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Is Indian investment in Ethiopian farms a 'land grab?' (VIDEO)

Investment by Indian-owned Karuturi Global has raised questions about whether Ethiopia is literally giving away the farm, or conversely, launching a 'green revolution' to help Ethiopia feed itself.

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Antiquated methods

Despite it being the backbone of the economy and employing around 80 percent of the country's 85 million people, Ethiopian agriculture is antiquated, with oxen dragging wooden plows a common sight. Even the staunchest opponent of agri-business is likely to admit that the smallholder- and subsistence-dominated sector is ripe for modernization – although almost all of them would object to Ethiopia's approach.

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Organizations like Oakland and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) have methodically highlighted the inadequacies and injustices of the process. But such constructive concern has been latched onto by government opponents, who have added acquiescence with “land grabs” to kleptocracy and genocide in their litany of the state's evils. Officials – in unison as always – dismiss all criticism, insisting the policy is well-managed and beneficial to all.

Located on the border with Sudan, lowland Gambella is a focal point for the leases – and for the debate. The government's plan is for 1.2 million hectares – almost half of the region – to become commercial farms. Since 2008, six Indian, one Chinese, and Saudi Arabian companies have leased a total of 225,012 hectares in the state, ruling party-owned media says, with another 190,000 hectares going to Ethiopians. The official line is Gambella's lack of development, sparsely-populated land, and plentiful water makes it a suitable location. Critics believe only the bottom line of foreign firms benefit, while agro-pastoralists groups such as the Anuak and Nuer are deprived of resources they have used for eons.

Sensationalized debate

Much coverage of this debate tends to the sensational. A piece by the Guardian, for instance, claimed that there was evidence of displacement because of Karuturi’s rice, palm oil, sugar and cereals operations, but none was provided.

Huffington Post columnist Alemayehu G. Mariam – a vociferous US-based critic of the Ethiopian government – re-reported Karuturi's farm manager's comment that the company had not seen the land before renting it. Managing Director Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi begs to differ. "I stayed in Gambella for 45 days researching the area before narrowing down on the location," he responds.

The tone of these types of critiques – portraying deals merely as agro-imperialism facilitated by a bungling state – enrage officials, sidelining crucial issues and further reducing the already slim chances of engaging the government.

This is problematic, as constructive dialog is essential.

As with other large projects in Ethiopia, a major worry is the breakneck speed which they move from conception to implementation. Such was the regional administration's haste to host Karuturi; two years later the federal government reduced the lease by two-thirds to 100,000 hectares, describing the original plot as unmanageable.

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