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Ethiopia: Green Justice or Ethnic Injustice?

by Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethiopia: Green Justice or Ethnic Injustice?

Alemayehu G. Mariam, born in Ethiopia

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Last week, dictator Meles Zenawi hectored his rubbers tamp parliament in Ethiopia about the forced expulsion (or as some have described it “ethnic cleansing”) of Amharas from southern Ethiopia and zapped his critics for their irresponsibility in reporting and publicizing it. Zenawi denied any expulsion had taken place, but explained that some squatters (he described them as “sefaris from North Gojam”) had  to be removed from their homesteads in the south purely out of environmental conservation concerns for the area’s forestlands. In a broadside against organizations “that promote the view that our collective identity is Ethiopianity,” Zenawi harangued:

… By coincidence of history, over the past ten years numerous people — some 30,000 sefaris (squatters) from North Gojam – have settled in Benji Maji (BM) zone [in Southern Ethiopia]. In Gura Ferda, there are some 24,000 sefaris. Because the area is forested, not too many people live there. For all intents and purposes, Gura Ferda is little North Gojam complete with squatters’ local administration. That is not a problem: There is land to farm [in BM zone], and there are people who want to farm it. Everybody wins, no one loses. There is only one problem: The squatters did it in a disorganized way. The squatters settled individually and haphazardly and in an environmentally destructive way. The settlement was not based on a sound environmental impact study on the destruction of the forest. The pristine forest in the area must be protected. The squatters want land that can be easily developed and cultivated. They don’t care if it is a forest or not. They cut the forest and used the wood to make charcoal to aid in their settlement. As a result massive environmental destruction has occurred…. Settlers cannot move into the area and destroy the forest for settlement. It is illegal and must stop. Those who try to distort this fact are irresponsible. It is necessary to filter the truth. The rights of all Ethiopians must be protected on equal footing. Those who allege persecution and displacement of Amharas are engaged in irresponsible agitation which is not useful to anyone…

Stated more simply, the “sefaris of North Gojam” are environmental criminals who deserved forcible expulsion; and they should thank they lucky stars they are not prosecuted criminally.

Africa’s C.E.O.  

When it comes to defending the African environment, no person has more expertise or passion than Zenawi who, after all, is the anointed C.E.O. (Chief Environmental Officer) of Africa. In 2009, Zenawi headed a delegation of African negotiators to the Copenhagen Summit (2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen) to morally and financially hold accountable the wayward West for its environmental destruction, climate change, global warming and all the rest. In the run up to the Summit, Zenawi threatened to bring down the Summit if the West did not do right by Africa and cough up $40bs:

We will use our numbers to de-legitimise any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position… If needs be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent… Africa’s interest and position will not be muffled as has usually been the case… Africa will field a single negotiating team empowered to negotiate on behalf of all member states of the African Union…. The key thing for me is that Africa be compensated for the damage caused by global warming. Many institutions have tried to quantify that and they have come up with different figures. The sort of median figure would be in the range of 40 billion USD a year.

A day into the Summit, Zenawi was ready to cut a deal with “Africa’s rapists” for a cool $10bs. He told his African brethren cold cash is better than talking trash:

I know my proposal today will disappoint those Africans who from the point of view of justice have asked for full compensation for the damage done to our development prospects. My proposal dramatically scales back our expectation with regards to the level of funding in return for more reliable funding and a seat at the table in the management of such funds.

In October 2011, in a speech before the African Economic Conference, Zenawi lectured:

Much of our land has been cleared of tree cover resulting in massive land degradation, soil erosion and vulnerability to both flooding and drought. As a result of the global warming that has already happened we have become more exposed to strange combinations of drought and flooding.  The resource base of our agriculture is very seriously threatened.

In other words, we need to go back to the Western rapists and squeeze some more cash out them.

Zenawi’s Stewardship of the Environment in Ethiopia

Zenawi is manifestly the go-to expert on the impact of climate change and global warming on Africa. But does he have a clue about the environmental destruction, and particularly, the deforestation of Ethiopia? By 2020,  Ethiopia is expected to lose all of its forest resources according to the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute (the foremost agricultural research institute in the country):

Ethiopia’s forest coverage by the turn of the last century was 40%. By 1987, under the military government, it went down to 5.5%. In 2003, it dropped down to 0.2%. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute says Ethiopia loses up to 200,000 hectares of forest every year. Between 1990 and 2005, Ethiopia lost 14.0% of its forest cover (2,114,000 hectares) and 3.6% of its forest and woodland habitat. If the trend continues, it is expected that Ethiopia could lose all of its forest resources in 11 years, by the year 2020.

According to a 2004 study, Ethiopia has some 60 million hectares of land covered by woody vegetation of which nearly 7 percent is forestland. Some 63 percent of the forestland is located in Oromiya, followed by   Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region [SNNP] (19%) and Gambella (9%). It is remarkable that Zenawi decided to draw the line on deforestation in Benji Maji/Gura Ferda in 2012 given the worsening nature of the problem in that region as a result of uncontrolled foreign commercial export agriculture. It is equally remarkable that he chose ethnic removal as a tool of reforestation and land reclamation.

But is Zenawi’s claim of environmental concern and forest protection for the expulsion of the “North Gojam sefaris” supported by evidence? Or is he using an environmental subterfuge to evade controversy and withering criticism?  Over the past five years, Zenawi has “leased” (sold) some of the most fertile land (much of it forestland) in the country to the Saudis, the Shiekdoms, the Indians, the Chinese and Koreans (SSICKs) and anyone else sporting a crisp dollar bill. According to the respected Oakland Institute [OI], beginning in 2008, Zenawi’s regime has

transferred at least 3,619,509 hectares of land to foreign investors although the actual number may be higher… The Ethiopian government insists that for all land deals consultation is being carried out, no farmers are displaced, and the land being granted is “unused.” However, the OI team did not find a single incidence of community consultation… There are no limits on water use, no Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), and no environmental controls. It is alarming that investors are free to use water with no restrictions. Investors informed the OI team of the ease with which they planned to dam a local river and of the virtual lack of control and regulations over environmental issues. Despite assurances that EIAs are performed, no government official could produce a completed EIA, no investor had evidence of a completed one, and no community had ever seen one…. Displacement from farmland is widespread, and the vast majority of locals receive no compensation…. Displaced farmers are forced to find farmland elsewhere, increasing competition and tension with other farmers over access to land and resources.

The bottom line is that the SSICKs who slash and burn pristine forests for large-scale commercial export agriculture are called investors. Ethiopians who clear small plots of land to feed themselves and their families are called “sefaris” (squatters).  The SSICKs are  given 99-year leases to millions of hectares to “develop”.  Ethiopians are forcibly ejected from their ancestral lands and tiny homesteads to make way for the SSICKs. The SSICKs are allowed to grab as much land as they want for pennies; Ethiopians are grabbed and thrown off the land and lose every hard earnerd penny they have invested. The SSICKs are welcomed with open arms at sunrise; Ethiopians are kicked in the rear end and told to get out of town before sundown. The SSICKs have property rights in land; Ethiopians do not have a right to own land. The SSICKs are treated like royalty; Ethiopians are given the shaft. The shame of it all: Ethiopians are “hunted down like animals where they are constantly asked if they support these [SSICK] plantations” according to the Oakland Institute study.

Welcome to SSICKistan.

Are there Environmental Laws the “North Gojam Sefaris” Could Follow?

Zenawi claims that the expulsion was necessary because many of the “North Gojam sefaris” engaged in a pattern and practice of settlement that is disorganized, haphazard and environmentally destructive. But does Zenawi’s regime have policies that would facilitate an orderly, systematic and organized settlement of rural areas or ensure sound forest conservation practices?  For instance, the seminal law on the subject, the “Rural Lands Administration and Use Proclamation No.456/2005”, authorizes free access to rural lands for all who intend to engage in farming activities; but it provides no clear direction on how settlements are to be established or administered. It leaves implementation of the Proclamation entirely to the “regional authorities” who often do not have the expertise or capacity to implement it. To be sure, Proclamation No. 456 is virtually silent on the use, conservation or management of forestlands. In fact, it makes only three passing references to “forestry”, “forest degradation” and “forest land.”

The Revised SNNPRS Determination of Executive Organs’ Powers and Responsibilities Proclamation No. 106/2007 [Southern Nations, Nationalities’ and Peoples’ Regional State], purportedly aims to implement Proclamation No. 456, but the region has no environmental protection agency. The task of implementing Proclamation 456 is apparently given to the region’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development which purportedly has oversight authority over conservation of natural resources and wild life, but no specific responsibility to undertake forest conservation or management. Land use restrictions under SNNPRS Rural Land Administration and Use Regulation No 66/2007 does not deal with forestlands at all; it is principally concerned with the use of wetlands and sloping lands. Simply stated, there is no regional law that deals with deforestation or clearing of forests for settlements or farming. What are the “sefaris” to do?

Similarly, the “federal” “Forest Development, Conservation, and Utilization Proclamation No.542/2007” is so vague and general as to be nothing more than a statement of policy orientation. The Proclamation recognizes “government” and “private” forests, but provides no indication on how the forests can be developed or where individuals could apply to get authorizations. Incredibly, the Proclamation catalogues the obligations of private forest developers without enumerating any of their rights. The bulk of the Proclamation is not law but aspirational policy statements about what ought to be done in the future.

Zenawi secondary argument is that the Amhara “sefaris” settled in Benji Maji/Gura Ferda without the required environmental impact assessment (EIA) presumably pursuant to Proclamation No. 299/2002 (“Environmental Impact Assessment Proclamation” [EIAP]). That Proclamation requires an assessment to “identify and evaluate in advance any effect which results from the implementation of a proposed project or public instrument”. As a technical legal matter, the “sefari’s” pattern of homesteading falls outside of the EIAP’s statutory definition of “proposed project” or “public instrument”. In other words, under the present language and definitions in Proclamation No. 299, the “sefaris” would be exempt from performing an environmental impact assessment. Rather, they would be subject to Proclamation No. 456 (Rural Lands Administration and Use ).

But all of the technical legal analysis and arguments aside, the fact of the matter is that a tiny percentage of all private sector projects are subject to the EIAP because of exemption loopholes and political decisions that override the technical merits of such reports. As the OI report has shown “despite assurances that environmental impact assessments [EIAs] are performed, no government official could produce a completed EIA, no investor had evidence of a completed one, and no community had ever seen one….” The regime’s “environmental impact assessment” on Gibe III Dam demonstrates the pro forma nature of such undertakings when it is politically expedient.

Ethnic Cleansing or Forest Conservation?

There is no question that tens of thousands of Amharas have been forcibly removed from Benj Maji/Gura Ferda in southern Ethiopia, and not just from “North Gojam”. Numerous interviews of victims by the Voice of America provide substantial evidence of forced expulsion.  So we must face the unavoidable question: Is the forced expulsion of the “sefaris” a form of ethnic cleansing or the consequence of the unintended effects of routine ecological remediation? The evidence on this question from the two individuals who are in the best position to know is rather curious to say the least. Zenawi says the “North Gojam sefaris” were evicted solely because they were destroying the forest in their haphazard settlement patterns. But in  his written order, Shiferaw Shigute, President of SNNP, does not not mention a single word about deforestation or harm to the environment in the expulsion of the Amhara “sefaris”. Goodness gracious, who to believe?

“Ethnic cleansing” does not have a specific formal legal definition. A 1993 United Nations Commission defined the phrase as, “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous.” A UN Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 held that the practices associated with ethnic cleansing “constitute crimes against humanity”. Others have defined “ethnic cleansing as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” Article 7 (d) of the Rome Statute declares that “deportation or forcible transfer of population”, (defined as “forced displacement by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds without grounds permitted under international law”) is a “crime against humanity”. Whether the expulsion of the Amhara “sefaris” is part of a deliberate and systematic policy of “ethnic federalism” in which ethnic purges of a civilian population are undertaken to ensure the ethnic homogeneity of the southern part of the country to the detriment of other Ethiopians of a different ethnic stripe will bear significantly on the question of ethnic cleansing.

Be fair to the people!

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic and

http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/  and

www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/

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