ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopia has forcibly moved tens of thousands of semi-nomadic people in the country's west to barren villages and threatened, assaulted and arrested those who resisted, an international rights group said in a report Tuesday.
The Human Rights Watch report said that Ethiopia last year resettled about 70,000 people in its western Gambella region after the first of a three-year "villagization" program.
The rights group said it suspects people have been moved to lease out farmland to investors, and not just to lift them out of poverty. It said that security forces "repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and arrested villagers" who resisted relocation. The watchdog also reported rape, killing of cattle and burning of houses among rights violations.
Instead of the promised improved life with "access to basic socio-economic infrastructures," locals found new villages that lacked food, farmland, schools and health clinics, the New York-based watchdog said.
Human Rights Watch said its report is based on 100 interviews in 2011 with residents in Gambella and in a refugee camp in Kenya. The report also relied on visits to 16 affected villages.
The organization called upon the Ethiopian government to suspend its program until all promised facilities have been provided for.
Ethiopia's minister of federal affairs, Shiferaw Teklemariam, denounced the allegations in a letter to Human Rights Watch as "downright fabrications" of a "politically motivated" organization. He wrote that Human Rights Watch "willfully ignores the fact that more than 50,000 people are utilizing services from the newly built" villages.
He said the Gambella resettlement is a success and that "villagers for the first time in their history started to produce excess product – maize, sorghum, rice, potatoes, beans, vegetables, fruits, etc. – beyond and above their family consumption."
Shiferaw said resettlement is voluntary. He denied any presence of military troops and claimed that interference of security forces was unnecessary because participants showed a "keen interest."
Ethiopia plans to relocate a total of 45,000 households in Gambella by 2013. According to the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based policy think tank, Ethiopia's government has earmarked 42 percent of Gambella's land for investment.
The Gambella resettlement plan is part of a larger scheme that aims to relocate a total of 1.5 million people in four regions. Ethiopia has earmarked a total of 3.5 million hectares for leasing nationwide and according to the country's ministry of agriculture website it rented out more than 350,000 hectares to 24 investors in the last two years.
Jan Egeland, Europe director of Human Rights Watch, said that resettlement takes place "in the exact same areas of Ethiopia that the government is leasing to foreign investors for large-scale commercial agricultural operations".
"This raises suspicions about the underlying motives of the program," he said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch cited an official from the U.S. government's aid arm – USAID – as saying the U.S. organization had concerns about underlying motives of the resettlement scheme but wasn't successful in getting the government to respond to allegations of a link between relocation and investment. Ethiopia is one of the top recipients of U.S. aid.
Egeland said that it "seems that donor money is being used, at least indirectly, to fund the villagization program." He said donors should take the responsibility "to ensure that their assistance does not facilitate forced displacement and associated violations".
USAID did an assessment of the Gambella resettlement program in March 2011 and, while the report has not been made public, concluded that relocation was voluntary, Human Rights Watch said.
U.S. Ambassador Donald E. Booth and USAID deputy country director Jason Fraser traveled to Gambella last week but were not immediately available for comment.
Gambella, in west-central Ethiopia, is a traditionally marginalized area of the country that suffers internal conflicts over resources like water and land between indigenous peoples like the pastoral Nuer and agrarian Anuak. It also is affected by its border with South Sudan, as refugees pour across into Gambella when violence erupts in that newly independent nation.
Gambella also saw a large influx of Ethiopians who the former dictatorship forced to relocate after a devastating famine in the 1980s.
Human Rights Watch has accused Ethiopia's military of murder, rape and torture of scores of ethnic Anuak in Gambella in December 2003. The government conducted an investigation but largely absolved the military.
Ethiopia's Walta Information Center has reported that most of the 4.45 million acres (1.8 million hectares) that Ethiopia's government leased to foreign companies last year are in Gambella, and that most of the leased Gambella land has gone to Indian companies.
A World Bank report last year on leasing agricultural land to foreign companies noted that some of Ethiopia's leases last up to 100 years and favor rich foreigners over poor Ethiopians, with large investors receiving land and water free of charge along with tax benefits, while local peasants have to pay land taxes and other fees.
Associated Press reporter Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.