awash River. These projects established on the lush banks of the river, negatively affected local pastoralists and offer valuable lessons, which are being ignored by the Ethiopian government in its quest for development.

Deprived of access to the Awash banks on which they depended for dry-season cattle grazing, the Afar pastoralists were forced to move increasingly long distances in search of pasture and water. The modi cation of water ow and seasonal ooding patterns downstream of dams and irrigation schemes further shrank pasturelands, while water contamination by the sugar processing plants and plantations threatened the wellbeing of humans and animals.

Studies have shown that shrinking land and water resources and the push for the sedentarization of pastoralists in Afar lead to increased land degradation (resulting from cattle concentration in small grazing areas), food insecurity, and the in tensification of inter-ethnic conflicts. Even today, recurring weather variations and food crisis take a high toll on Afar pastoralists, who are deprived of their traditional strategies to cope with drought, such as access to dry season pasture, mobility and herd management.

The Afar Region, thus, provides a valuable example of the negative impacts of large-scale plantations on people, livestock, and the environment. Separate research conducted on plantations in Afar has brought to light additional evidence that seriously challenges the development narrative of the government. This research shows with solid quantitative data that pastoral cattle production is far more profitable than large-scale cotton and sugar plantations. Contrary to the destructive effects of monocrops on soil and water resources, pastoralism has no detrimental impact on the environment and instead provides a range of ecological benefits, including soil fertilization with manure.

These lessons have been largely ignored by the Ethiopian government, which instead seeks inspiration from emerging economies like Brazil. However, the Brazilian experience raises more red flags over Ethiopia’s sugar development plans. Sugarcane expansion in Brazil has resulted in increased land concentration, displaced indigenous communities, dangerous and harsh working conditions, destruction of sensitive ecosystems, increased rural-to-urban migration, and has mostly benefited large landowners and agribusinesses at the expense of farm laborers and smallholder farmers.

Another alarming aspect of Ethiopia’s development plans comes from the large reliance on dams for irrigation needs. Five of the nine sugar factories currently running or under construction in Ethiopia rely on dams for sugarcane irrigation. Scientists and NGOs have warned for many years that dams create major threats for people’s livelihoods and the environment. Environmental consequences of large dams range from destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity to erosion and pollution. Social consequences include population displacements and livelihoods destruction, as exemplified by the Koka Dam built to irrigate sugarcane plantations in Afar in 1960. The Koka Dam drastically impacted river flow and changed flooding patterns and the grazing land areas crucial for the survival of pastoralists in the Awash Valley.

In addition to the Awash Basin, the government has recently targeted the Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to develop one of the largest ever state-led agriculture schemes in the country: the Omo-Kuraz Sugar Development project. The project relies on irrigation schemes to be established from the recently completed Gibe III Dam and includes the construction of four to five sugar factories accompanied by 100,000 to 175,000 hectares of sugarcane plantations. It is expected that Gibe III and irrigation schemes will affect 200,000 Ethiopian pastoralists and agro-pastoralists who rely on flood-recession agriculture and grazing lands bordering the Omo River. The project is expected to affect another 300,000 people in Kenya whose livelihoods depend on Lake Turkana, which receives 90 percent of its water from the Omo River.

Large-scale agriculture and agro-processing plans constitute an increasingly large amount of the Ethiopian government’s budget. Between 2010 and 2020, sugar expansion plans will cost an estimated $11.2 billion.

Meanwhile, in March 2016, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister called for more foreign aid to fight the ongoing food crisis and stigmatized the international community for its slow response to the emergency situation. The government emphasized its own $380 million contribution to respond to the food crisis, but this is far from the amount of money spent in grandiose agro-industrialization schemes.

The Ethiopian government’s development strategy takes away key coping strategies from its own people, destroys natural resources, and impacts the livelihoods of millions.