Indian firm gets green light for agribusiness plantations with new land deal, but NGOs believe move will cause forest destruction and displacement of local communities
The Baro River, Itang; an area which may be affected by Karuturi Global’s return to Gambela.
A 15,000-hectare concession
awarded to Karuturi Global in Ethiopia’s Gambela region has left locals fearing
their ancestral lands will be cleared for agribusiness once again by the Indian
firm, an activist group in the region has claimed.
Karuturi said in an April note to
shareholders that it has a new land deal for crop cultivation in Western
Gambela, almost two years after exiting Ethiopia after a previous attempt at
food production failed.
The firm was initially awarded a
300,000-hectare concession in the Jikawo and Itang districts of Gambela in 2009
for various crop production.
However, Karuturi failed to
develop a successful agribusiness operation. Under terms of the 50-year lease
agreement, the firm had to develop 100,000 hectares within two years but by
2014 only around 1,200 hectares had been cultivated.
Its failures were compounded when
92 workers filed a complaint with Ethiopian authorities in 2013 accusing
Karuturi of delaying wages, breeching safety standards and failing to provide
The initial lease coincided with
the controversial ‘Villagization’ program, a government-run scheme whereby
thousands of people living in Gambela were forcibly removed from their homes to
new settlements. Human
Rights Watch and others said the program was in effect a government
ploy to entice foreign land investors to the region.
Anywaa Survival Organisation
(ASO), an Ethiopian NGO that monitors environmental issues in Gambela, and
Karuturi of being complicit in evictions and deforesting land used by
communities. Karuturi rejected the claims.
The failure of Karuturi, whose
main business is floriculture, to diversify into food commodities led the
Ethiopian government to cancel its original lease agreement. The firm left
Ethiopia in 2017.
A legal challenge was tabled
disputing the decision, but the case was dropped after Indian and Ethiopian
diplomats reportedly intervened to help Karuturi agree a
new 15,000-hectare concession.
ASO and GRAIN, a non-profit that
promotes community-led farming, have
called on the deal to be scrapped. The NGOs argue that Karuturi’s
return will cause widespread forest destruction in Gambela’s Itang district and
force locals, who had returned to the region after Karuturi’s 2017 exit, off
the land again.
“People moved back to where they
were, and vegetation had started to grow again but the fear is looming over
them that Karuturi will start clearing the land again,” Nyikaw Ochalla of ASO
“The locals will not be able to
farm because if Karuturi is in that vicinity they will not have access to land
they have owned for generations and the government could evict them at any time
saying that the land belongs to Karuturi.”
It is unclear where the new
concession will be but Ochalla believes it will be in the same area where
Karuturi had its original lease with soy, palm oil and maize crops reportedly
to be grown.
Ochalla told Earthsight that the
readiness of government to support foreign land investors is putting local
communities and surrounding forested areas at risk.
“These people have lived on this
land for generations and the indigenous population who have lived on that land
do not have any protections,” he said.
“By allowing foreign companies to
invest then the government of Ethiopia will have a chance of controlling the
indigenous population which were previously autonomous and culturally and
The new 15,000-hectare concession
has been approved by authorities in Gambela and is now awaiting approval from
central government, according to Ochalla.
“The local population are very
resistant to Karuturi returning. The initial excitement of Karuturi leaving has
turned to anger and confusion because they do not know what will happen,” he
said. “We are still monitoring the developments and we hope it won’t take