It's a global trend, and not a good one.
It's called land grabbing, and it's happening on a massive scale -- especially in Africa. For millions of indigenous villagers and pastoralists it means forced relocation, loss of livelihoods, and a death blow to their ancient cultures. Ethiopia is a sad example of the worst of these outcomes.
"Right now, the Ethiopian government is forcing 200,000 indigenous Anuak people off their ancestral farmlands, grazing lands, and forests in the Gambella region," says Paula Palmer, director of the Ethiopia Campaign at Cultural Survival, a non-profit that defends the rights of indigenous people worldwide.
Once the indigenous people are herded off the fertile land, it's then leased for industrial agriculture. As the bulldozers move in, habitats are destroyed, including, in Ethiopia's case, Gambella's last remaining forests and wetlands. According to the Oakland Institute, Ethiopia has transferred 3,619,509 hectares of land. And despite government claims that such forced taking of land for private investment brings in needed currency, there are "no mechanisms in place to ensure that these investments contribute to increased food security," states the Institute's report "Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa."
What happens to the indigenous people who are removed from their lands? They're hustled off to state-built "villages" with the promise of jobs, healthcare and education. But investigators from Human Rights Watch found little evidence of such amenities. Many of the new villages lack access to water and lands for farming, and Anuak parents don't know how they will manage to feed their children. One Anuak elder told Human Rights Watch that he believed the government "brought the Anuak people here to die."
And, complicating matters further is the fact that Ethiopia is jailing, torturing and exiling journalists and human-rights activists who speak out against these abuses.
Yet, Ethiopia continues to receive more U.S. and foreign relief aid than any other country in Africa. Is this aid underpinning Ethiopia's land-grabbing and forced resettlement policies? What we know is that the resettled Anuak people have been forced into dependence on food aid, and most of that comes from Western governments.
"It is shameful that U.S. tax dollars could be directly or indirectly supporting such devastating human rights violations," says Palmer.
Palmer says Cultural Survival and other organizations are also concerned that the Anuak people -- already the victims of discrimination, arrest, torture and forced resettlement -- may once again be the targets of the military, as they were in 2003 when more than 400 Anuak men were killed. Palmer says she has received on-the-ground reports of Ethiopian troops now converging in Gambella, raising fears that they may cross into South Sudan to target some 3,000 Anuak refugees who fled there after the 2003 massacre.
"There has been a spiraling number of incidents of violence against and arrests of Anuak by the military, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the 2003 massacre and the two or more years of human rights abuses that followed," says Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia and an Anuak refugee living in Ottawa.
There is no sign of the country backing down. Human Rights Watch, in its grimly titled report, "Waiting Here for Death," says the country has plans to forcibly move 1.5 million Indigenous minorities from their native lands by 2013.
"The land-grabbing and 'villagization' programs violate international human rights laws and arguably the Ethiopian constitution," says Suzanne Benally, executive director of Cultural Survival.
Ethiopia continues to haul in $3 billion a year of foreign relief aid. It's time donor nations -- the United States, the United Kingdom, and countries of the European Union -- used their influence with Ethiopia to stop the land grabbing for the enrichment of private investors. Concerned U.S. citizens can send letters to the U.S. State Department via Cultural Survival's website.
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