Land grabbers: Africa’s hidden revolution

From The Guardian UK:

Vast swaths of Africa are being bought up by oligarchs, sheikhs and agribusiness corporations. But, as this extract from The Land Grabbers explains, centuries of history are being destroyed

Fred Pearce
The Observer
, Saturday 19 May 2012

Omot Ochan was sitting in a remnant of forest on an old waterbuck skin and eating maize from a calabash gourd. He was lean and tall, wearing only a pair of combat pants. Behind him was a straw hut, where bare-breasted women and barefoot children cooked fish on an open fire. A little way off were other huts, the remains of what was once a sizable village. Omot said he and his family were from the Anuak tribe. They had lived in the forest for 10 generations. “This land belonged to our father. All round here is ours. For two days’ walk.” He described the distant tree that marked the boundary with the next village. “When my father died, he said don’t leave the land. We made a promise. We can’t give it to the foreigners.”

Our conversation was punctuated by the rumble of trucks passing on a dirt road just 20 metres away. The dust clouds they created wafted into the clearing and rained down on the leaves on the trees. Beyond the road huge earth-diggers were excavating a canal. Omot watched them: “Two years ago, the company began chopping down the forest and the bees went away. The bees need thick forest. We used to sell honey. We used to hunt with dogs too. But after the farm came, the animals here disappeared. Now we only have fish to sell.” And with the company draining the wetland, the fish will probably be gone soon, too.

Gambella is the poorest province in one of the world’s poorest nations – a lowland appendix in the far south-west of Ethiopia. Geographically and ethnically, the hot, swampy province feels like part of the new neighbouring state of South Sudan, rather than the cool highlands of the rest of Ethiopia. Indeed, Gambella was effectively in Sudan when it was ruled by the British from Khartoum, until 1956. For the half-century since, the government in Addis Ababa has ruled here, but it has invested little and cared even less for its Nilotic tribal inhabitants, whose jet-black skin and tall, elegant physique mark them out from the highlanders. The livestock-herding Nuer, who frequently cross into South Sudan, and the Anuak, who are farmers and fishers, are peripheral to highland Ethiopia in every sense.

Only three flights a week go to the provincial capital, also called Gambella. When you get there, there are no taxis, because there is no demand. The road from the airport is a dirt track through an empty landscape. Gambella town is a shambles. Its population of 30,000 has no waste collection system, so garbage piles up. The drains don’t work, public water supplies are sporadic and electricity is occasional. There are few public latrines. The couple of paved roads are heavily potholed and give out before the town limits. My billet, the Norwegian-built guest house at the Bethel Synod church, was probably the dirtiest, bleakest and most ill-kempt building in which I have ever rested my head. The only vehicle in town for hire was a 40-year-old Toyota minibus of dubious roadworthiness, with a crew of three. I took it.

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