Ethiopia: Forced displacement and ‘villagization'

The Ethiopian government has forcibly relocated 70,000 indigenous people from the fertile Gambella region to free up land for commercial agriculture. Local activist Ojulu talked to Corinne Lennox about some of the effects of this so-called ‘villagization’ policy.

One year after the villagization programme even those farmers who tried to do farming in the new places were not able to produce enough for the whole year since the area is not a good one for the kind of traditional farming they practise. I heard that the government is planning to start the safety net (food for work) programme in the region. Therefore, the villagization programme has made the people of Gambella food insecure, like other food insecure areas in the northern part of the country.

Second, the villagization programme has also increased the tensions between different communities who used to live in different locations far away from one another but who are now brought together to share small pieces of land for farming. Particularly in the western part of the region, where the Nuer (pastoralists) and the Anywa (farmers) used to live in separate far-away villages, the villagization programme has grouped these ethnic groups in very close villages. This is already increasing the tensions between these two groups. Since this programme was launched, over 15 individuals from both sides (these are the only ones I have heard about, it could be more in other villages) have been killed in separate incidents. Some villagers have deserted their new villages and gone back to their old places. One village set their new village on fire to give an excuse for going back to their old place.

There are different levels of violence in the displacement process. The first level begins at the regional state level, among the top regional government officials, experts and civil society representatives who were vocal against this villagization programme. Many high government officials and experts in the region were forced to flee the country for opposing the programme or for just openly criticizing the programme. Some are also imprisoned or indirectly targeted. At the village level, since the displacement programme is accompanied by the military, those who resist moving face beating and torture from the hands of the military. I heard from more than five people that there are about 100,000 armed forces in the region at the moment, although I could not confirm it. Since the programme was launched I heard about over ten people who were beaten to death by the military while they were going out to cut grass and trees for construction, and hunting. The movement of farmers has been strictly limited.

What has been the impact on women in the region?

Women are particularly impacted by this displacement in many ways. Due to different kinds of conflicts in the region and the fact that the government has been targeting the men in the region, also because of HIV/AIDS, there are many women-headed households in the villages of Gambella.

Traditionally women are responsible for fetching water, collecting firewood and household work. In the new places women have travelled miles in some villages in order to get to a place where they could collect firewood. Since those investors take the surrounding forest and the woods are cut down, women have to now travel longer distances to get firewood. Since different communities are also brought to close villages, different communities have to Africa According to forecasts, the cumulative effect of the drought and its impact on food security and human life will be severe in the long run. Food prices continue to rise and pastoralists continue to lose their herds due to chronic water and pasture scarcity. Displacement and migration will also increase pressures, causing tension and potential violence between migrants and host communities. Conflicts in turn affect crop production, thereby creating a vicious cycle of poverty, as is already the case in South Sudan.

Southern pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of Ethiopia suffered from two consecutive seasons of very poor rains, crop failure, high livestock mortality and high cereal prices that left even the most resilient communities in crop-dependent areas struggling to cope.

Although a significant proportion of the population are food insecure, pastoral communities from Afar and Somali region, the epicentre of recurrent droughts in 2011, continued to be ‘the most acutely food insecure now share the remaining forests for collecting firewood. This has made collecting firewood a very dangerous activity for women. One woman was raped and beaten to death by people from a different community as she went collecting firewood.

What is your understanding of government motivations for this practice?

The villagization is taking place where there is already big number of investors and where the land is more convenient for large-scale investment. For example, the districts most affected by the villagization programme are Abobo and Gog districts in the Gambella region. Abobo and Gog are the most fertile districts in the region that had been supplying the region with maize. The other villages in the whole district are all now relocated to another place due to big number of investors storming the districts.

How do you think the government should do things differently – for example, is there a way to use the land for national development gains without harming the minority groups?

There used to be informal consultation between various government departments whose mandates were directly or indirectly involved with those land investments. However, when land lease agreements were moved to the federal level, things dramatically changed and that is when villagers were displaced. In short, there should be effective and meaningful consultation with local communities concerning land investment.

Second, the government should recognize traditional land-holding systems and provide land certificates to farmers, as it is already done in other parts of Ethiopia. Even though land is state-owned in Ethiopia, if the farmers have certificates for their plots, then they will ask for compensation when their plot is needed for such projects.

Land for investment should be demarcated and known by both the local communities and the government. So far the practice of land identification is carried out randomly by local government officials who only receive orders from their superiors at the regional state level and federal level. If they refuse to give land to an investor then they would lose their position at best or be imprisoned at worst and branded as anti-development.

How have the people resisted these practices?

At the regional state level, there are those who are openly criticizing the process of land investment. At the local level, some villages are resisting the programme by not cooperating with the local governments and investors. In one village, when they heard that their land is being given away to an Indian, they elected two representatives who came to the federal government in Addis to discuss the matter with the federal government … they were not successful in stopping the investment … and the district government appointed other leaders for the village who were sympathetic to the government position.

Photo: Anywa woman and child in Gambella. Credit: gill_penney.

Read more in MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

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Date: 20/06/2012




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Land Rights

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